Doctor Irene Montjoye, Ph.D.
~ An Exposé, by Raina Polivka
Doctor Montjoye, an Indiana University alumnus and retired professor of literature and international affairs at the International University in Vienna, Austria met with current comparative literature graduate student, Raina Polivka, to discuss over the phone her memories of Indiana University as well as her experiences in academia. Having recently delivered a lecture in Vienna to the Conference of Global Ethics on the necessity to look not only at different cultures but also at different phases within cultures when applying a global perspective to research, Dr. Montjoye shared stories of achievements and endeavors as a scholar whose primary interest and sense of responsibility lay in the intersections of the humanities with the political and social realms of human activity.
Dr. Montjoye came to Indiana University in 1961 as the wife of the Orientalist, Professor Sinor. Among the many intellectuals and scientists who immigrated to the United States as a result of the “brain drain,” Professor Montjoye and her husband left Cambridge, England for a very rural and isolated Bloomington, Indiana. Initially planning on enrolling in courses to occupy her time, Dr. Montjoye eventually decided to work towards a degree. She attributes this decision to an Austrian woman she met during her first days at the university: “I will never forget that woman. She said to me, ‘Oh no. You are at a university and you will earn your degrees.’ I owe my decision to pursue academic goals to that woman’s encouragement.” Ms. Montjoye went on to earn her Bachelor’s (1964), her Master’s (1965) and her Ph.D. (1975) from the Department of Comparative Literature. “I was a natural fit,” she says, “Being a native Austrian of French descent, my mother tongue was both French and German and I had a working knowledge of Dutch, Italian, and English.” Ms. Montjoye completed a dissertation on the law and crime in literature dating from before the nineteenth century through the twentieth century. It was in this project that she cultivated her interest in the changing attitudes towards the criminal and notions of justice—an interest that has propelled much of her work to the present day.
Professor Montjoye returned to Vienna to pursue an academic career where she found herself primarily working for American universities. Though she began teaching literature classes, she soon turned towards a more socially and politically active approach to scholarship both in the classroom and out. While Dr. Montjoye has continuously incorporated a sense of social consciousness into her teaching, creating and instructing such courses as “War and Peace in Literature,” “Fundamentalists: Then and Now” and “Racism: Past and Present,” she has also delivered lectures for the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When asked what she enjoys most about academia she answers without hesitation: “teaching.” She continues: “Opening students’ minds is the most important and rewarding part of my job. Teaching them the interconnectedness of art and literature with the scientific, technological and political world around them is what I can give most to my students.”
Dr. Montjoye is nevertheless familiar with the competitiveness and discrepancies within the academic job market. Until recently, she felt the financial effects of a system that refused to pay into pensions for its faculty or administrators. Indeed, upon her retirement two years ago she had acquired only twelve hundred euro in pension benefits. This lasted until Dr. Montjoye was notified in 2007 that she held the winning ticket in the Austrian national lottery. “You see,” she says, “I went from being a very poor academic pauper to a young capitalist.” With her newfound financial freedom, Ms. Montjoye works to help young scholars in need by awarding scholarships and providing housing to visiting scholars and interns.
Despite everything, Dr. Montjoye fully advocates a career in academia: “Do it if you love it; even if it doesn’t make you millions.” She also strongly advises the necessity of young scholars to network and build communities across disciplines and across national borders. As Vice President of the local chapter of the International Federation of University Women, she cannot emphasize enough the benefits of international networking as a way to share experiences and information and also to create a sense of stability in an expanding world. It is precisely in this notion of crossing borders that she believes the future of comparative literature lays: in recognizing the interconnectedness of literature with politics, history, science and social movements. According to Dr. Montjoye, “the great crises in the world are all consequences of higher education—the highest education.” It is not the illiterate that have orchestrated disaster, but the educated. Therefore academics must engage in a dialogue that traverses the borders of disciplines and challenges the boundaries surrounding the intellectual elite. We must take the study of literature out of the jargon of inaccessible and pedantic journals and make thoughts available to a larger public—“we must make reading exciting again.”
Though retired, Dr. Montjoye is still writing and lecturing. She is currently working on a revised edition of her book Oscar Wilde’s Father on Portugal and Austria. She is also preparing an English edition of her book Maria Therese’s Turkish Daughter, a work that is already in its second printing in German and had been translated into Arabic and Turkish.
Dr. Montjoye’s fond memories of Bloomington include weekend excursions into the surrounding forests with the women’s hiking group organized by Mrs. Alfred Kinsey, the faculty wife cook-offs, and the invaluable intellectual experiences offered by the Department of Comparative Literature and Indiana University.