People often say, “to know them is to love them” and upon meeting Karla Jay, PhD, distinguished professor of English and Women and Gender studies at Pace’s New York City Campus, it is easy to see why students feel so passionate about her teaching methods. Both inside and outside the classroom Jay is a force to be reckoned with. A noted writer, editor, political activist, and professor she exudes an authority in the classroom while still being approachable and genuine. Her classes range from The 20th Century Novel to Queer Culture and provide insight to topics through a combination of Jay’s seemingly effortless lectures and the general understanding that students not only participate in class discussion, but also help structure it.
October is also LGBT History Month, marking the progress made over the years for the LGBT community; to fully appreciate the strides made it is necessary to take a walk down memory lane, a road paved by people such as Jay. Most recently Jay sat down to be interviewed by director Jeffrey Schwartz for his new documentary Vito about author and activist Vito Russo who played a large role in the LGBT movement, particularly in developing The Celluloid Closet, a groundbreaking work detailing the gay community in film, and whom Jay knew personally through their work with the Gay Academic Union, the 1973 Gay Pride March which Russo emceed, and a variety show called Our Time, which featured not only Jay but the likes of actress Lily Tomlin as well.
Recently picked up by HBO Films for distribution, the company is currently considering a theatrical run after garnering rave reviews and playing well on the festival circuit and plans to air the film on the network sometime in June. Jay plays coy about her exposure in the film and using her signature wit states that she only appears for what can only be termed, “nanoseconds.” The experience, however short, was ultimately a positive one for Jay in which she could look back and contribute not only to the memory of a friend, but to that of a cause still worth fighting for. It is qualities like these that affirm Jay’s success, and make us appreciate her all the more.
What was your favorite class as student? Least favorite?
I don’t know that I had a favorite class when I was student. I had a favorite professor as an undergraduate, my French professor. He was really good and it didn’t matter what he was teaching.
I have two least favorites. A zoology professor who read from his textbook in a huge lecture hall with hundreds of students and we’d all sit there as he read and we’d all turn the page with him. And an American history professor who was somehow stuck in the colonial period! She dressed with buckle shoes and a black dress and she just kind of was early Puritan and it was really quite horrifying. She was very boring. Those were my two least favorite classes, not because of the topics.
What one thing or person made you passionate about your current career?
From a certain point I just wanted to teach and in some ways I had a number of negative experiences [in the classroom] that made me feel I could do a lot better than what I had been given. It wasn’t one person but a series of experiences that made me feel I could contribute to the field. I was particularly interested in teaching first-generation college students.
What quality do you most value in your students?
What I really like about Pace students is that they are really outspoken. They say what’s on their mind and it’s not always what you think you are going hear.
What is your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
They should use college to explore things that they don’t know about because they’re not going to get this kind of opportunity again. I think some students waste their time taking “gut” courses that they already know about because they find it easy…Whereas it’s so much more compelling to learn something that you don’t know anything about and you’ll never have the opportunity during your work career, probably, to learn about that again and you may have to wait a very long time.
If you had to do it all over again and took another path, what profession would you attempt? What profession would you not like to do?
I don’t know because I really did take a lot of paths. I’ve worked in publishing as an editor; I’ve been a literary agent, a beach-bum and a hippie, a full-time activist. I lived in Paris as a writer, I lived as a freelance writer and journalist…I don’t know that there was something out there that I wanted to do that I didn’t try and I have no regrets about that.
I have a list of my least favorite things: my least favorite jobs would be toll-taker at the Holland Tunnel or filleting sardines. I don’t know how people do that! Anything that would involve filleting fish.
What is your favorite TV show/book?
My favorite book is Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I think it’s not only the most complex and interesting book that you can read and reread, but it has a kind of compelling beauty that grows with time.
What would you do if you had an extra hour everyday?
What is your favorite journey/experience?
My favorite trip so far has been to the Galapagos Islands.
What is your favorite saying/words to live by?
“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failures should be a challenge to others.” – Amelia Earhart
If you could have any five people, living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at a dinner party, who would you choose?
I probably would want some people who would be really witty and entertaining. Just off the top of my head, I think I’d like Gloria Steinem, Gandhi, Oprah Winfrey, Woody Allen, and Gertrude Stein.
This interview has been edited and condensed from its original form.
Know a professor who you think would be perfect for our next Q&A? Post suggestions in the comments or submit them here.