Interview with Hendrix Professor Dr. Toni Jaudon

 

As an undergrad, occasionally some really amazing things happen to you. Sometimes you are really lucky and one of those things is meeting a professor who reminds you why this whole “going to school” thing is way more magic than drudgery. I’m not going to say we all get a Dead Poet’s Society Robin Williams letting us stand on his desk while words of wisdom drip from his tongue like honey, but if you take a class with Dr. Jaudon you might understand why getting to share some jasmine tea with her on a rainy Monday afternoon while I pestered her with a few questions for The Aonian was actually somehow even more wonderful than her talking about reading Fifty Shades of Grey. 

KATE HENRICKS: I know that I’ve asked you this before. Just a general: how did you get here to Hendrix College? Or into teaching, I guess?

TONI JAUDON: For a long time, when I was a freshman and a sophomore in college, I thought that I wanted to be a lawyer, I really thought I wanted to be on the Supreme Court. I had an internship in D.C. after my freshman year, on Capital Hill in a Senator’s office, and I hated it. I hated everybody I met and I just hated the whole thing. I was really unhappy. And at the same, the one thing that I was doing that I loved was I was taking English classes.

I went back to school that fall and I realized that somebody had that job to teach those classes. And I started to think, “Oh, how do I get that job? Because, I could do this for a living and get paid for it.” That was when I realized that I was going to go get a P.H.D.

Fast forward, I did my PhD and I had a short-term job, like many people do, at another small liberal arts college. I had come from a small liberal arts college, and I really wanted to work at a small liberal arts college. It took a while but the ad came up for Hendrix and I was interviewed by Dr. Vernon and Dr. McKim. When I met them I was just like, “This is where I want to work. Like I really want this job.” I came here to visit and it was wonderful. I was contemplating a couple different possibilities but it was a very clear choice that I wanted to come here.

KH: Kind of going off that, you’ve said before that undergrad was a pretty influential time for you. What books, authors, writers were really important to you or influential to you during that time?

TJ: Oh man, that’s a good question. I had this unbelievable adoration for Charlotte Bronte. Charlotte Bronte’s Villette was the first paper that I wrote that I can still look back at it now and I’m like, “That’s okay. That’s not bad.” It was the first paper that, kind of took over my life while I was writing it. And, I can still remember what I was writing about but also how it felt to write about it. It was this complicated experience where I had just gotten shamelessly dumped by someone I really liked and I was consoling myself by writing this paper. It was spring time and as I was holing up writing this paper, it went from miserable and gray to everything out and blooming the day that I turned it in. It just all came together. And, the paper was about the experience of being alone.

It’s one of those things where you’re like, “Right, I think I’m probably in the right line of work.” If you can have that kind of charged relationship to an assignment that went something like, “write a 5 to 7 page paper on a Victorian novel using a theoretical text.” Right, that was where it started and then that’s where it wound up.

KH: So back in the day it was Bronte, what book are you currently reading?

TJ: Let’s see, the book that I just finished was called The Design of Everyday Things. It’s a nonfiction book about objects, how we make objects, and why. It’s by an industrial designer and it’s about like why your toaster oven is so hard to use or why your iPhone feels so great.

KH: That’s so cool!

TJ: Yeah! I got into this kind of thing because of my interest in the relationship between books and hands, and how people use books. The feeling I’m still really, really interested in is why it is that I love books so much more than digital reading. Even though I would never give up digital databases, it’s such a valuable thing, and yet, there’s something so profound about the way a book works when you hold it in your hand.

I’ve been reading as much as I can, in my spare time about that and trying to understand like “How does a psychologist answer the question of why we love objects? Or how does an engineer think about how to make an object more compelling to you?” Your iPhone is strategically engineered to make you want to pick it up all the time. And it works, right? I can’t keep my hands off that damn thing. I’m really interested in those particular choices. As somebody who is thinking about literature, there is a school of thought that suggests that you can separate the verbal from the material and I’m interested in… Well, there are more scholars now who are trying to go back and close that gap, and I don’t know if I can, but I think I can probably count myself in that number.

