The Roast Issue
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Katie Hogan

Student Debt

While a graduate student at Rutgers in the early 1990s, I lost two family members to AIDS, and my sister was living with the virus. I decided to switch my dissertation topic from Emily Dickinson as a proto-postructuralist to a gender and race analysis of the culture of AIDS. My new dissertation advisor handed me a call for papers entitled “The Politics of AIDS.” The flier indicated that manuscripts should be sent to Jeffrey J. Williams, editor of the minnesota review.

I sent the essay, “Speculations on Women and AIDS,” and waited. It is difficult to convey the shock and elation I felt when I received Jeff’s acceptance letter. As a first-generation college student from a modest background, I felt insecure in graduate school. The acceptance signaled recognition of my project, but more importantly, it demonstrated Jeff’s commitment to bringing literary criticism and critical analysis to bear on the silent topic of women and AIDS.

While most editors would have moved on after the “Politics of AIDS” issue appeared, Jeff continued to encourage me and suggested that I edit a book collection on the topic of women, gender, and HIV/AIDS. He offered to help by contacting editors at Routledge and NYU Press. In 1998, Routledge published my co-edited collection, Gendered Epidemic: Representations of Women in the Age of AIDS. In 2001, my book, based on my dissertation and on the essay I wrote for the minnesota review, was published by Cornell University Press. Jeff’s consistent support pushed me to pursue publication.

To this day, Jeff continues to encourage my scholarship and professional development, and I consider him a friend as well as a colleague.

Numerous people in the profession could tell a story similar to mine. So many of us have been altered by Jeff’s unusual intellectual gifts, editorial wisdom, and kindness.

After Marc Bousquet’s blog post in which he analyzed Carnegie Mellon University’s decision to withdraw financial support for the minnesota review, many wrote in detailing how Jeff has contributed to their education and career—teaching them how to write better, how to do academic editing, how to negotiate book deals, or how to prepare a tenure or promotion application. At the MLA conference, a graduate student and Delegate Assembly member who represents disability issues in the profession told me that Jeff Williams was one of the most accomplished, helpful, and approachable professors he had ever met. And this project focused on recognizing Jeff, which was initiated and organized by his graduate students at CMU, is another vivid example of Jeff’s influence and passion for people, intellectual culture, the profession, and social justice in our institutions.

Of course, Jeff’s scholarship is another compelling demonstration of his generosity, brilliance, and commitments. His two essays on student debt in Dissent elegantly delineate parallels between colonial America’s indentured labor system and the current student debt crisis curtailing young Americans.

These essays are quintessential Jeff: gracefully written, weaving together history, statistics, argument, and a call to action, and closing with solutions of what can be done. Jeff is unusual in that he not only diagnoses a problem, he has the courage to offer solutions based in research, reason, and ethical/political commitments.

It seems we are all students of Jeff’s. Whether undergraduate or graduate student, assistant or full professor, independent scholar or adjunct, we are lucky to be in his debt.