Interview with Eileen A. Joy


© Eileen A. Joy and Figure/Ground
Dr. Joy was interviewed by Andrew Hines. September 17th, 2012.

Eileen A. Joy is an Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She is a co-founder and self-fashioned Lead Ingenitor of the scholarly collective, the BABEL Working Group. Alongside many other projects, Dr. Joy is also the director of the open-access, independent publisher punctum books as well as an editor of the cross-disciplinary journal Postmedieval. She has edited and co-authored many collaborative books, essays, journals and blogs in the field of Medieval Studies, and the Humanities more generally. Currently she is co-authoring a book with fellow medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen entitled Inhuman Actors: Tracing the Lives of Objects in Medieval Literature.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

It wasn’t really a conscious choice. Though this doesn’t describe everyone, most people get their undergraduate degree and go directly to graduate school. They have in the forefront of their mind the understanding that they’re going to be a professor at the beginning of their graduate studies. I never did. First of all, I was a total screwup in high school and had to go to a university with an open admissions policy as a result. I floundered around for a few years and was on academic probation. I eventually latched onto English as an undergraduate degree, which I really loved, but I had no intention of going to graduate school and being a professor.

As soon as I finished college I went out into the world and did a huge number of different jobs. I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I ended up getting an MFA in creative writing and also worked in filmmaking. Even then I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue graduate school, but I had a professor who was a medievalist who said, “I think you’d be good at this.”

I was a little bit worried about making it as a creative writer because it’s such a tenuous profession. So I did end up going into a medieval studies Ph.D. program at this professor’s encouragement, thinking the whole time, “Why am I doing this? I prefer postmodern literature and avant garde art, why would I want to study medieval literature?” Before I was halfway through my Ph.D., I dropped out. I gave up my teaching assistantship after two years and worked as a landscape designer for about three years or so before finally deciding, “Oh fine, I’ll finish my Ph.D. because actually I like teaching.” All during this, the one consistent thing that I really liked doing was teaching, even when I was just adjuncting at a community college. I also taught in a medium security men’s prison and a lot of unconventional environments. Even when I was a landscape designer I taught courses in garden design for adult education type programs. Teaching was the one thing that I consistently enjoyed, no matter how unconventional the environment.

So my path was really strange. But once I decided “I’m going to do this,” then I really threw myself into it in a major way. I figured whatever you do in life, you should give it your all. So roundabout 2001 or so when I finished my Ph.D. I was like “Yeah — I’m going to make this my major role in life.” Meaning, most broadly: the humanities, the university, education.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what did you learn from them?

I think one of my most important mentors who has stuck with me all these years was Marcel H. Cornis-Pop. He was really kind of wild. I had him as a professor in the late 1980s and this was the heyday of the culture-wars in the American university, but I was blissfully unaware of that. I didn’t know anything about so called “high theory” at that time. I wasn’t reading Derrida or Foucault or any of those people who were just beginning to emerge as major figures in American intellectual life at that time.

Cornish-Pop was a little unusual. He taught our so-called theory class for graduate students, and at that time, when everyone was going post-structuralist, he was really into narratology and the structuralists. I realise now there’s a real link between the narratologist of the 1970s — and even earlier — and the object-oriented philosophies that are circulating today. I’m really struck by the links in their work. The narratologist were ontologist. They thought about fictional worlds and possible worlds, and they were interested in set theory and the structure of narrative. Cornish-Pop had us read all these writers, some of whom you don’t hear mentioned very much now, even though everyone knows who they are. Writers like Wolfgang Iser, Algirdas Greimas, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Propp, Gérard Genette, Thomas Pavel, Paul Ricoeur, Umberto Eco, and all those guys. He was also just an incredibly enthusiastic professor. I realise now that his teaching has stuck with me longer than anybody’s, partly because of his enthusiasm but also for his eclectic interests. As a fiction writer I was fascinated by this kind of theory in particular. So he was a huge influence on me in terms of getting me interested in theory, even though it isn’t the theory most people are trained in now. He was probably one of my biggest influences but he wasn’t really a mentor.

