Jeffrey Williams with Marc Bousquet

Marc Bousquet
Marc Bousquet

Since the late 1990s, Marc Bousquet has been one of the most trenchant critics of labor practices in higher education. He disabused received wisdom about the job market, showing how its depressed state resulted not from a natural cycle, but from deliberate strategies, in his essay, “The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible” (Social Text 70 [2002]). And he has exposed other dubious practices of the corporate university: the rise of the administrative class; the way that professors have become managers, overseeing a pool of cheap teaching labor across the curriculum; and the way that undergraduates have been conscripted into the discounted work force in the current university. These analyses culminated in his book How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (NYU Press, 2008). Beginning in 2008 he has taken his commentary on higher ed to the blogosphere, with a regular column for the Chronicle of Higher Education in conjunction with his website.

While he was in graduate school, Bousquet cofounded Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, which published its first issue in February 1998. He also co-edited, with Tony Scott and Leo Parascondola, Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers: Writing Instruction in the Managed University (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and edited The Politics of Information: The Electronic Mediation of Social Change (Alt-X Press, 2004). His pathbreaking work led to a special issue of Works and Days 41-42 (2003), guest edited by Teresa Derickson, that reprints five of his essays and fourteen responses.

Born in 1963, Bousquet grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his father was a manager for the Social Security Administration. He studied at Yale (BA, 1985), where he had courses with several of the Yale Critics well known at the time. Afterwards, he moved to the East Village in New York to write, working as an advertising copywriter and ghostwriter. In 1991 he decided to return to academe, entering the PhD program at CUNY (PhD, 1997). After a postdoc at Indiana University, he got a tenure-track job at the University of Louisville in 1998, moving in 2005 to Santa Clara University and in 2012 to Emory University.

This interview took place on November 15th, 2008 at Marc Bousquet’s house in Los Gatos, California. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: Your new book, How the University Works, diagnosing problems with higher education, notably the disposability of grad students, the managerializing of faculty and the exploitation of undergrads, just came out and has become something of a rallying cry, especially for younger academics. Maybe you could talk about how you came to be a critic of the university.

Jeffrey Williams with Janice Radway

Janice Radway
Janice Radway

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview took place on  October 1st, 2005 in Newark, Delaware, in the midst of a conference on reception study. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Sean McCreery.

While deconstruction theorized difficulties of reading, Janice Radway talked to real readers about what they were doing. Her first book, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (University of North Carolina Press, 1984; new ed. 1991), is an innovative study of women who read romances and how they use them. Her second book, A Feeling For Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), provides a cultural history of that book club as well as a personal account of literary taste. In 1998, Radway served as president of the American Studies Association (ASA), and her presidential address, “What’s in a Name?” (American Quarterly 51 (1999); reprinted in Pease and Wiegman, The Future of American Studies, 2003), posed an influential challenge to the hubris of the adjective, “American,” when we refer to literature or culture of the United States. More recently, Radway has co-edited volume 4 of A History of the Book in America, Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) and American Studies: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). Related to her current project on girl culture, she has published several essays, for instance “Zines, Half Lives and Afterlives” (PMLA 2011).

Jeffrey Williams with David Bartholomae

David Bartholomae
David Bartholomae

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews.
This interview took place in Jeffrey J. Williams’ office at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on August 8th, 2007. It was conducted and edited by Williams and transcribed by David Cerniglia.

Jeffrey Williams with Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler
Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler is a leading expositor of contemporary literary theory. His book, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Cornell UP, 1975; Routledge Classics, 2002), brought the terms and concerns of the Continental theory to an Anglo-American audience. It won the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize and has been a standard work in the field. He followed it with two books of influential essays, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Cornell UP, 1981; enl. ed., 2002; Routledge Classics, 2006) and On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Cornell UP, 1982; 25th Anniversary ed., 2008). Alongside those, he published several books focused on particular figures, including Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Cornell UP, 1974; rev. ed. 1985; Davies, 2004), Roland Barthes (Oxford UP, 1983; rev. ed. Roland Barthes: A Very Short Introduction, 2002) and Saussure (Fontana, 1985; rev. ed. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cornell UP, 1986).