KH: So you are definitely not a e-reader kind of person?

TJ: I am not, I don’t have an e-reader, although, I may get one at some point. Even when I get PDFs of things I print them out. It’s because I realized that I cannot read without a pen in my hand. I actually think differently when I am holding a pen. And it’s because of the habits of annotating. That’s part of my culturation.

KH: You mentioned a moment ago your interest in the relationship between books and hands. I think the last time we spoke about that was when you were talking about your research in pop-up books. Could you talk a little bit about that?

TJ: Yeah. It was so weird. I came to the pop up book project in a really weird way. I was writing an essay about religious encyclopedias. That sounds like the most boring thing in the universe but I’m a dork, I guess. Anyway, I was writing this essay and I was shelf reading. I knew that I needed a book at a certain call number and so I was just looking at what was around it. And one of the things on the shelf was a book called A Bibliography of Pop Up Books and it was about an inch and a half across at the spine. I remember thinking, ‘There are that many popup books? And somebody cataloged them all?’ Because, something like that, all it is a list on entries of different popup books that exist, in order, with references to the library’s that you can find them in. It’s an extraordinarily boring thing to have made. But, the person who did this is a grand service to the profession, it’s amazing.

I pulled it down and I was like, wait a second, there’s this whole thing waiting there for somebody to look at and think about. I had some summer research funding from Hendrix and I was at Yale, which happens to have a wonderful children’s book collection in its archives. So, I got done with the work that I was originally sited there to do for the day and I just started asking them to bring me popup books. I was saying to the curator, “Please bring me Curious Kittens and Their Frolics.” So they started bringing them out.

The thing that I noticed, first it was just unbelievably delighting to look at these things. But also, all of these other researchers stopped what they were doing and starting looking at what I was doing. It was as if I became this distraction in Yale’s book room. Which annoyed some people, but other people were like, “Why am I not working on that project?” I was like, yeah! That was when I knew that this was going to be a thing. Odyssey generously funded me taking a couple of students to do some research at Boden on popup books, where we just got to see tons and tons and tons of them.

And like you said, I think the fundamental common denominator there is my interest in the book as a thing, as a material object that you hold and operate and do things with. And, a pop up book is the one textual forum that does not register in the same way when it’s digitized. You can’t have that same experience of operating it with your hands even if you’re looking at a video of someone opening it. There is something about the thing-ness of it that’s unavoidable.

KH: So the other thing I know about the research you do is that you said in class once, that you were something of a scholar of early American trash literature. I had 2 questions about that. The first on was, what’s your draw to that specific sub-field?

TJ: Well, I like to read for the plot. I like stories. But I started grad school and I was going to do post-modern fiction, I was as rarefied as they come when I started. But at some point I was like, “I just want to enjoy something that I read again. I just want it to be fun. I just want to fall into a story.” And then I realized that; well wait a second, that’s what stories are for socially. That’s what people get out of narrative. That goes back across time. Many, many, many more people read Uncle Tom’s Cabin than Moby Dick. And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t read Moby Dick, but for a long time it was an argument against reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I wouldn’t call Uncle Tom’s Cabin trash, there are much trashier things that I assign people. I got there because I was interested in the sociologically side of literature. What have books actually meant to people? What books and narratives have functioned in people’s lives? As opposed to what is the best that has been read? I think that if you really want to understand how the written word works in a culture, you need to know both of those things.

KH: So what are your guilty pleasure, widely read books of today’s culture?