I didn’t really have mentors in graduate school. I know that sounds strange. When I did my Ph.D. in medieval studies there were three medievalists at my institution whom I really loved and who were wonderful people; they did not do anything crazy to me. You hear horror stories about graduate school all the time — professors who really mess with your mind and soul and don’t leave you alone, who want to break you down or mold you in their image, or just leave you a little worse off than when you started with them (intellectual sadism). My three Ph.D. mentors were very hands-off. They were more conservative and they weren’t so much into theory the way I was. But they said something marvellous. They said, “You know, we don’t fully understand what you’re trying to do, but we think you’re smart enough, so you just do whatever you want to do and we’ll sign off on it.” So that was really, really marvellous, but I had to actually go outside my institution to seek mentors.

A really important one for me was Roy Liuzza who at the time (late 1990s) was an Anglo-Saxonist teaching at Tulane University. I just wrote him a random email saying, “I think we have some things in common and I love this work you’re doing on the intellectual history of the discipline, which is what my dissertation is about and would you maybe read my stuff and give me some feedback?” He did — an amazing amount of commentary, actually, that helped me shape my ideas a great deal — and then he went on to write letters for me for fellowships and for jobs. I’ve always been really grateful to him for that.

Other mentors are people you read, right? You never meet them, but they have a huge influence on the way you’re thinking. They’re kind of like your invisible or distant mentors.

Has the role of a university professor changed since you were a graduate student?

Yes. That is such a difficult question to answer. It’s a good one though. I started teaching as a graduate student in 1993. That means we’re almost at the 20-year mark since I started as a teaching assistant. I would say the world that my professors grew up in is radically different than the one I’m in as regards university life, which encompasses so much more than just teaching and research.

I would say the biggest change is that many of us teach at institutions, not counting more privileged places like Harvard or Duke, where our students are way more stressed out than they ever have been before. They come to college already saddled with debt and obligations that are financial or personal that make it very difficult for them to just be students. So I think this idea of a student who just goes to school and has no other concerns but soaking up university life — its own unique “ecology,” and one that was immensely valuable to me when I was “just a student” — is a vanishing entity and one that makes it much more difficult to capture our students’ attention and their affection. I think that is something important to work on, and to understand that context and work within it. Also, I think we need to do all sorts of political labour on behalf of returning us to the idea of a free or at least radically affordable “for all” education.

The other thing that’s changed is the institutional, bureaucratic structures which have become more managerial and corporate in style. Professors are being asked more and more to devote their energy to all sorts of institutional protocols having to do with so-called teaching effectiveness, learning outcomes, self-assessment, and program assessment. This has become intensive and in some cases it feels almost crippling in terms of the time that’s left over to do other things.

On the one hand, I am much in favour of faculty being more tuned into whether or not they have so-called “effective” outcomes that are attached to their teaching. It would be ridiculous to say faculty have no responsibility whatsoever to think about the effectiveness of their courses and programs and mentorship. On the other hand, we are often treated like children in this scenario; we are more often told what to do and how to do it, and then we are asked to direct our own programs of self-assessment, but according to administrative (and even legislative) expectations and guidelines that may be completely out of sync with faculty-led curricular vision and experience.

State legislators are getting much more meddlesome than they used to in the institution of higher education (or maybe that’s just my perception: maybe they’ve always been intrusive, and rightly so, given how much money they give to public higher education, but now they are starting to get hostile as well toward the mission of the university, especially toward the liberal arts). At my university we have something that is almost the equivalent of a time clock. Once a semester we have to fill out a time sheet, writing out the numbers of hours per week we spent on different activities – from advising students, to teaching hours, to teaching preparation, to research that’s independent, to research that’s funded through an external granting agency, to professional activities. This is insulting. We spend 10 plus years in graduate school training to be professors and then we’re asked to prove that we’re doing our job.