Beginning in the late 1980s, Culler turned to more general statements about literary study, considering its institutional context in Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions (U of Oklahoma P, 1988) and providing the guidebooks, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 1997) and Literary Theory (A Brief Insight) (Sterling, 2009). He also published On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (Blackwell, 1988) and The Literary in Theory (Stanford UP, 2007), which gathers essays on narrative, the fate of theory and the future of comparative literature. In addition, he edited, with Kevin Lamb, Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford UP, 2003). This interview with Jonathan Culler took place on August 27th, 2007, in Culler’s office at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York). It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review and transcribed by Heather Steffen and Marisa Colabuono.

Jeffrey Williams: One could see you as a kind of a personification figure of contemporary theory. I came across a line in your recent book, The Literary in Theory, where you talk about becoming fascinated with the New Criticism when you first went to college. How did you first start in criticism, and what was the scene like?

Jonathan Culler: I guess my interest in criticism started after I graduated from high school. My father was on sabbatical in England, and I went along. I went two terms to an English public school, and in the spring went across to Paris. During those two terms we were concentrating on a handful of books that were set books for English A-level exams. We read Othello and then Henry IV, Part II and Donne, and there may have been another collection of poems, but what I especially remember was the Donne. We were reading, for a whole semester, a small group of poems, and we also read criticism and arguments about them. It was the sort of thing that most people would have done only in college, but I got a taste of it before I entered college. I hadn’t thought about criticism before; as a high school student, criticism was something you read in order to get an idea for a paper, but you weren’t interested in criticism as such.

And then when I came to Harvard. . .

Jeffrey Williams with Adolph Reed

Adolph Reed
Adolph Reed

The mid-1990s saw a number of celebrations of the public intellectual, notably of black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, bell hooks and Michael Eric Dyson. Adolph Reed poured some cold water on the parade. Just as he had criticized the 1984 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign for representing a self-appointed media elite rather than a bread-and-butter electorate, he criticized the new public intellectuals as an academic elite that didn’t have intellectual depth and didn’t do much political heavy lifting.

Reed himself, though, represents a certain kind of public intellectual. He has kept one foot firmly on academic ground in political science, writing analyses of the 1984 and 2004 elections and in intellectual history, notably of DuBois. At the same time, he has written regularly for magazines like The Village Voice and The Progressive. He was a founding delegate of the Labor Party in 1996, and he is co-chair of its Campaign for Free Higher Ed. Reed has consistently written on race, but he has tried to put the class politics back into race politics. For him, class “is the social relation through which other identities are constituted and experienced within political economy.”

Reed’s books include The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics (Yale UP, 1986); W. E. B. DuBois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line (Oxford UP, 1997); Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (U of Minnesota P, 1999); and Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press, 2000). He has also edited Race, Politics, and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960s (Greenwood, 1986); and Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and the Retreat from Racial Equality (Westview, 1999). Related to this interview, see also “The 2004 Election in Perspective: The Myth of the ‘Cultural Divide’ and the Triumph of Neoliberal Ideology,” American Quarterly (2005); “A GI Bill for Everybody,” Dissent (Fall 2001); “Free Higher Ed” (with Mark Dudzic), The Nation (23 Feb. 2004); and “Majoring in Debt,” The Progressive (Jan. 2004), as well as the website

Reed attended UNC-Chapel Hill (BA, 1971) and Atlanta University (MA, 1974; PhD, 1981). He has taught at Howard University (1976-78), Clark College (1979-80), Yale (1981-91), Northwestern (1991-97), University of Illinois-Chicago (1997-98) and The New School (1998-2004). He is currently a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also worked as a labor and community organizer in North Carolina, for Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta and as an organizer for the Labor Party.

This interview took place in Adolph Reed’s office at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 26, 2005. It was conducted by Jeffrey Williams, editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by Nilak Datta.

Jeffrey Williams: Your academic field is political science, although the people who read minnesota review are probably more familiar with your pieces in The Nation or The Progressive. They’re probably in literary and cultural studies, and people in literary and cultural studies are versed in a certain discourse of cultural politics, but they’re usually unfamiliar with political science. I think it’s a problem in cultural studies, that there’s a dearth of political theory.

