ASU professor helps students learn, lead and innovate

By

Amanda Stoneman

Mike Tueller has many talents. He completed an academic conference paper in high school, served in the U.S. Navy and studied at Harvard University. He also landed his childhood dream job: professor.

“Of course, there’s no way I could have known as a preschooler what a university professor really did,” said Tueller, associate professor of ancient Greek in the School of International Letters and Cultures at Arizona State University. “So, I have to consider it the sheerest luck that I’ve actually found this job suits me.”

Tueller started programming computers for a research project at a local university while in high school. The project’s aim was to develop high-powered space-based lasers as part of former President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as the “Star Wars Defense” plan. 

“I’ll admit this may sound more impressive than it is, but you should remember it was the '80s. A university research project couldn’t have a grad student do the work because the only people who knew how to program computers were high-schoolers,” he said. “But this means I delivered my first academic conference paper when I was 17, and in a completely different field from the one I find myself in now.”

As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Tueller first majored in astrophysics for his love of science. He said he hadn’t heard of the Classics as an academic field until he met one of his roommates. He switched his major to Classics and received his bachelor’s degree in 1992.

“I still love science, but I really wanted to try something different,” Tueller said. “And, like a lot of people who make similar switches, I was hooked.”

Tueller took a Navy Reserve Officers' Training Corps scholarship at Harvard. He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy for four years in between his undergraduate and graduate years, most of which was spent in Puerto Rico. In 2003, he completed his doctoral program in classical philology at Harvard. He taught for five years at Brigham Young University before joining the faculty at ASU in 2008.

Tueller teaches courses in ancient Greek language and literature. His research focuses on Greek epigrams, which began as inscriptions on objects but soon turned into very short, ancient poems that often feature witty turns of phrase or thought. He is currently re-editing the Loeb Classical Library’s standard English edition of “The Greek Anthology,” an ancient collection of about 4,500 short poems.

“These poems are tricky: they’re so short that they omit all context. In fact, they make a game out of forcing the reader to guess what their original context would have been,” Tueller said. “In my research, I have attempted to determine how ancient readers would have processed these poems – from discovering the reader’s starting point to how the nuance of individual words would play out across the poem, and where the surprises lie.”

Tueller said many people criticize forms of speech that are known for being short, such as the “tweet” or “sound bite,” because they believe it’s a diminution of public discourse. Tueller disagrees with this opinion, saying brevity is suitable for some kinds of expression.

“I think the Greek epigram can give us an example of how a rich literary tradition adapted to circumstances that favored brevity,” Tueller said. “Every new thing I discover in my research, no matter how small, feels like a jolt of electricity. And in my teaching, I get to see students have that same experience — a sudden flash of insight can redirect a life.”

While many students come to professors with very specific job-related worries, Tueller said it’s our responsibility as a university to raise their sights beyond the workforce.

“An undergraduate education should give its graduates the skills not just to do what they’re told but to forge their own paths, to innovate and to lead,” Tueller said. “This requires a much broader education in the world and its ways, and the cultivation of some very hard-to-pin-down skills in incisive observation and critical analysis without boundaries.”

Tueller teaches in a field with a long tradition of paying very close attention to words. He said a student who has acquired a precise ability to question the meaning behind words is less likely to be deceived and more likely able to address any need. Further, rigorous habits of reading, writing and speaking make clearer thinkers and more effective leaders.   

“Learning involves a leap into the unknown,” Tueller said. “You have to take the risk of being wrong and looking foolish if you’re ever going to make any progress.”