It’s different in every state, but just in the past couple of years, state legislators have done abusive things, such as in Texas where they recently abolished sabbaticals. Faculty in Texas schools are still giving their faculties sabbaticals, but they can’t call them “sabbaticals.” They have to call them something else, and they can’t give out as many of them as they used to. So state legislators are doing things like saying faculty should be on campus every single day and they shouldn’t have sabbaticals and they should teach more and have more office hours and they should be more accountable for how they spend their time, as if, somehow, professional educators are like wayward children who need more oversight and discipline. All of this is deeply demoralizing and is also creating a climate of mistrust and skepticism toward higher education. This is a time when students need higher education more than ever and can’t afford it. So that’s the climate in which we work, which is a little bit frightening.

To follow up on that, you’re speaking about forces attempting to reform from the outside. When there is internal dysfunction and reform is needed, where does it come from?

It’s a good question, too. In many institutions of higher education, there is an immense need for reform from the inside and it has to be faculty- and student-driven. I could tell you so many stories. I travel a lot to different institutions and I’m always struck by the politics of departments and programs and colleges that at times can be so intensively negative that they effectively dismantle and disable the ability of faculty and students to do constructive and creative work together. I think that in general the faculty, writ large across the institutions everywhere, have to really work better together to collectively agitate on behalf of their field. The field I work in is the humanities. Aranye Fradenburg has called the humanities the living arts, which is so essential to personal and also social well-being. That means that the humanities need to get more humane (and start living up to its own radical theories in its professional affects and departmental & program policies, especially as regards the dismantling of hierarchies and special statuses and privileges, and also as regards the pursuit of a multiplicity of becomings over supposedly static “truths” or “facts”), and other disciplines in the university also need to recognize better how various modes of “artful living” are essential to all professions (and society more largely), and the humanities are the primary site for cultivating those.

There is always a need for reform, especially curricular reform or reforms in the ways we teach. For instance, in the past 10 or so years, there’s been a massive shift away from lecturing, at least in the States, and towards more of an emphasis on group work and collaboration — having students lead discussions and that kind of thing.

So I think in general the faculty, with feedback from the students, will over time make adjustments to how they do their work. I think they can be counted on to do that, even with the bad politics that permeate some places. The faculty can be counted on to reform from within. I think we should be allowed to be trusted to do that.

It’s like heart surgery. Who do you want to decide how to improve the methods of heart surgery? Some kind of policy person who comes in from outside of the hospital to tell the heart surgeons how to do their job? Sometimes heart surgeons aren’t doing their job or they make mistakes, and hospitals do have people who oversee those procedures and work with the surgeons when mistakes happen, but you don’t second-guess the heart surgeon on how to do heart surgery. I think that’s one of the issues within university today. They’re large institutions, so they need administrative personnel to run the day-to-day operations. Everything from mowing the grass to keeping the technology running to making sure people get paid. But when the administration starts telling the faculty what the general education curricula should look like, or how they should teach or how much time they should devote between teaching and research, I think they’ve started to go too far.

Much of the work you’re involved in is open-access and seems to be attempting to address some of the issues you’re speaking about in creative ways. What are the pros and cons of open-access information in university education, and how does a peer reviewed open access journal function differently than the more standard peer reviewed journals?

The biggest bonus to open-access is in the words themselves, “open” and “access.” I could be wrong about this, but I really believe there is a deep public desire for participation in intellectual and cultural life. There is a real desire to be a part of cultural life in this country more so than I think than people realise, and yet not all of those people can afford to participate in the institutions of cultural life. Whether it’s the Metropolitan Opera or New York University, they can’t afford to be participants there or they couldn’t get the job they wanted working or teaching at one of those institutions. But they don’t want to turn their back on what might be called a “high” cultural life or the university and everything that it does.

Also at the same time, there are people within the university and the institution who have a difficult time getting their hands on information or published scholarship. So what open-access does really well is says, “look, we’re going to make everything that everyone is doing, available to everybody.” Now it’s information overload on one hand. Everyone can pick and choose what they want to read, what they want to listen to, what they want to think about, and we won’t be able to read everything. But it does mean that everyone can participate in the life of the university beyond the university’s walls.

