While students may complain that some professors do not put timeand energy into student meetings and community development, theycannot ignore the faculty that stand apart from the crowd to shineas unique thinkers, implementing original teaching methods andideas. Mary Jo Bona, Ph.D., English and Italian studies professoris approaching education from a different angle, fitting it toStony Brook’s unique commuter and resident studentculture.
Bona was inspired to become an English professor by two things:her love for language and literature, and her love for theprofessors who introduced her to a world of beauty and pain. Herpassion for words began early in life, though she never permittedherself to believe, until much later, that she was worthy ofachieving distinction by pursuing higher education.
Bona has found teaching at Stony Brook difficult in terms ofadjustment, although extremely rewarding. Having taught for 10years at a small, Jesuit institution that focused on undergraduateeducation, she had students nurtured by a community environment,reinforced by a high percentage of on-campus students andprofessors who were devoted to them. At Stony Brook, Bona findsthat students are often commuters who suffer from a lack ofconnection with their college community. She believes that studentsdo suffer because of this.
To combat this alienation, she focuses on establishing a closecommunity in her classes. She requires a high level ofparticipation and regular attendance, regardless of the size of theclass. She works to get to know her students well, and operateswith the principle that students benefit from professors who demandexcellence.
The rewards at Stony Brook are interrelated, she said. She worksto establish a community in the classroom and students recognizethe fact that Bona respects the development of their minds. Bona isaware that this affords higher classroom performance. Students ofdiverse ethnic backgrounds at Stony Brook contribute even more toher little classroom communities, creating an environment in whichboth she and they learn.
Bona received her doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, andher dissertation topic focused on Italian American women writers,an area of literature still in its infancy when she began writingabout it in the late 1980’s.
Last semester, Bona taught a class titled, ‘ItalianAmerican and African American Women Writers,’ which was apedagogical dream for her. She wanted to establish a cross-culturaldialogue between two groups historically separated by racism andlack of understanding.
This course was new to Stony Brook, and Bona feels fortunate tohave received a stipendiary award and entrance into a three-yearterm with the Academy of Teacher Scholars. She received the supportshe needed for developing the course from her students, who helpedcreate the syllabus and establish the perimeters of the class. Withthe grant, Bona was able to invite a scholar of African Americanliterature from the University of Arkansas to deliver apresentation to the students.
Bona is currently collecting a chapbook of poetry titled I StopWaiting for You, and is organizing a group of essays written overthe past ten years for revision in book form. In addition, she isworking in collaboration with a colleague to publish an anthologyentitled It Ain’t Over Yet: Multiethnic Literature and CanonDebates. Her previous publications include the monograph, Claiminga Tradition: Italian American Women Writers, and The Voices WeCarry: Recent Italian American Women’s Fiction. She was alsothe guest editor of a recently published issue of the journal ofItalian American Literature, MELUS (Multiethnic Literature of theUnited States).
Bona feels that there is a connective thread between all herwork; threads that she has discovered and created. Early in hercareer, she worked hard to distance herself from the destructivenotion that teaching and family life were somehow unrelated to her’real’ work: publishing and writing. While shecontinues to struggle with those distinctions, Bona is more atpeace knowing that when she is in the classroom, she is doing realwork. She gives one hundred percent every time she teaches, andrefuses to give her students less of herself in favor of her otherworks.
Teaching with passion and heart-felt conviction is exhaustingbut exhilarating, she said. Bona feels that her work has definitelyevolved over the years, and coming to Stony Brook has enabled herto unite her critical work on Italian American literature with herteaching, thus strengthening the connective threads of herprofessional life.