TJ: Oh man. Oh gosh, I can’t believe I’m going to let you put this in print… I have not laughed so hard as I laughed when I read Fifty Shades of Grey. I laughed, I still laugh about it. I found it so funny. I read it one afternoon and I laid on the bed and howled. I realize that, in saying that it’s funny, there are plenty of people who find it offensive. I certainly think that’s true. In particular, I think it does some very bad things for sexual minorities. I would want to put that out there. And I see and understand, as well, the objection that some feminists have had to it as a kind of deeply retrograde representation of femininity. Which I think is true, but I don’t think that helps us understand why it’s a popular cultural fantasy. It’s just bad though. It’s just so badly written. It’s implausible. The prose is terrible. The imagery is weak. It’s just so bad. That, to me, was what was so… so funny about it! It was like, really? She said, they did that and she said that? I’m pretty sure that’s not the way it works. That is probably the guiltiest of the guilty pleasures. But, let’s see, what else? I’m not above a gossip blog now and again. Take the edge off at the end of the day.

KH: On ‘Fifty Shades,’ I heard once that it was written as Fan Fiction. How do your feel about that whole sub-culture of writing?

TJ: See, I think this is really interesting. The idea that it was Twilight Fan Fiction… which ‘Twilight’ is itself deeply derivative.

KH: It’s probably even more problematic than Fifty Shades of Grey, yeah?

TJ: Yeah, right. There was a great round table on Fifty Shades of Grey, that if I ever taught Fifty Shades of Grey I would assign, by scholars of the 18th and 19th century novel writing about Fifty Shades of Grey and what’s problematic about it. And its fascinating stuff! The argument to me that was the most compelling, that I saw there, was about the resonances between the seduction plot of Fifty Shades of Grey and the seduction plots of early American and early British fiction, of the variety that people have read with me: The Coquette or something like Clarissa or Pamela. The thing that these scholars pointed out, and I think is totally true, is that the 18th and 19th century texts tend to be more subversive and do a better job of giving their female character’s agency than Fifty Shades of Grey does.

A novel like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has a similar conceit; young, naïve heroine, who loves books and writing, who is simultaneously attracted to but endangered by a capable, powerful man who she will need to win over and domesticate. That is the baseline plot structure of Pamela. But Pamela is smart and funny and self-aware and she doesn’t take any crap. She has a very different relationship to herself and her femininity that I think is quite a bit more progressive than the portrait that we see in something like Fifty Shades of Grey. But, at the same time, people enjoy what they enjoy for the reasons they enjoy it.

KH: You say that, and now I can’t help thinking of Disney’s ‘Belle.’ That’s the same plot.

TJ: Yeah! And I think that this is one of things that’s most interesting to me about the novel, is how it’s the same story over and over again. And we really dig this story of the neophyte woman who needs to be initiated by dangerous man who be domesticated by valuing her. That’s a really bad way to live your life. That’s terrible life advice that people get from the novel. But, there is something interesting. If you go back and read feminist scholarship on the novel, it’s just fascinating to get a years and years of perspective on how people have answered that question of “why do we love that story?” Even students will write me papers on this and I’m like, “Yeah, I didn’t think of it that way but that’s there too.” I think that’s part of the work that we do as scholars and students of literature. One reason to study and think about these things is because you want to understand why we keep telling this story. What are we doing here?

KH: The world may never know… but maybe you can let the world (or the readership of The Aonian blog) know a couple miscellaneous facts about yourself? I’m sorry, that was an awful segue.

TJ: Its okay! Shoot.

 KH: Okay, so first: tea or coffee and why?

TJ: Tea for sure. Coffee tends to give me a stomach ache. I do drink coffee on occasion but tea just keeps me at a more even keel.

KH: Favorite movie?

 TJ: Oh man. I am a fan of documentaries. I actually really love that intersection of story telling and truth telling that a documentary does. One that I go back to over and over again, because it has different personal and political and academic and formal resonances with me, is the documentary Jesus Camp which came out in the mid 2000’s. It chronicles the experience of a couple of young, white Pentecostal children. They’re from Missouri, or that part of the country. It chronicles their experience of learning to hear God’s voice in every sense of that word. It was quite controversial when it came out. But, I think it’s complex and starts to do justice to some of the experience of being someone who can hear God speaking to you, which is a subject formation that I don’t think we take seriously enough. And to take it seriously doesn’t mean that you are going to have God speak to you, but rather that you can understand that some people are configured that way. That’s part of being in the world, understanding the range of human experience.

