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Princeton Professor Gains Cult Status With 3,200 Essays on Facebook

Elephant hunters head to Africa. Salmon fishers head to Alaska. Jeff Nunokawa, a professor of English at Princeton University, heads to Facebook.

“You hunt where the ducks are,” says Mr. Nunokawa, “Facebook is where my students are.”

So, when Mr. Nunokawa found the e-mail questions that he was answering for students in his lecture classes “were taking a life of their own,” he turned to Facebook as a solution. He started posting essays on topics that he thought his students might need or enjoy and on topics he was personally curious about—more that 3,200 of them to date (you need to friend Mr. Nunokawa to read the essays).

And his students respond, he says. “‘One young lady said, ‘I like those notes you write. When I am on Facebook and avoiding homework, I can get a little education if I feel like it.’”

The essays, which can range from a few sentences to a few paragraphs, are something he works on all day during bits of free time, but really are crafted at around 3 or 4 in the morning when he can’t sleep, Mr. Nunokawa says. He tries to write at least one essay a day on the “Notes” feature of Facebook. “Notes” provides Facebook users with a basic word-processing platform and the ability to “tag” or link friends to a particular note.

“Within these little essays—prose poems—I have become obsessed with writing as well as I can,” Mr. Nunokawa says. “I want to try and be as good of a writer as I can be.”

Mr. Nunokawa has been guided in his pursuit by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire. The novel is formed around a poem called “Pale Fire” and the commentary provided on the poem by a friend of the author of the poem. Mr. Nunokawa says he is compelled by “experimenting with a new mode of literary criticism.

“The postings become a reflection of the literary object or aesthetic or cultural object I was considering,” he says, much in the same way that Pale Fire is a “narcissistic noncommentary on the components of the poem and a mockery of scholarly stoicism. It’s kind of a parody of academic narcissism and notes about the academic.”

But as the project continued, Mr. Nunokawa found his attitude changing. “I was becoming more and more serious about the objects I was pretending to pretend to study,” he says.

Now that he has collected this vast series of essays, Mr. Nunokawa says that he keeps writing them in the hopes of turning them into some kind of volume. “That sense of sort of a final synthesis is not enabling fiction,” he says, almost needing to assure himself that there is a bigger-picture result of this work.

Even before he started writing the essays, Mr. Nunokawa was not a stranger to Facebook. As the master of Rockefeller College at Princeton, he has long used Facebook to engage with his charges.

Emily Rutherford, a history major who will graduate in 2012, lived in Rockefeller. Ms. Rutherford has read every one of the professor’s notes, a “reasonably rare distinction,” she says. “Jeff’s use of social media could serve as a useful lesson for faculty and administrators who wonder about how to incorporate new technologies in the classroom, and who don’t always seem to do so as successfully and smoothly as we young people might like.”

“I make jokes, but I believe in it,” Mr. Nunokawa says of Facebook. “Its’ a means of disseminating knowledge.” Facebook, or “Jeffbook” as some of his followers call it, also helps Mr. Nunokawa keep and cultivate the cult following he has developed on campus, he adds, only somewhat jokingly.

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