Adolph Reed:  Yeah, it almost seems like the more that people declaim piously in favor of multidisciplinarity, the less inclined they are to read or engage outside their own narrow sub-specialty. There are not many disciplines with which proponents of multidisciplinarity engage, right? I’ve been struck at how infrequently the work of historians or political scientists, or economists, or even sociologists, gets cited in the domain of cultural politics. I suppose you could say that the same is true on the other side of the ledger; most of what goes on in political science is pretty stupid anyway. It could be possible to be a competent theorist without immersing oneself in multiple disciplinary debates, but I think all too often people are drawn to what they imagine theory to be because they think it comes with no heavy lifting.

Jeffrey Williams with William V. Spanos

William Spanos
William Spanos

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a transitional time in literary studies, as well as in American culture and history. Founded in 1970, the journal boundary 2 marked that transition, as its inaugural announcement explained:

. . .the essential subject matter of our journal will be what is now called “post-modern” literature. Though we are uncertain about the direction this literature is taking, we are inclined to see the age of Mallarmé, Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, Pound, etc. as having more or less run its course. We believe that since World War II a new imagination has been struggling to be born and that these last twenty years (like the thirty years or so before World War I) represent another period of transition. The function of boundary 2 will be to play midwife to this new, “postmodern” imagination by publishing poetry, fiction and drama that explore its possibilities and literary criticism and scholarship that attempt to clarify its direction.

William Spanos, co-founder and longtime editor of boundary 2, has worked over a long career to define the postmodern in both literature and in theory. In shepherding the journal as well as in his prolific writing, he has influenced the shape of contemporary criticism, investigating existentialism, poststructural theory, American studies and the politics of the American imperium.

Jeffrey Williams with Toril Moi

Toril Moi
Toril Moi

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Toril Moi took place September 1, 2006 in Toril Moi’s office at Duke University. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, and transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: Sexual/Textual Politics burst onto the scene in the mid-80s and changed the representation of feminism in the U.S. You became a kind of European informant of French feminism, and to some you were perceived as attacking Anglo-American feminism for its essentialism and waving a banner for French feminism. How do you see the reception of that book when you look back?

Toril Moi: The argument in the book wasn’t actually “Anglo-American feminism is bad; French feminism is good”; the argument was that the great thing about the Americans was their strong and explicit political allegiances, and that the actual politics of the French were often incredibly vague. I also thought that the Anglo-American development, which had been exciting to me because it was thinking about women and writing in completely new ways, was almost theoretically unconscious in the late 1970s, just as the theory wave was happening. I thought the French feminists that I read had a much more solid theoretical formation, but that they were lacking in politics. I also found them on the whole ahistorical and idealist. The idea that I was setting up a binary where one was positive and the other was negative was based on fairly superficial reading. I think that there are other problems with the book, but in each chapter I tried to give as fair an account of what the theorists in question were saying as I could, and then I tried to show where the problems were. I was also astounded when I heard that people thought I was a great fan of Irigaray and Cixous, which I have never been.

Martha Nussbaum with Jeffrey Williams

Martha Nussbaum. Courtesy of Sally Ryan for The New York Times.
Martha Nussbaum. Courtesy of Sally Ryan for The New York Times.

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Martha Nussbaum took place July 8, 2007  at Nussbaum’s office at the University of Chicago Law School. Transcribed by Heather Steffen and David Cerniglia.

“Philosophy should not be written in detachment from real life,” Martha Nussbaum declares in her 1997 book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard UP). One of the most prolific critics of her generation, with over thirty books, three hundred articles and fifty reviews in prominent journals like The New Republic, Nussbaum bridges the divide between specialized and public philosophy. She has drawn especially on the Stoics to reinvigorate moral and political philosophy, and she investigates the import of literature and the emotions in books ranging from The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 1986) to Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge UP, 2001).

Nancy K. Miller with Jeffrey Williams

Nancy Miller
Nancy K. Miller

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Nancy K. Miller took place on February 10, 2007 in Miller’s office at the CUNY Graduate Center. Transcribed by David Cerniglia.

