“Meet your Professor Monday” is a weekly feature on the SBU English blog. This week, we talked to Dr. Michael Tondre, who is teaching EGL 206: Survey of British Literature II, and EGL 349: Major Writers of the Victorian Period in England: “Aestheticism, Decadence & the New Women” this semester.
English seems like an obvious choice in hindsight, though I’d have difficulty linking it to a specific chain of events. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time writing and wandering around public libraries, and sorely wanted to incorporate an aspect of that into my adult life. I did write for the high school newspaper, and liked it well enough to imagine a future in journalism. A creative writing degree had also attracted me for a while. I’d developed a passion for writing short stories and poems from an early age, so English seemed like a good foundation for an M.F.A. degree. At the same time, I had always been interested in thinking and talking about how literature “works” and how books speak to one another. When I finally left home and started college in earnest, it was thrilling to discover that those issues were at the heart of this vibrant conversation in English studies. Soon enough, I got to be captivated by the prospect of building arguments about literature, and never looked back to creative writing. I really just saw writing papers as a continuation of the things I’d thought about before college, as a teenager who wanted to do nothing more than to get lost in the outer edges of the library. But I also saw English as an introduction to a number of new and unfamiliar approaches to the world. It was a really euphoric moment. By the time I started my senior thesis, I knew I’d found a calling.
Where did you study? On what did you write your dissertation?
I moved around different places before settling into Stony Brook. After I finished my B.A. in California, I moved to England and spent two years completing a master’s degree at Oxford University, where I focused on Renaissance literature. When I enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I thought I’d stick with the period. But I had outstanding introductions to the Victorian period from several professors there, and decided that that was where I’d live as a scholar. My dissertation focused on the relationship between nineteenth-century science and the realist novel. In it, I argued that modern ideas of aesthetic extravagance were linked to the grand displays of excess and waste in science. I’m building on one thread from the dissertation for my current book, which is about the co-development of the modern novel and experimental psychology.
How long have you been teaching at Stony Brook?
I began teaching at Stony Brook last fall, as one of three new faculty members to join the English department. I’m glad to have a cohort of other professors starting this year. Before arriving at Stony Brook, I taught in Atlanta, Georgia, where the weather tends to be hot and humid. While the hurricane and recent snowstorm have provided sharp contrasts to that, to say the least, they’ve underscored the warmth and cordiality of my colleagues around the department.
What courses do you teach?
While my specialization is in nineteenth-century British literature, I offer a variety of classes in the English major. This year, I’ve taught English 204 and 206, as well as a 349 course on British aestheticism and a master’s seminar on Victorian literature and science. In the fall, I’ll be offering English 314 and 390.
Are you working on any projects at the moment?
I’m currently writing a book called Novel Velocities. The book situates the origins of experimental psychology in nineteenth-century society and culture, in the period just before Sigmund Freud. I’m especially interested in the discovery that the speed of thought and sensation was not incalculably rapid, as philosophers like John Locke and David Hume had speculated. As it turned out, the history of a feeling could be timed, tabulated, and isolated in (what seemed to be) perfectly objective form. The book links that idea to the aesthetics of the modern novel. In addition, I’m developing articles on Victorian theories of attention and on the rhetoric of the 1857 Indian Mutiny.
What challenged you most as you wrote your dissertation? How did you overcome the challenge?
I think that one of the most alluring aspects of writing a dissertation involves the prospect of a substantial, self-driven piece of work that one develops from start to finish. Yet, that goal can also seem daunting in the early stages, when the sense of not knowing enough can be felt very intensely. There’s an interesting double-bind: it seems like you can’t write a dissertation until you’re an expert, but you can’t be an expert until you’ve written a dissertation. I’d say the greatest challenge I had was just simply tolerating the sense of irresolution that goes hand in hand with the initial stages of the dissertation process. I found two ways of handling it. First, I set a daily number of hours to write, and stuck to that number firmly (even if I wasn’t always satisfied with what I’d produced on a given day). Second, I established concrete deadlines for sharing material with others. So, rather than having one large, looming due date for a finished chapter, it was helpful to have a date for an outline with my main advisor, a date for a sub-section with friends or my writing group, and so on. Besides forcing me to stop reading and start writing, I think that also made the process as a whole much more collaborative and fun, and much less about being an “expert.”
Tell me about a professor from whom you learned and how he or she influenced you.
I had several people who influenced my path in academia. As an undergraduate, I enrolled in a number of courses with Richard A. Levin, a Shakespearean scholar with whom I later wrote a senior thesis. And in graduate school, I had two formative professors. Martha Vicinus was an active, inspiring mentor and a vigorously engaged reader. She gave candid assessments at each stage of the dissertation. I think that’s key to instilling graduate students with a lucid sense of where they stand, and with an overall sense of confidence about the nature of their work. I try to use the dynamic she fostered as a model for my own teaching. In addition, John Kucich taught amazing seminars and gave brilliantly nuanced responses to student work. In particular, he urged students to re-think basic assumptions about what we know, or what we think we know, about the Victorians and their relation to the present moment. That gave me a brand new sense about the kind of work I wanted to do and the period I wanted to research for the dissertation.
How do you use technology in the classroom, and what effect has the integration of technology had on your teaching?
I think digital media can help to supplement the content of a lecture or class discussion in several ways. I’ll often use PowerPoint and Prezi to organize lecture materials in 206, for example. Like a number of professors, I also incorporate film and audio into the classroom: adaptations of a novel, poetry readings, and the like. And I use other things that tend to be more student-driven. I find that course blogs help to foster discussion outside the walls of the classroom, and give people more chances to interact. When I taught composition, I’d sometimes assign multimedia projects like group wikis. I’m attracted to the idea of doing something along those lines in an upper-level English class at some point. There are also tools that I haven’t tried and go back and forth about implementing. For example, I know several professors who have had success with Twitter “backchannels.” The idea is that, while watching a film in class, students use their own electronic devices to compose responses in real time, which then appear alongside the actual film. Not everything I’ve tried has had a successful outcome, but in general I’m convinced that new technologies can help to enliven traditional texts, and can result in rich and productive moments in the classroom.
What are your interests outside of academic life?
Well, I’d say that I have a fairly eclectic range of interests. Towards the end of graduate school, I went on a few bird watching excursions with my dissertation director, and took to the experience wholeheartedly. I’m not a great birder, but I feel it’s a good way to see the world from a new perspective. And I just love looking at the critters. I’m also a passionate cook. I think it’s amazing how much you can accomplish while waiting for something delicious to come out of the oven. Last but not least, I own a good collection of European board games. For some time, it was a good excuse to catch up with friends, though I also came to take pleasure in learning about in the mechanics of a given game and how it’s put together in relation to its historical theme. There’s no doubt a cultural history to be written about that, somewhere.