Sultry 1920s-era lyrics stream through the modern speaker system, filling the room with enough sexual innuendos to make 14 college students laugh nervously and glance down at the seminar table. Seated between two of these students, Thomas Ferraro looks around the room through his wide, round, gold-rimmed glasses, his scholarly beard framing an amused smirk.
“Ideally all classes should start and end with music,” Ferraro says as the music fades into a silence marked by the uncomfortable fidgeting of his students.
With the room void of the Alberta Hunter jazz, Associate English Professor Ferraro becomes the music. His voice rises and falls like merengue. He uses phrases from “ya’ll” to “bloody” with the diversity of fusion. And throughout his literary analysis of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the book currently on the table for English 169S, he moves his arms to his own unique rhythm.
This rhythm is one that Ferraro has employed throughout his 16 years at Duke, bringing life to seminar tables every semester. His musical approach to the classroom starts from a student’s first exposure to his course: the online synopsis and syllabus.
When senior Allison Kirkland took his “American Literature from 1915 to 1960” course two years ago, she was initially drawn by Ferraro’s use of Bruce Springsteen lyrics at the top of the syllabus sheet. She found his course description to be “amazing,” an adjective she confidently applies to the course itself as well. “He would play music for an atmosphere at the beginning of class and relate it to what we were reading,” Kirkland said. “Also, he would read Bruce Springsteen lyrics and come up with a socio-economic critique.”
Ferraro dives into each of his classes with the energy of a man who seems made for the academic world, yet with the background of someone whose future as an academic was uncertain even in his last year of undergraduate education.
When Thomas Ferraro was a senior at Amherst College in the late 1970s, there was an expectation that “you might mess around for a little bit.” But for a man whose father began medical school at the age of 18, whose mother had a nursing career while raising five children and whose grandmother was a single mom who also taught students to read, even “messing around” had to have a purpose.
He did not want to be a lawyer, a common profession for fellow Amherst graduates. Nor did Ferraro wish to follow in the footsteps of his father. But new territory was old news for the Amherst valedictorian. After all, he was the first person in his family to get a liberal arts degree. Thus, Ferraro filled out four graduate school applications—two for English programs and two for American Studies—hoping to unravel the mysterious notion of a “graduate student.”
“In February of my senior year, a couple people sent me a letter,” Ferraro recounts.
Shifting to a mock-administrative tone, he paraphrases each letter:
“We have a place for you in American Studies at X, Y or Z and... we have our standard fellowship package available.” Ferraro’s voice adopts a staccato syncopation as he remembers the surprise that the prospect of a free liberal arts education brought to a family more accustomed to the natural sciences.
Basically, it came down to one conclusion for Ferraro, who had stressed for months over his post-college uncertainties. “It meant, of course, to me that somebody loved me.”
The self-proclaimed “biggest nerd you ever met” had never seen a graduate student during his time at his small liberal arts college. What did one look like? How did one study? What did one study? The answers to these questions came on a visit to New Haven, where Ferraro would eventually focus his doctoral work on 19th century American literature under the mentorship of then Professor of English Richard Brodhead. The current president of Duke along with fellow Yalies Charles Fiedelson and Bryan Wolf, were the “best Romanticists in the business,” according to Ferraro. Thus, Ferraro decided to study with them in his academic effort to reunite literature and society back. Ferraro’s and Brodhead’s careers in academia would again intersect when Brodhead became the ninth president of Duke in July 2004.
Twenty-five years after Ferraro first discovered the beat of graduate school, his pursuit of a purpose has landed the Italian-American scholar in a small office lined with bookshelves full of American classics.
American Studies is an apt categorization of the vast academic landscape Ferraro has encountered since his days at Amherst, though his career has taken him beyond the nation’s borders. With a “special expertise in the novel and in the interplay of religion, ethnicity and the media arts,” according to his Curriculum Vitae, Ferraro assisted on a teaching fellowship at University of Geneva, Switzerland while finishing his final two years of Yale’s PhD program.