Jeffrey Williams: To start, I want to ask about the trajectory of feminist criticism in the US. It seems that you were at key places at key times—you studied French at Columbia in the early ’70s when structuralism was in its heyday, but you were part of a cohort that developed if not invented feminist literary criticism. How did you come to do the work you did?

Nancy K. Miller: I went to graduate school for a PhD in 1969. It was really the beginning of the widespread development of feminism in the United States, and I started a women’s group with my friend Hester Eisenstein in January 1971. By then I was getting ready to write my dissertation, and there had already been the March for Equality. Sexual Politics was published in August 1970, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine came out in New York Magazine in ’72. So there was this sense that something was happening. It wasn’t particularly happening at Columbia, but it was happening in New York, and I felt that I was part of something. I certainly did not take any classes that had anything to do with feminism or women writers.

In any event, there was almost nothing recognizable as feminist criticism. When I told my advisor that I was very excited about Sexual Politics because it was a model for reading men’s writing, which is what I was going to be doing in the dissertation, he said—I will never forget—”Don’t be a second-rate Kate Millett. She wasn’t first-rate to begin with.” She was a Columbia PhD and had gotten her PhD, I think, in ’69 or ’70, so that certainly set a tone.

Andrew Ross with Jeffrey Williams

Andrew Ross
Andrew Ross

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Andrew Ross took place on January 31, 2009 at Andrew Ross’ office at NYU in lower Manhattan. Transcribed by Gavin Jensen.

Jeffrey Williams: I’m especially interested in the direction of your work in the past ten years. For a while you were the personification of cultural studies in the US, especially after No Respect, which has a chapter on pornography as well as one on the New York intellectuals’ attitude toward popular culture. But in the past ten years it seems that your work has undergone a shift. You’ve written a lot more on labor, and you also moved to writing trade books. Do you see it as a shift? What happened to draw you along that route?

Andrew Ross: I certainly have moved across different fields, at least from the perspective of an academic career or academic profile, but I think that has more to do with having been released from the disciplinary constraints of my original training to learning new skills and methods. These days, when people ask me, “What’s your discipline?” I’m more inclined, if I’m being flip, to say “I’m an agnostic” rather than “I’m an interdisciplinary scholar.”

A good deal of the motivation for the shifts in my work was the result of responding to circumstance, political conditions, gaps in scholarship and opportunities to do the kind of writing I felt would be most useful. An important part has been about finding my own voice, which I think is the most difficult thing for people to do with a standard academic training. It took me many, many years to find my own voice.

Donna Haraway with Jeffrey Williams

Donna Haraway

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Donna Haraway took place on July 6, 2009 at Donna Haraway’s house in Santa Cruz, California. Transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: The first question I want to ask is about the “Cyborg Manifesto,” because that’s how many people know your work, and also because this year is its twenty-fifth anniversary. It was a different moment to be doing theory in the eighties. Could you tell me about the situation then and how you reflect back on it?

Donna Haraway: The “Cyborg Manifesto” grew out of a number of political connections and deep intellectual interests. The immediate occasion for the “Cyborg Manifesto” was that I was asked by the Socialist Review collective in Berkeley to be a representative at a conference in Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian left was no longer quite as radical as the immediately preceding generation because of repression but still a very vibrant political intellectual formation of international Marxists, and the Socialist Review collective sent representatives. I came out of the Baltimore Marxist-feminist union when I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and had just moved to Santa Cruz and to the History of Consciousness department. The kind of Marxist-feminist that I was, was very latitudinarian, but that was true of most of us of that period. And it was also the early years of the Reagan presidency. So I went to Cavtat, now in Croatia but then Yugoslavia, and I had a little paper that I was going to read on reproductive technologies and reproductive freedom. And there I met an extraordinary group of people. The women in particular were very alert to the kinds of sexism that were practiced in the international Marxist scene in those years, partly by younger men but mainly by an older generation of men, from North Korea and East Germany and the rest. Feminism had no cultural purchase in their practice.