Those situated in institutions with very few resources who can’t afford outrageous subscriptions to a journal owned by big publishers like Maney or Palgrave Macmillan or Elsevier are not charged outrageous sums of money to get access to what should really be public intellectual property. But it isn’t free either, so we can’t just start clapping our hands and dancing, or even just hate on the big commercial academic publishers who are trying to help us publish our work and in high professional style. All of the labour that was always involved to edit, proofread, design, format, market, mail, store, and archive our work is still an issue. I actually think corporate publishers and university presses, and independent cultural organisations and para-academic groups, and intellectuals and artists should work together in the coming future to figure out ways to make everything open-access, but also sustainable in some kind of economic framework that everyone participates in and benefits from.

Punctum books is open-access, but still sells print books. I actually believe people still want printed matter and they’ll pay for that. People will also pay for access to things if that access is cheap enough. We’ve learned this just from iTunes and the Apple app store. If it’s 99 cents, anyone can afford it — they just have to have the technology, or the devices, to run it.

As to how open-access, peer-reviewed publications are different from traditionally peer-reviewed publications, they’re not necessarily different at all. It depends on how you do it. You could have an open-access academic journal and you could run it exactly like a regular academic journal. You can blind-review submissions, you can have a panel of experts, advisors who review everything. You can have all sorts of editorial oversight — the only difference is the finished product is accessible to everyone.

Or, and this is my preference, you can make every step of the editorial process more transparent. You can get rid of blind review. You can say “there is no reason why we can’t know each other in this review process” and you can open up the review process to more people. You can have open peer review online, which postmedieval did last summer with one of its issues (“Becoming Media,” edited by Jen Boyle and Martin Foys, published in Spring 2012). That process has its ups and downs. Time will always be an issue. Time really is precious and more and more it feels like we have less and less of it. It’s hard to ask everybody in the world to review everything but I think it’s probably worth it to engage in this experiment of open peer review online and to bring in more people to the process of review: from the amateur to the expert in one field, to the generalist, to the expert in another field who nevertheless has something of value to share, to the graduate student and to the professor, to the independent researcher and independent artist. If we could get all of these people involved in the review process, I think it will be richer and more rewarding for everyone involved. It means we strive better to make the so-called intellectual “commons” a reality.

Let’s talk about the BABELworking group,of which you are a part. In the group’s credo you describe yourself as “a non-hierarchical scholarly collective.”  What are media’s and the Internet’s relation to hierarchy today, and how do BABEL and open-access fit into that?

It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, online media and the Internet more generally would seem to promise an infinitude of riches, regarding the so-called democratization of information and exchange and communication of ideas. I think we’ve learned, especially at the political level, in terms of what has become a rather poisonous set of discourses (let’s say, in the United States, for example, over the issue of global warming), that these media are just as powerful in their roles as agents of dis-information. We’ll put that out there as a cautionary note. We’ll say that the Internet by itself does not guarantee the democracy of information, nor the completely open and free exchange of ideas nor an intellectual “commons” that is truly transparent. We know that there are dangers there. But having said that, I do think, in terms of the university, and my own field of medieval studies and the humanities more generally, that online media, including blogs, online journals, Facebook, and Twitter, have been incredible, beneficial tools for democratizing and leveling hierarchies among people who should really be working more alongside each other in what we might call the University (as opposed to your university versus my university).

Whether you’re an assistant professor or full professor, or lecturer, an adjunct instructor, a graduate student, an independent scholar, or just a random person who’s interested in Beowulf studies or Adorno, you can participate in these conversations. There’s no identification card required, no institutional status required, and rank is just irrelevant.  That doesn’t mean that people aren’t aware that when they’re in certain online environments that they’re conversing with someone who might be a star in a particular field or with someone who has just entered a graduate program. But it does mean that there is a lot more freedom. I’ve seen in my own field of medieval studies the actual leveling of traditional status and other markers for “recognition” and some amazing conversations and dialogues that result from this leveling. This has led in many cases to actual publications, special journal issues, anthologies, conference sessions, etc. So it’s been an incredible tool of equality for intellectual discourse and making stuff happen.

