To some, the initials “TK” mean nothing. But to others – English majors and a number of other students who have found their way into certain English or Core classes – these initials elicit passionate nods and a host of fond memories. Riveting discussions, self-deprecating jokes, and the infamous “What jumped out to you guys?”: all trademarks of the professor behind these initials, Thomas Koenigs, assistant professor of English at Scripps College.
Koenigs (pronounced “KAY-nigs”), a lifelong New Englander, came to Scripps four years ago to begin teaching after completing his Ph.D. at Yale University. Though Southern California was an unexpected surprise, teaching English was not. “I’ve always loved reading, I’ve always loved thinking about and immersing myself in books, and at some point I just knew I wanted to share this with other people,” he said. “I remember reading 'The Great Gatsby' as a sophomore in high school English and just thinking, ‘Wow, this is very cool.’ It was one of the moments I realized that American literature was what I wanted to study.”
Some of Koenigs’ favorite classes to teach include American Women Writers, The Early American Novel, and Melville and Douglass. But his favorite aspect of these classes isn’t the texts themselves. “The discussion with the students – that’s by far my favorite part,” Koenigs said. “I’ve read these books now so many times, but nonetheless, I always learn something from what the students bring to the table and the questions they raise. Each year I get to see these amazing works of literature anew with a different group of students, and that is so freaking cool.”
Ask any student who has taken his class: it’s nearly impossible to find someone who is not equally passionate about these discussions. “I’ve never had another professor who is so responsible about making space for his students,” said Izzy Steiger SC ’18, who first met Koenigs in the spring of 2015 in his Core II class, Becoming Someone Else in America. “TK has a special knack for saying brilliant things in a few words, and it never turned into him monopolizing the floor,” said Steinger.
Though Koenigs is passionate about all types of literature, he admits that “fiction is my first love, both to study and to teach.” To ask an English professor his favorite novel is not a fair question, but Koenigs managed to narrow it down, citing Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” among his top picks
What is it about fiction, though, that engrosses him so? “I think novels, in particular, are a way of grappling with big questions about the relation of an individual to society,” he explained. “They take on both the idiosyncrasies of individual psychology while also looking at big social and political forces. And along with that you get these moments of incredible beauty and artistic power. It’s not that you can’t get this in other disciplines, but for me, it’s always been richest in the written word, and particularly in the novel, in fiction.”
Koenigs is currently turning this passion into a book manuscript, entitled “‘Founded in Fiction’: Fictionality in the United States, 1789-1861,” which examines the history and politics of the early American novel. “It’s a history of these obscure writers, many of them women, who are not part of the mainstream American literature canon,” he said. “I’m looking at this neglected group of writers and thinking about how we can rethink the history of the United States through some of these obscure early works.” Koenigs will be on sabbatical for the spring semester of 2018 working on this manuscript.
This hiatus is for good reason: one must submit just one paper to realize the staggering amount of time he spends on his students. “He writes literal pages of thoughtful, nuanced feedback on your essays,” said Steiger. “His comments are so thorough, helpful, humbling, and encouraging all at once.”
Justina Goldbeck SC ’18 echoed this sentiment, stressing the effect his feedback had on her writing. “I learned more about writing from his classes than any other course I’ve taken in college,” she said.
When he’s not reading his students’ work, writing a book, or discussing texts, Koenigs can be found hiking, cooking, and cocktail drinking. And though it’s nearly inconceivable to imagine him teaching anything but English, there is another subject he could see himself studying.
“This is going to sound strange,” he said, “but ornithology. My weird hobby is birdwatching.”