Jeff Williams is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.
Professor Williams’ work focuses on the politics of literature and criticism, particularly institutions that produce culture like universities and academic journals. In his writing, he frequently takes a step back from arguments about the political or social value of intellectual work and examines them from a practical standpoint. In many of his essays since the early 90’s, he has called attention to the danger of student debt, and contrasted this danger with the freedom and possibility promised by an education in the liberal arts. Likewise, many of his essays about literary theory have shown how theory has been shaped by academic settings and the inevitable politics that come with tenure and promotion.
Professor Williams has also been deeply committed to reaching a broad general public with his scholarly work. Along with publishing in academic journals, he also publishes frequently in places like the Chronicle of Higher Education and Salon. His most recent book, How to be an Intellectual, features a number of essays that seek to blur the lines between criticism and journalism, a technique that he calls “criticism without footnotes.” He was also the editor of The Minnesota Review from 1992-2010, and earned praise during that time for editing one of the most lively, politically serious print journals in the profession.
I began by asking him about his longtime commitment to engaged scholarship, and what he feels academics can bring to public discourse.