It also gets us what I call open processional scholarship. That is what scholarship really is anyway, instead of this idea that someone is sitting in their study and doing all this research and they might share a little bit of it here and there in a conference session, and then they’re back in the study on their own, then they write a book, then it’s under review for two years, then it’s published two years later, then it’s reviewed two years later — that feels like a static entity has been produced, one that supposedly emerged from one person’s mind. But that entity is so disconnected in space and time from the flow of ideas that gave rise to it. With online media we can practice scholarship in the processional way it actually unfolds in our heads with other people. It doesn’t really matter if it leads to a book; the actual exchange itself is the scholarship — the thinking out loud with others. Books are almost an afterthought, but of course they are important because they help us to historicize this process and also give rise to even more new ideas.

What advice would you give to graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?

My advice to graduate students would be to take charge of the university and not wait for professors or other so-called mentors to tell them how to think or what to do. I think graduate students should be incredibly pro-active in the shaping of the university that they want. So instead of saying, “I wish it were like this or I wish it were like that,” they should take charge of the university as their property and their special mission. They should strive as much as they can, even under the influence of thinkers they admire, to try to create thought and not just follow other people’s thinking. Even though sometimes it looks like that’s the recipe for professional success — you adopt thinking and a methodology of a star in your field and you apply their thought constructs to a text or a situation, and voila, you (supposedly) have the start to a brilliant career.

I would tell graduate students that you should make an event of your own career and you should absolutely do it in collaboration with others. Reject the idea of solitude, or competition, or an intellectual agon, as the only path toward so-called “great thinking.” Join forces with as many people as possible to make things and to be producers of things — new collectives, presses, journals, zines, etc. — and create new spaces for the fostering of creative thought and action. Be GENEROUS: help others make things happen. Both people within the university and outside the university. Don’t just think of yourself as an apprentice that is slotted into this or that field, this or that school of thought, marching along behind others.

As far as the thinkers who are really influential to me right now — it’s funny because I wrote a blog post talking about this in the course of also discussing one particular scholar who I really admire right now (see “Like a Radio Left On / On the Outskirts of Identical Cities: Living (with) Fradenburg,” In The Middle, May 5, 2012: 05/like-radio-left-on-on-outskirts-of.html). There are tons of thinkers who I love to read, but the ones that always jump out at me the most are the ones who, in addition to doing their field-specific work (medieval studies, or contemporary poetics, etc.), are also trying to grapple with the larger institutional questions. So for me the Bible has always been Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins. He died in a plane crash a while ago. He never even saw the publication of that book and he’s not around to keep writing and thinking, but that book has been hugely inspirational to me. I also think Jane Bennett is an essential read today. In addition to her work in political theory and political philosophy, and even her new book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, which puts forward some really intriguing ideas about vibrant materialism and which a lot of people are talking about right now, her most important book to me in some ways is The Enchantment of Modern Life: Crossings, Attachments, Ethics. She takes on really big questions having to do with our affects and connections and attachments in the world, and how that importantly contributes to ethical life and flourishing, how we have to be somewhat enchanted with the world (even one that, post-theory, has become disenchanting) in order to work on its behalf.

Another person from my own field whom I hugely admire in this vein is Aranye Fradenburg. She’s written tons of articles and books having to do with Chaucer and medieval literature, particularly in relation to subjects like sacrifice, death, pleasure, enjoyment, and labour, and she is important in a field (medieval studies) that has historically favoured alteritist versions of the Middle Ages for championing discontinuist historicisms. But increasingly, in the past several years, she’s been turning out a steady stream of articles like “The Liberal Arts of Psychoanalysis” and a recent essay called “Living Chaucer,”in which she’s addressing huge questions having to do with the possible connections between the humanities (and literature in particular) and flourishing, thriving, personal well-being, and things like that.

