By Gina Elbert
Visiting professor Jess Row could just as easily have been a drummer as an English professor or a much-lauded author. But, despite his passion for music, he followed his literary dreams and graduated from Yale University in 1997 with a B.A. in English and from the University of Michigan in 2001 with an M.F.A. in fiction. The Washington, D.C.-area native became a full-time associate professor in The College of New Jersey’s creative writing program not long after and is now finishing up a year at NYU as a visiting professor in the English Department. His wide-ranging personal interests and experiences as both an author and a professor have helped him bring a unique perspective to classes he teaches.
Prof. Row taught “Reading as a Writer” in the fall and is currently teaching “Contemporary American Literature.” The former focused on the intersection of reading and writing in an interdisciplinary leap that Prof. Row told me was exciting to have in an undergraduate English department. The class approached reading as an art form, viewing it from the perspectives of neurobiology, structuralism, oral history, and many other fields. Readings included critical texts, found poetry, and even maps. Prof. Row’s other class, “Contemporary American Literature,” covers select texts that were published starting in the 1970s and 1980s, ending with one released in 2015. It strives to fill the gap in contemporary literature offerings common at many universities. Prof. Row is just the person to teach it – he leads a seminar on the same subject at TCNJ and, as a writer, is very familiar with the modern literary world. One of Prof. Row’s favorite things about teaching classes here at NYU, he said, was the vast amount of resources and opportunities available to supplement his syllabus: for example, just as his class was covering the poetry of Solmaz Sharif, he ran into her on the street and had her come speak to his students.
As a writer, Prof. Row is able to bring a perspective to the class that a traditional academic would not. When I spoke to him, he told me that he does his best to come in with “the sensibility of a creator” who asks his students to consider how and why a text works, why it was created, and how it is in dialogue with others. He is personally acquainted with the authors of some of the works on his syllabus and is always looking for ways to get students to do creative exercises. In “Contemporary American Literature,” for instance, he gives students the option of doing one or two creative projects during the semester in lieu of traditional research papers.
Prof. Row’s own creative projects are substantial. He has written two collections of short stories, The Train to Lo Wu (Dial Press, 2006) and Nobody Ever Gets Lost (FiveChapters Books, 2011), and one novel, Your Face in Mine (Riverhead Books, 2014). He has contributed to magazines and journals like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Ploughshares as well as won a PEN/O. Henry Prize and two Pushcart Prizes, among others. Currently, he is working on a book of essays on race and whiteness in American fiction titled White Flights (Graywolf Press, forthcoming) and a novel, tentatively titled The New Earth, about a family that disintegrates following a child’s death after a protest in Israel.
The themes Prof. Row explores in these two books, namely the intersection of race, whiteness, and identity, are ones that draw from many aspects of his life. He told me he is particularly interested in “the nature of identity in a polyvalent world” and the importance of “locating the self in a historical matrix” that reflects both individual subjectivity and the broader social context of racial identity and class. These are issues that he has brought to the table in his classes, pointing out the inherent whiteness of narratives like Don Delilo’s White Noise in “Contemporary American Literature.” The experience that led him to meditate extensively on these topics was his two-year stay in Hong Kong, where he was granted a teaching fellowship just after he graduated from Yale. Having never lived outside the United States before and not knowing any Chinese, Prof. Row found out what it meant to be a total stranger in a strange land and how it felt to be a minority. He cites his time in Hong Kong as one of the greatest influences on his writing career, second only to his conversion to Zen Buddhism in college (he is an ordained dharma teacher in the Kwam Um School of Zen).
NYU has been lucky to work with Prof. Row during the 2016-2017 academic year and will regret his return to TCNJ next fall. He will be giving a reading at the department’s inaugural Creative Writing Track Reading Event on May 4 at 6pm in the Event Space, and he will continue to collaborate with the university through the Creative Writing department next year.
For more information on Prof. Row, please visit his website at www.jessrow.com.