Playing competitive tennis, studying engineering and working in finance were all part of the circuitous route that John Stauffer took to become a tenured professor in the English department.
Stauffer, the Loeb associate professor of the humanities, yesterday became just the third junior faculty member to win tenure in the English department in the last 14 years.
Stauffer, who is on leave this year, studies American literature and culture, particularly 19th century, and teaches classes on Civil War and protest literature. His first book, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, won a Yale prize in 2002 for being the best book on slavery, resistance and abolitionism published that year.
“He knows a lot about cultural history and beyond history, also about photography and film studies. He’s a person of very wide knowledge,” said English department chair Lawrence Buell, who pointed to Stauffer’s tenure as evidence that the department is promoting more professors from within than it has been able to historically.
Stauffer’s route to tenure was anything but ordinary, however.
Before he became an assistant professor at Harvard in 1999, Stauffer had earned a undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Duke, where he was ranked 40th in the country in collegiate tennis.
He then worked in the finance sector for several years before discovering that he “hated” the job and deciding to enroll in a doctoral program at Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. in American studies.
“The two things I loved to do in my life were tennis, and scholarship and writing. I got sidetracked for a bit,” he said.
Stauffer said that while he always loved literature, his parents were unsure about his prospects as an academic.
“My parents thought that the idea of writing for a living or being a professor was crazy...I basically had a hard time standing up for myself,” said Stauffer, who spent the years between fifth and tenth grades moving among small towns in Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota.
Stauffer said he’s happy that he took a roundabout route to Harvard’s English department.
“I don’t regret the engineering degree,” he said. “I see math as a language. The more languages one acquires, the more competent one is in the world.”
Buell compares Stauffer’s repertoire of interests to those of a Harvard student.
“I think that what we’ve got here is a kind of latter-day Renaissance man,” he said. “But I don’t mean to suggest that it’s completely unique. If you look at the Harvard undergraduate student body, there are many people who are astonishingly good at several things, and I think he’s that kind of person too.”
For Stauffer, the tenure process began last spring, when the English department began to discuss The Black Hearts of Men and Stauffer’s other works.