Anthony Lioi was born in Long Branch, N.J., and grew up in Marlboro, N.J. He received his bachelor’s degree in English and American literature from Brown and his master’s and Ph.D. from Rutgers, where he was an assistant director of the writing program. He has also taught at M.I.T. A member of the Liberal Arts faculty since 2007, Lioi is the director of the Juilliard Writing and Communication Center.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you when you were growing up and what did you learn from that person?
I’ve had so many wonderful teachers I don’t feel I can single one out. What they all have in common is an impatience with anything less than total devotion to learning. My parents, who were teachers themselves (my father taught high-school French, Spanish and Italian; my mother, a nurse, taught nursing in a community college), warned me not to become a teacher, which led to a paradox: I rebelled by going into the family business. The third-century theologian Origen of Alexandria believed that the entire cosmos is a classroom for souls, and if that’s true, I’m somewhere in the back of the room with the platypus and Pluto, squinting to read the writing on the blackboard.
Do you have a background in music, dance, or drama?
Not by Juilliard standards. In elementary and high school I sang in church and performed in musical theater. I had more guts than skill, which is why I would have been a supporting character on Glee rather than a lead, though I did have fun in Godspell making the grandmothers cry when I was crucified at the end of Act II. I am still occasionally asked to sing at weddings and to howl with greyhounds.
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be and why?
I would have them visit the source of their drinking water to make sure they know that drinking water has a source, and that source must be protected. Manhattan, for instance, has some of the best tap water in the country because of the conservation of the Delaware, Catskills, and Croton watersheds. It’s easy to take for granted.
What’s the most satisfying aspect of teaching for you?
Watching students accomplish something they didn’t think they could do.
What’s the most frustrating aspect of teaching for you?
Watching students waste time thinking they can’t do something.
If you suddenly had a few hours of free time, how would you spend it?
Walking around Providence, R.I., my favorite city. Every few years The New York Times sends a writer to Providence, only to discover again what a beautiful and disturbing place it is. H. P. Lovecraft is buried there in a gorgeous cemetery called Swan Point, an ironic resting place for a master of horror. Providence has the best Italian ices in the country, as far as I know. There are gondolas in the river downtown, and an art-house movie theater with couches instead of seats. As the home of Roger Williams, it is the birthplace of the American tradition of religious freedom and tolerance. The diners are as good as the universities, though I caution everyone to think twice before trying to digest French toast made from banana bread. It’s a little rich.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Everything I need to know I learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Young people today don’t watch enough television.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would you want it to be?
Writing is a way of thinking, not just a container for information.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
Field biology or environmental law. I was really more of a science nerd as a kid, but I gravitated to literature as a field that doesn’t sacrifice emotion to reason, or vice versa. Unlike field ecologists, English teachers don’t get to thrust their students into bogs to get covered up to the neck in mud that smells like rotten eggs (because of anaerobic decomposition), though there are days when I am tempted to find a bog and give it a try.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
This is a dangerous question to ask an English professor. My favorite authors include, in no particular order: Madeleine L’Engle, Toni Morrison, the “Pearl poet,” Michel de Montaigne, Douglas Adams, Loren Eiseley, Wallace Stevens, Leslie Marmon Silko, Alice Walker, Michael Chabon, Tony Kushner, Sei Shonagon, Stan Lee, Wendell Berry, Diane Di Prima, Gene Roddenberry, Gloria Anzaldúa, A.S. Byatt, Neil Gaiman, Susan Griffin, Joss Whedon, Dante, Robert Sullivan, Ursula Le Guin, Galway Kinnell, Jonathan Swift, Kenko, W.H. Auden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ana Castillo, and Salman Rushdie.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Never attack a silver dragon with a cold spell, and have fun storming the castle.