The Roast Issue
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David Downing

The Roast-A-Way: Giving It to Jeff

Now is a time when we all have a good occasion to celebrate: the profession is a better place because of Jeff Williams and the minnesota review. The evidence can be found all around us in literary and cultural studies, but especially between the covers of mr, so no one reading this appreciation will need me to repeat it. But when Jeff arrived in town about five years ago, my personal life also got better. So I’ll begin the roast with the toast: Thanks, Jeff, for all that you give us!

Imagine the likelihood of these circumstances ever happening to any academic in the humanities: a writer and scholar who shares intellectual interests, political orientations, personal values; who enjoys white wine (and red) and good food (with the exception of seafood, and I gave up trying to improve him on that score); and (the clincher) who has, like me, lived many years of his professional life as an editor—that such a human being would move within a few blocks of where I live? Well, most of you can dream away, but in my case that amazing good fortune is exactly what happened.

Our editorship and friendship link up pretty well, but back to the professional. Try as I might, I cannot think of anyone who knows more about the history of the profession, the university, and the disciplines of literary and cultural studies than Jeff. And, as we all know, mr is the best place to access that wealth of valuable resources and good judgment. As the subtitle says, it’s a journal of “committed writing,” and Jeff is a committed scholar and person, in the best sense of those words. His clarity and precision in his editing, his writing, and his interviewing mirrors his care and thoughtfulness in his personal life.

Now, I admit, it can be tough when the razor-edge goes to work on language that you composed: I mean, my god, for any of us who have ever published in mr, think how much we have suffered under this man’s hatchet/pen. But after the dust settles, I bet not a one of us would return to our old ways because Jeff simply makes what we are trying to say better, more compact, less jargon-ridden, more “crisp,” as he would put it. And, truth be told, I have tried to get him back when it is my turn to play editor, but it has never worked: I can’t seem to edit the pieces Jeff has published in Works and Days because his essays always come so well written there’s never been anything for me to do but publish them. Rats for the roast. You learn quickly when working with Jeff that ordinary language can be a powerful vehicle for translating complex ideas so they can reach a broader public. For that purpose, Jeff is a master and mr the model for us all.

Jeff’s teaching, writing, and editing are committed to the difficult tasks of translating between different discourses, persons, histories, and contexts. And the goal of all those translations is at root pretty simple: to make a difference, to make things better, with an especial eye for the most vulnerable among us, like students in debt. Just recall how many of his essays that first appeared in mr capture a time, a place, a movement. Recall also the many terms he gives us to translate some of our shared professional experiences into language: posttheory generation, academostars, brave new university, post-welfare state university, academic bondage, the “hit parade” vs. the “food groups” way of organizing theory anthologies. The list goes on, but in short, who has described us academics and what we do better than Jeff and the contributors to mr?

But certainly the monumental task that he has sustained throughout his eighteen-year stewardship of the minnesota review, and for which he will long be recognized, is the remarkable set of 44 interviews with some of the very people most responsible for the changes in our intellectual and institutional lives. No one has given us such an informed, insider view of how the personal is the professional, and vice versa. I would say that these many interviews have taught me more about the profession, and the links between theory, criticism, politics, persons, and institutions, than just about anything else I have read. There is no better resource to learn how professional identity is socially constructed. I have also taught several of these interviews in my graduate courses, and I have yet to find a student who does not appreciate their lively engagement with the issues we have been discussing in class.

I haven’t yet quite adjusted to the idea that Jeff is no longer the mr editor (and how CMU let this one go continues to baffle me, even though he has repeatedly told me the story of what happened). But I know there’s a lot of other things he will be doing, and we will all be the beneficiaries of the best of what he has yet to give us. On that note, I raise my glass at this year’s MLA cash bar not just for his work on mr, but also because Jeff has become for me both a personal and professional brother. That’s a lot to celebrate.