Interview with Jodi Dean

© Jodi Dean and Figure/Ground
Dr. Dean was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. October 26th, 2012.

Jodi Dean teaches political theory at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science in 1992 from Columbia University. Her research and writing focus on the contemporary space and possibility of politics. Her books include: Solidarity of Strangers (1996), Aliens in America(1998), Publicity’s Secret (2002), Zizek’s Politics (2006),Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (2009), Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (2010), and most recently, The Communist Horizon (2012). She has edited Feminism and the New Democracy (1997),Cultural Studies and Political Theory (2000), with Paul A. Passavant, Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri (2004), with Jon Anderson and Geert Lovink, Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society(2006). She is a co-editor of the journal Theory & Event. You can read more about her and her work on her blog, I cite.

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

I didn’t really decide. When I was an undergraduate at Princeton I thought it would be horrible to spend months or years writing articles no one would ever read. I went to graduate school in Political Science and Soviet Studies at Columbia. When I got there, I wanted to be a teaching assistant. So I did that. Then, I learned that theorists could teach in the core curriculum sequence called Contemporary Civilization, so I wanted to do that. By that point, continuing as a professor just seemed natural.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

As an undergraduate, it was Stephen F. Cohen. He was a total rock star — not hating the USSR in the 80s. He taught us to take Marxism-Leninism seriously. He also made me feel like I had something to contribute, something to say. Also, my thesis advisor, Richard Chambers. He made me cut 30 pages of my thesis about two weeks before it was due. That gave me a sense that nothing I write is sacred and that I should be ready to revise. Similarly, Andrea Maihoffer in Frankfurt taught me to revise. She told me that Luhmann treated every book he wrote as “what I’m thinking right now,” never one’s last word. And, finally, but most importantly my dissertation director Jean L. Cohen. She was always completely supportive in every public setting — but would cut to the critical chase one-on-one. That taught me about differences between criticism and critique. With critique, you have to be mindful of context.

How did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

It seems to me that students tend to treat faculty more like purveyors of a consumer experience. So, they don’t seem overly concerned about missing appointments; they expect that they will not be held accountable for late assignments. Students also seem more likely to adopt an attitude of informality than was typical when I went to school. But this might be related more to the fact that I teach in an undergraduate institution than to any real changes in the role of professor.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

A good teacher needs to believe in what she is doing. I congratulate my students for taking a class in political theory because it’s the most important thing they can do — and I believe this. I went in to political theory because it was so interesting and challenging that I knew I would never know it all, never be bored, always be learning. Students respond to that sort of passion. They don’t see it many places these days, but it still moves them. They want to believe.

A good teacher also needs to find something in her students that she likes, admires, and respects. She might do this vis a vis individual students or students as a group, that doesn’t matter. But students pick up on the vibes we give out. No one wants to be lectured to by someone who doesn’t respect them. I also think it’s important to be prepared (very prepared) and being willing to mix things up, change what happens in the classroom. I command attention by being authoritarian and intolerant at the beginning — no phones, no laptops, no side-conversations. A day or so of this and then expectations are clear and everyone can relax and get to work. Really, the attention deficit problem is mine! If students come in and out of the room or speak to their neighbor or something like that I quickly lose focus. On information overload — I don’t believe this. Contemporary students — like everybody else– are woefully uninformed, little knowledge of history, little memory for anything that happened more than 3 months ago. This doesn’t bother me too much, though. It gives me a chance to make the version of political theory that I want to teach into the one that is dominant for them.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

Advice? Only go to graduate school if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. Don’t linger over anything you write, especially the dissertation. Get it done and move on. Pick things to study that matter to you. Never pick something just because others think it’s important — you will get depressed and bored working on it and by the time you are done the trend that made it topical in the first place will have passed and you are stuck. For aspiring university professors — you are not their mother or their therapist (this was good advice I got from my dissertation director and I’ve followed it religiously). Don’t overdo it on committee work and service. Instead, do your writing and research — that’s what matters.

For reading: read Feed by MT Anderson; it’s about teenagers in a dystopic future. Anderson researched it by sitting in malls listening in on teenagers’ conversations. My students said it wasn’t the future; it’s Facebook. At the same time, young scholars should read things that completely inspire them so that they can be inspiring to their students (whether or not they are teaching the specific texts). Students want to believe that their teachers believe in what they are doing.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?

The threat to the university is capitalism. The one percent have determined that they no longer need an educated middle class to look after their needs, so they are cutting education budgets across the board. As far as they are concerned, a few elite universities are all they need so the rest of us need to be content with accessing content online. This is a terrible threat to skills and competencies liberal democrats associate with citizenship.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

This is the biggest bunch of garbage I’ve ever read. I can’t believe anyone takes this seriously. Fukyama has it backwards: tenure doesn’t threaten academic freedom; it protects it. Can you imagine what a system would look like if people lived in perpetual fear of losing their jobs? How would their anxiety impact their students much less their ability to carry out research? In fact, it would look like the hideous financial sector with everyone thinking in totally self-centered ways and in the shortest possible terms. Much good academic work takes a long time –historians have to find collections in archives and then do their research; scientists have to design and carry out experiments. Scholars have to share their work with colleagues, subjecting it to critique and revising it accordingly.

The whole attack on jargon is barely masked anti-intellectualism. No one worries about the jargon of particle physics, neuroscience, or custody law. In fact, we recognize that knowledge takes multiple forms and speaks to multiple audiences. Not every audience needs to be (or wants to be) addressed the same way — and, again, it’s thinly veiled anti-intellectualism to imply that everything should be accessible to everyone. For example, I can’t read and understand a paper in theoretical physics, but I can read and follow a popular book on, say, black holes. That popular book would be worthless, however, without the real science backing it up. And, again, we shouldn’t expect that the same people who carry out the experiments, make the observations, and do the equations will necessarily be the ones to write the popular books.

You know, the real problem is this language of ‘costly’ — it points to what I already mentioned, namely, that the one percent has decided that it no longer wants to fund higher education for the majority. Why is it that tenure is costly but Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon are not? Their salaries in a single year –alone –would more than cover the salary of the entire faculty where I teach. Let’s not pretend that there is some kind of objective analysis of education going on here. It’s class war, plain and simple.

What does “collective” mean today? Is it a multitude, or a group, or even a community?

Collective means a commitment to the good of working people, the oppressed, the ninety-nine percent rather than to either one’s own private interest or the interests of the propertied and privileged. It’s a commitment to be on the side of the oppressed, as Marx and Engels emphasize in The Communist Manifesto. Multitude isn’t the best term because it eliminates the antagonism to privilege and self-interest. Community proceeds as if communities are not split by class interest. Group is too generic and could mean any group. I use the term collective because of its resonance with histories of class struggle.

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

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “Interview with Jodi Dean,” Figure/Ground. October 26th.
<  >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email