Teaching for the Long Haul

English professor's approach is award winning
August 1, 2010

Ferraro: ADUTA winner praised for sparking students' intellectual curiosity. Les Todd

On the first Friday in April, English professor Thomas Ferraro was in a grumpy mood. He'd just come from teaching his "Readings in Genre" class, an introductory course that emphasizes critical reading and analyses of a wide range of texts. "I thought that the students had been prematurely dismissive of Toni Morrison's Sula," he recalls, still visibly disappointed. "It's a much trickier text than Beloved—it can't be taught in high school."

He says he was still reviewing the class discussions in his mind when someone knocked on his door. It was Kim Hanauer '02, director of the Duke Alumni Association's young-alumni and student programs. "At first I thought she was asking me to perform some task," such as serving as a panelist at a Reunions program, he says. But Hanauer was there to deliver the news that Ferraro had been selected as the 2010 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award (ADUTA) winner. Nominated and selected entirely by students, ADUTA winners receive a cash award of $5,000, plus $1,000 to give to the Duke library of their choice.

For Ferraro, the selection was a welcome affirmation that his teaching approach—demanding that students dig deeper into an author's intent or a text's narrative to reveal complex themes applicable to their own lives—is valuable and, perhaps, life changing. "I'm happy about the award for many reasons," he says. "When I first came to Duke, English was the second-most popular major, so to see the humanities recognized is good. But I also teach for the long haul; it takes time to see how critiquing the contemplative and meditative components of literature can serve as equipment for living. All of us are hungry for that."

During a conversation with a visitor, Ferraro displays the approach that inspires his students: an unusual hybrid of high-minded literary theory and pop-culture consciousness, woven together with threads that include gender politics, religious history, and ethnic influences. In the course of a half-hour conversation, he invokes The Sopranos and The Wire, William Faulkner's debt to Dante, and a subtext in The Godfather in which the male characters' inability to control female sexuality leads directly to shattering violence.

In their nominations, Ferraro's current and former students voice their appreciation for the ways in which Ferraro sparks their intellectual curiosity and pushes them to work through the hardest challenges to achieve greater clarity and understanding.

"The discoveries we made each day made it so that tired, overworked college students actually looked forward to going to his classes, no matter how sick or sleep deprived we were," wrote one nominator. "In this professor's classes, I learned to embrace the parts of a text which confused me the most, and to embrace the confusion for what it could show me once [I] worked through [it]—a breakthrough in my intellectual attitude that may be the most valuable one of my college experience."

Another noted that Ferraro "encourages not only academic writing, but beautiful, powerful prose that does more justice to the text it means to analyze…. [He] really puts the sexy and edgy back into the study of English literature."

Ferraro has taught at Duke for twenty-two years. He graduated from Amherst College and earned his M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University, where one of his faculty mentors was future Duke president Richard H. Brodhead.

Ferraro's scholarship focuses on American literature and culture, particularly the convergence of religion, ethnicity, and media arts. His book Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America (NYU Press, 2005), received a 2006 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The ADUTA award will be presented at Founders' Day Convocation, September 30.