In 1988, with a PhD in hand, Ferraro moved south to Duke’s English department as an assistant professor for seven years. He has since risen to the associate level with tenure and has made a strong impact around many seminar tables. When Kirkland took his early 20th century literature class two years ago, there were juniors and seniors who were in awe that she snagged a spot at the table given Ferraro’s popularity, the then-sophomore recounts.
Now, sitting at his wooden desk, which is covered in applications from this year’s graduate student hopefuls, Ferraro can see his own diploma framed on the opposite wall, declaring his PhD in American Studies from Yale. The professor tells of his academic past with hands waving to the melody of a silent song.
Maybe this song is from Marvin Gay, whose image graces one office wall on a poster advertising a long-ago concert with Ray Charles. Or, it could be something from Louis Armstrong, who shares the wall with Gay and Charles. Perhaps it follows the slow spoken melody of Don Corleone, the face on the opposite wall.
Ferraro says that “The Godfather” served as one of his first links to the world of literature.
It was early 1969 when Ferraro’s father brought home a hardcover copy of “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo—a surprising purchase.
“[My father is] the son of the Depression. He has taken out more novels from the library than anyone on this campus has ever read. He hardly even buys anything in paperback, unless he is on vacation,” Ferraro says.
This financial aberration came on the advice of Ferraro’s uncle, Tony, an Italian-schooled doctor with a practice in Long Island City, N.Y. Tony stayed true to his Italian nature, settling on the south shore of Long Island where he could live on the bay, go deep sea fishing and raise tomatoes in salt air. It was this infusion of Italian culture and American lifestyle that Tony quickly identified in The Godfather—the same infusion that drew Ferraro to the book.
Ferraro remembers what Tony told his family: “There’s this novel, this book, about us.”
“He did not mean the mob,” Ferraro pauses his anecdote to clarify. “He meant that there was a book about the sensibility of Italian Americans.”
Ferraro shares this Italian-American sensibility each semester when he invites his students to his home for food and conversation around his own kitchen table. The Italian meal that he and his wife prepare often leaves a lasting impression with Ferraro’s students. It is this sort of out-of-classroom connection that draws so many students to his classroom.
In the classroom, Ferraro is a literary analyst whose earliest experience came from “The Godfather” at the age of 12. Ferraro learned of “certain matters of lively interest... [that] were not readily talked about either in the media or in good Catholic homes.” While issues of sex may have intrigued the adolescent, it took him “years to figure out how it functioned as a gender critique of the world that Puzo imagined.” With this statement, Ferraro quickly spins from a preteen sex-obsessed world into a scholarly literary analysis, as he is apt to do even in everyday conversation.
“This is what you always get from me,” he says.
Different books collaborate to create the soundtrack of Ferraro’s life. His childhood was marked by thrillers and, of course, “The Godfather.” Recently, he has found that he can read non-fiction works like “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis and “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond while exercising on a cardio machine. Although his current position at Duke is built upon 20th century literature, his early academic focus on American Studies brought 19th century literature into his repertoire—a result, he says, of his self-described “blue blood” education.
From St. Pauls’ School in Concord, N.H., to Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., Ferraro has been infused with a Puritan New England literary tradition.
“We’re all partly Puritan by the inherent nature of the United States,” Ferraro says of American writers. In his new book, “Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America,” Ferraro gives this Puritan heritage an Italian-American spin. The 10 chronological chapters tell the stories of Italian Americans, from the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair to Madonna.
“Each [story] is tied to a moment in time, an idiom,” Ferraro says. “Each story is the story of an Italian American who became the source of intrigue for the country at large.”
In this work, to be published early next year, Ferraro tries to tell a story to the masses, rather than a limited academic audience, because “a major text is supposed to be accessible.”
And this is what you get in the classroom with Ferraro, where he leads his students in an unconventional blend of culture. He guides his class with a strong voice that rises and falls as an emotional reflection of his literary analysis. He engages his students with one-on-one conversations framed in the 75-minute seminar, a time to perform for both himself and his students. It is around a seminar table facing a window view of the Chapel Quad that Professor Thomas Ferraro has found a place at Duke as one of the most wellknown members of the English faculty. He is a classroom rockstar, infused with other diverse areas of music—presently some sultry jazz from the 1920s.
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