Tutors Talk Books: Marsaura Shukla
August 23, 2017 | By Samantha Ardoin (SF16)
Tutors Talk Books is a series of interviews with St. John’s College tutors. In this interview, we caught up with Marsaura Shukla, a tutor at St. John’s since 2012. Her full bio can be found at the bottom of this article.
How did your recent lecture on Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” go?
It went well! The larger project I’m working on is trying to approach poetry as a form of thinking and analysis. My talk on Keats was the first iteration, my first attempt to do that. I took as the central puzzle this issue of beauty as truth, or truth as beauty, at the end of the ode and tried to show that you shouldn’t read “Beauty is truth” as a slogan of anti-intellectual aestheticism and I did that by focusing on time and our awareness of time in the poem. The question period was lively and long. I had a lot of fun writing the lecture as well—and what a particular joy it was to write for a St John’s audience.
What made the writing process so special?
I knew that what would count for this audience was the genuineness of my thinking. I could expend all my energy on trying as hard as I could to work out my own thought without worrying about whether I came off as an expert (which I am most definitely not). The thing I produced and read wasn’t in the end anything near fully worked out, of course, but the process was a real pleasure.
So in the bigger project, what are you thinking about next?
I’m hoping to do a preceptorial on Keats’s odes and letters. I want to follow this idea through with Keats himself. Another part of the project is related to the Emily Dickinson and John Donne preceptorial I did recently. I want to think about Emily Dickinson’s treatment of soul in her poetry; she talks about it a lot, but it feels a little ironic. I want to understand what she’s doing when she talks that way. She seems to be thinking about the body, the soul, the divisions of the self, and how to understand them.
Were you teaching anything this summer?
I taught a week of Summer Academy, and enjoyed that. We read Shakespeare, Donne, and Dickinson in the language tutorial, and the (high school) students were amazing. It all went really well. In relation to the undergraduate program, the readings are shorter, but apart from that it was like a St. John’s-style tutorial. There were moments of silliness, but it was good.
Are you doing anything else before classes start? And what will you be starting in the fall semester?
From now until school starts, it’s really about gearing up for the semester. I’m going to finish up War & Peace, which I’m well into, and I’m preparing for junior math and freshman language. I’m going to try again this year to carve out some time for my own thinking and writing, but that is one of the challenges to being a tutor: finding the time for your own writing.
I’m also going to be teaching senior seminar with John Cornell, and I’m very excited about that. I’ve done one all-college seminar with him, but otherwise I have not taught with him, and I have not taught this (senior seminar book) list, and it looks really great.
I think senior year is always good, no matter the list.
I’m glad you think so! I think senior year is a really fraught year. People are trying to figure out what they want to do next. They’re afraid of leaving the structure of St. John’s, and I think that has an impact on the seminar. The last senior seminar I taught was with Walter Sterling, with whom I graduated from St. John’s. He was wonderful to work with, but our seminar often seemed a little distracted. I think it’s important to impress upon seniors that you’re going to miss this, you’re not going to have this thing again, and I get that you’re tired of it after four years, but you should really savor it.
Was there anything that pushed you in a certain way during your time as an undergraduate, that you now feel totally differently about?
In freshman year, there are often Plato people and Aristotle people. The Plato people are really moved by Plato, and are really interested in that style of writing philosophy—I was that person. I loved Plato. When we moved to Aristotle, I just shut down. I did not know what to do with it. I hated it. And now, actually, I don’t know if I like Aristotle better, but Aristotle really interests me. I find him fascinating to read, and work through slowly, and there are ways I prefer reading Aristotle to Plato. That’s one big switch.
Do you think that’s because of the shocking shift in style between Plato and Aristotle?
I think it’s partially that Plato is more user-friendly. There’s a narrative there, a smoothness there, that’s deceptive. I don’t think I was a good reader of Plato, but I was a happy reader of Plato. With Aristotle, I couldn’t see where the readings became complicated and interesting. I had begun to see that in Plato—those places that invited thinking. With Aristotle I couldn’t do it, but now I can.
When you were a student, did you ever think you would do become a tutor?
No, I thought I would definitely not become a tutor! (Laughs.) I mean, I really loved being at St. John’s—but that wasn’t part of how I envisioned the future unfolding. For one thing, I didn’t think I wanted to work as hard as tutors work. It struck me as a student that the tutors were really laboring at something. It was a very ascetic way of life.
I knew I wanted to go to grad school, and I thought I really wanted to narrow down the things I wanted to think about. But the transition to grad school was very painful. Only after St. John’s I realized how much I liked our way doing things. I wanted to continue doing that in a specialized field—in theology—but it turned out that that’s not really possible. Academic grad school is very specialized training, and there is this emphasis on productivity which is not ruminative or conversational. I grew to like it, and to think of research as a form of conversation –but thinking of it that way made me research very slowly, which you can’t do as an academic. So, I’m very happy to be back here. I think there are significant ways in which St. John’s is my intellectual home.
Marsaura Shukla has been a tutor at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, since 2012. After graduating from St. John’s in 1993, she studied Hebrew Bible at Fordham University and went on to receive a PhD in theology from the University of Chicago. In addition to being a tutor and exploring the hills around the college with her kids and partner, she is currently working (very slowly) on three projects that are at different stages of completion: a book about how the activity of reading is understood in modern and contemporary theology, a study of the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and a series of investigations of poetry as a form of thinking.