KH: Worst summer job you ever took?

TJ: There were so many. The job that I actively hated the most was working as a checkout person in the equivalent of Macy’s in Cleveland. I hated that job immensely just because it was so tedious and so weirdly complicated. That was definitely the worst. The worst job that I ever had, I would not do that again.

KH: I believe that. Last song played on your iPod/music device?

TJ: I’m actually going to answer this question accurately (she did in fact get her iPhone out and play me the song) Okay, this is a band called His Name is Alive. It’s an EP from ’96. It’s basically a bunch of people in a garage in Detroit making a 6 song EP called Nice Day that involves a lot of Indy-rock guitars and a Detroit gospel choir. It’s like… imagine the Beach Boys got together with a Detroit gospel choir and some guitarist came in and everybody was drinking a little too much and made an album. It’s one of those that was on this Indy-rock label called, 4AD, that has gone by the wayside I’m sure now but was a big deal when I was in college. A friend of mine sent it to me on a mixed tape and I was just like, “Right!” It’s excellent driving music, summer driving music. I highly recommend it if you can find it. It’s on Spotify at this point.

KH: What’d you have for breakfast this morning?

 TJ: I had Fage peach yogurt with some kind of crunchy granola stuff in it and black tea with milk.

 

KH: Okay, so this has always been my secret question for you. But the shoes that wear usually… they look like Doc Martins?

 TJ: Yes. These are Doc Martins and they are originals in the sense that I acquired these when I was either 18 or 19. I’ve had them that long.I feel like I should wear more professional shoes perhaps but part of the reason that we work all the time and don’t get paid as much is so we can wear the shoes that we want to wear. I put them away at some point in the middle 2000’s and had other boots that I wore, but I never got rid of them and I just came back to my love. They fit great. They’re perfect. I never want to give them up.

KH: So cool. Okay, my last ones are both “advice for undergrad” kind of questions. First, what book or author, text, etc. should all undergrads read?

TJ: If you read nothing, I think Moby Dick is the thing you should read. But, the other book that I would recommend, I actually assigned it to my thesis writers, is a book called Manage Your Day to Day. It’s a collection of advice by creative types about how to manage the creative process. That book was really helpful to me in thinking logically and consistently about the habits that develop creativity. There is one school of thought that suggests that people are born geniuses and they just do genius things by expressing their inner genius selves. And I do not subscribe to that. I think that we are creative and have ideas because we enact certain behaviors and disciplines that put us in the way of good thought. The question becomes, what are those things that you can do that maximize the odds of you having an idea? That’s something actually that I learned from my friends who are poets. The first 2 hours of the day belong to your writing if you want to get things done. You can’t always, you certainly can’t always do that. But, the principle stands. What are the habits that you want to have if you want to be a person who gets things done?

KH: Last question, what is your ultimate piece of advice for undergrads, and I guess you could say specifically Hendrix students?

TJ: You all need to sleep more. Go to sleep. Seriously. Your life will change if you actually sleep. I see people really push themselves to stay up late and work on things or whatever. There is a law of diminishing returns. I think it’s much better to be regular and habitual and take good care of your body and recognize that that’s what makes your minds work and makes you a more evenly tempered person. It makes you more resilient when bad things happen. Sleep is really important and good. That extra 2 hours that you think, you know ‘Oh I’ll stay up 2 more hours and I will only sleep 4 hours and then I’ll get more done’. You realize you’re only going to do about 15 minutes of work. You might as well go to sleep.

KH: I’ll pass that along to my roommate as she’s finishing her thesis tonight… I’m sure that I won’t get a book thrown at my head. I’ll let you know how it goes. Anyway, thank you so much for this interview!

 TJ: My pleasure!

 

–Kate Henricks, Aonian staff member (2015-16)

 

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