Johnnie Chair: How did you hear of St. John’s?
Ms. Shukla: My family and I lived in Bombay until I was 11 then moved to Long Island, grew up in a small suburban town, that was densely populated. The wide open space of Santa Fe intrigued me, Annapolis being more practical, but I liked idea of moving on the mountain. I am a graduate of the College. I got a catalogue as a high school student—the old catalogue, with fewer pictures. I had never heard of the place, but that catalogue was so serious that it made every other one look like a J. Crew catalogue in comparison—all glossy photographs of pretty people walking arm in arm under falling leaves. I loved being asked to write about a book. Anyway, it ended up being the only school I applied to. I started in Santa Fe and graduated from Annapolis in 1993.
JC: What is your academic background prior to teaching at St. John’s?
MS: I started graduate school in New York, at Fordham University, where I concentrated on Hebrew Bible in the Theology department, but I quit that program and sort of began again at the University of Chicago Divinity School and received my PhD in Theology from there. I started at St. John’s in the fall following my graduation from University of Chicago.
JC: When did you know you wanted to be a tutor?
MS: I am still in the process of deciding whether I want to be a tutor. I was definitely NOT one of those students who wanted to be a tutor. In fact, I wasn’t particularly interested in my tutors, didn’t EVER ask any of them to lunch, and had no interest in engaging with them outside the classroom. I loved talking with them and my classmates in the classroom setting, but my primary interest as a student was in the books, not the tutors. That said, I had fruitful relationships with a few of them. Eric Salem, my senior essay advisor, remains my model of an excellent reader, thinker and conversationalist.
JC: What strategies did you use to be successful in college?
MS: What I did to be successful was read everything at least twice and try to be as open and flexible as possible during the classroom conversation. I also never hesitated to say what I thought about what others said or about the text.
JC:: What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?
MS: I must admit, I’m not sure what to do with this question. Why “instructor”? Is this meant to be a question about schools other than St. John’s? Is it about a lecture style classroom? I know that I have enjoyed most professors who don’t underestimate their audience, but instead model for them really complex thinking, but work to make that thinking accessible.
JC: Yes, I was thinking along these lines, sort of. Tutors often have a great deal of influence on the students and the specific philosophies students spend time on. Maybe I’m wondering something along the lines of you being demonstrative of your Johnnie qualities?
MS: I think of reflecting this through professors that have moved me through expression. I hope I really am able to present my living thought in an accessible way to encourage others to have thoughts of their own. I want to model what a good reading is and that’s the more honest instruction.
JC: What do you think are the most important attributes of a good Johnnie?
MS: There is no substitute for active attention in the St. John’s classroom, especially in Seminar, where the possibilities for the direction of the conversation are really much more varied than in most tutorials. But the way to that kind of attention is through genuine interest in the books—interest that frees you from your self-regard and anxieties.
JC: What do you like best about teaching at SJC?
MS: What I like best about being a tutor at St. John’s is classroom conversation at its best, when we think together about being human through talking about these wonderful, beautiful books.
JC: How does being the writing archon work with the duties of a tutor?
MS: I haven’t yet experienced the practicalities of being a tutor and the writing archon, because I am on half-sabbatical this year, and so don’t actually have any tutor duties this fall. I’m excited to be writing archon because I am interested in encouraging students to practice writing as a form ofthinking. This seems to me to be an important complement to the work tutors do to facilitate thinking through conversation in the classroom.
JC: What is the relevance of the liberal arts in the contemporary world?
MS: It seems to me that we live in a world that is in constant danger of obscuring and forgetting the most important things about the being of human beings. The ubiquity of technology and the iron grip of global capitalism are dehumanizing. The liberal arts, at least as practiced at St. John’s, involve sustained attention to exactly those human things that are in danger of receding from collective consciousness.
JC: What do you consider to be one of your greatest achievements? Why?
MS: I guess the things I’m most proud of aren’t great in themselves—they were just hard for me: quitting smoking cold turkey, learning to drive when I started working at St. John’s, at the age of 41. I’m also quite proud of having written a pretty good dissertation while also having two kids.