A much overlooked thinker from the 1960s who is still also worth reading today in this regard is Abraham Maslow. He was a psychologist and also focused all of his energies into thinking about how we live our lives and how we flourish and how we, more importantly, enjoy our lives. And finally the last person I would throw out there is Foucault, for his late writings. Towards the end of his life when he was writing about the hermeneutics of the subject and the government of the self, he was thinking particularly about care of the self, but also about parhhesia, or “free speech,” where in some ways he made a radical departure from his earlier thinking about power and discipline. Thinking about what he called in one of his interviews “an improbable manner of being that was yet unthought” that might open onto new forms of friendship and alliance and personal flourishing. I think everybody should revisit Foucault’s last writings and interviews. Which is not to say there are not problems there — I personally think hw over-romanticized some of the materials he was reading from the classical and late antique periods, but his late emphases on how certain modes of self-reflection and ascesis might help us to see how our “own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently,” feels important to me in light of some of our current predicament within the university and beyond.

This is just to say that those are the thinkers that grip my imagination most of the time. I also think Martha Nussbaum is incredibly important in that regard. Especially her massive book Upheavals of Thought.  It’s an amazing book about the connections between emotions and thinking. I’m really attracted these days to people who are thinking about the connections between the university, the humanities and personal well-being, especially in relation to emotions (feeling) and thinking. That is also why I would also briefly mention here how important queer theory has been to better “feeling” our way forward these past 20 or so years, and I would call special attention to the work of Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael Snediker.

Lastly, some of my favorite people to read right now are the object-oriented ontologists and speculative realists, especially those with an interest in “aesthetics as first philosophy,” like Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, and Levi Bryant. I love reading them because they’re invested in the project of speculative thought: highly imaginative thinking about the world beyond a human-centric perspective, with a deep interest in a more capacious ecology of enmeshed things, human and otherwise. Because I’m really interested in thinkers today who are trying to think of more open and generous ways of imagining sentience and consciousness and experience. So the last person, and by no means least important person on my list is Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in medieval studies, who is pushing the boundaries of that kind of thinking in my field more than anyone else. He has the most humane, capacious, generous set of perspectives on the world, history, and all of the entanglements attendant within history, and his entire oeuvre could be described as a grand attempt to merely describe the world and all of its items (human, animal, mineral, etc.) in a way that “lights up” that world and its activities and entanglements from within, and without judgment, without prioritizing one thing or person or event over another. That’s my roster of people to be reading right now.

What are you currently working on?

I have so many things going at once it’s a little insane. I’m a bit manic in my work and I tend to jump all over the place, sometimes starting and never returning to a project. Probably the biggest project on my plate right now is a book I’m co-authoring with Jeffrey Cohen called Inhuman Actors: Tracing the Lives of Objects in Medieval Literature. He and I are working on this book, which in some way is an outcome of our very deep reading in and affection for thinkers like Bruno Latour, Ian Bogost, Michel Serres, Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Levi Bryant — all those people in object-oriented ontology and speculative realism and new materialisms. So that’s something were diving into this year and thinking will carry us through to the end of next year (2013).

In addition to that, my other big project is revisiting the late writings of Foucault on the care of the self. I’m also going to be teaching an advanced graduate seminar at the Newberry Library in Chicago in spring 2013 with Anna Klosowska (Miami University of Ohio), revisiting Foucault’s late writings on ascesis and care of the self in relation to medieval and early modern texts on spiritual ascetism, friendship, and love.

I’m really fascinated by revisiting the questions of biopower and biopolitics in relation to Foucault’s ideas about care of the self. There might even be an out or an exit from what has happened so far in traditional discourses of modernity on questions of biopower (a “positive biopolitics,” as the medievalist historian Kathleen Biddick has posed it). So that’s kind of the other place my head is at right now.

The final other place my head is at in terms of my own work is thinking a lot about aesthetic solidarity at the end of the world. So thinking about, what does it mean to be situated at a time in history where a lot of things are ending? In a time of catastrophe and crisis, the end of the anthropocene. What would it mean to form new sites of aesthetic solidarity, and to think about writing itself as an intervention into a world that’s kind of in the middle of an end? Those are the three places my head is at right now with my own writing.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eileen A. Joy
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Hines, A. (2012). “Interview with Eileen A. Joy,” Figure/Ground. September 17th.
<  >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at