The Academic Career: Helping to Establish a New Field of Study

PhD alum Jayashree Kamblé, a CUNY professor, is a leading scholar of modern popular romance novels
Head and torso of person with lavender tinged brown hair and brown skin, smiling, wearing a hot pink silky top, and holding a microphone in left hand

When PBS NewsHour, the New York Times, or the Boston Globe want an expert to speak on the modern romance novel genre, they call alum Jayashree Kamblé (PhD 2008). The Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College/CUNY is that increasingly rare bird, a public intellectual whose specialty is of passionate interest to millions of people. Romance novels account for almost 20 percent of US book sales, according to the Star Tribune; it's reliably a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Current President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR), Kamblé has written two books about the genre, most recently 2023’s Creating Identity: The Popular Romance Heroine's Journey to Selfhood and Self-Presentation (Indiana University Press), as well as co-editing The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction (2020). The professor graciously answered our emailed questions.

What are you most interested in conveying to public audiences?

I'm working with my fellow scholars to provide nuanced analyses of romance novels in accessible language. For example, in a bid to counter some of the clickbait-y, uninformed, and, ironically, cliched articles that mushroom around Valentine's Day, a colleague and I wrote a short list busting myths about romance for The Conversation. I want audiences to understand the aesthetic and structural variety to be found in the genre and grasp the wealth of historical cultural data it contains. I hope that I can also get institutions to see why teaching and learning about it can be a valuable element of critical thinking—and how appealing romance fiction is to students. [Kamblé was just interviewed by MPR about the new Minneapolis romance bookstore Tropes & Trifles.]

You turned your 2008 dissertation, "Uncovering and Recovering the Popular Romance Novel" into your first book, Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology (2014). What was the genesis of your interest in studying the genre?

I've been a romance reader since I was a young teen, starting with reading British Mills and Boon romance novels (the predecessors of Harlequin) in India. I always meant to study popular culture, but I did not enter the program with the intent to study mass-market romance fiction. The person I credit with helping me understand I could do so was Professor John Watkins. I often recount that I was a TA in his British Survey course and happened to tell him that I couldn't quite narrow down what I wanted to do, and he said, "Write your dissertation on the things you read even when you don't have to." That, coupled with hearing fellow grad student Kelly Hulander present a paper on the use of brands in the TV show Friends made me realize what my dissertation could be. I was grateful that Professor Tim Brennan agreed to supervise the project, and Professors Pat Crain, Keya Ganguly, and Lois Cucullu provided thoughtful guidance.

Your first book examines the romance genre through its heroes, and your second through its heroines. How does Creating Identity differ from previous popular romance scholarship addressing female protagonists?

My book takes an interdisciplinary and intersectional approach. It updates pre-existing conversations about the tension in female heterosexual desire in a patriarchal world by providing new models to study romance novels through the lens of class, sexuality, gender presentation, and race, which operate simultaneously. It also uses heterogeneous sampling to show how the genre changes over time, and this methodology will be helpful to other students and scholars.

Would you describe your career path?

As an undergrad, I worked as a copywriter for Hallmark's Indian partner for a brief time before going to grad school and getting a Master's degree in English from Savitribai Phule Pune University. After being accepted at the U of M in 2000, I taught many literature and composition courses as a TA and also worked as a Grad Assistant Academic Advisor in the English Undergraduate Studies office, where I was mentored by Bev Atkinson, and as a writing tutor under the wonderful Center for Writing Director Kirsten Jamsen. Finishing up at the U around 2007-08, I went on the academic job market, but I applied to a variety of other jobs as well. While I heard nothing from the academic positions, I was offered a position as an Academic Advisor in CLA and worked there for four years. In 2012, I was invited to interview at the English department of LaGuardia Community College in CUNY and started a tenure-track position here that fall.

What has surprised you most about your current position?

I did not expect to be a career academic, so I am surprised to be one and delighted to be in such a collegial department, and also to have access to the resources of a research university. My students, who form an extraordinarily diverse body, surprise and humble me with their drive and sweetness. Finally, no one tells you that being a professor is only one third teaching and one third research—the last third is answering emails and doing tasks for service committees and bureaucratic offices.

What is most fulfilling or energizing about your work?

Academia has its own stresses, like any job, but I am buoyed by my colleagues' enthusiasm for their own intellectual and pedagogical pursuits and by the many cross-departmental friendships I have formed in the course of working with constituents across the college and the university. I am constantly energized by the scholars and readers who make up the romance community, both in person and online. I love being in a field that is dynamic, that is full of fans of popular culture, and that involves analyzing works that respond to socio-cultural changes in real-time.

What do you wish you had known as a graduate student?

I wish I had known to get more involved in on-campus groups, including within the department. I was an international student, and I didn't understand that I could join research groups for various sub-fields/areas of scholarship or maybe even start one myself. I didn't grasp that these networks can provide social and professional community and alleviate the isolation that can be a significant part of the graduate experience. I also didn't understand what certificate programs were and how they could also bolster my CV. 

What advice would you give current graduate students considering or preparing for the academic or non-ac job market?

Study what you love, because there is no predicting what area/field/author/period the market will be looking for when you graduate. Go to one or two conferences you love each year. Seek out connections at institutions where you would truly be a good fit (and look beyond the Ivies and R1s). Learn to write for public-facing outlets. Look up resumes of people in non-academic fields you could imagine being in after you graduate; then figure out ways to acquire experiences in graduate school that you can document in that non-academic resume.

What is exciting about IASPR these days?

The organization is in its second decade, and we're consolidating previously scattered publications, creating an international network of scholars, and being proactive in public scholarship. After a hiatus due to the pandemic, we had a wonderful return to our bi-annual conference at the University of Birmingham in the UK last June, and we're planning the next one for June 2025 at the Universidad Nacīonal Autónoma de México in Mexico City. The field is also trying to help graduate students professionalize through various events and opportunities, including positions in the organization and at our peer-reviewed, open access journal, the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

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