Joyce Hinnefeld Retires after 25 Years of Teaching


Dr. Joyce Hinnefeld, associate professor of English and published writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, will retire this semester from Moravian University after 25 years of teaching. I sat down with her to chat about her life, career, and achievements.

Hinnefeld welcomed me into her office with a warm smile, and her office was similarly inviting with its big bookcase packed with colorful covers. I settled in a comfy chair diagonally from her desk and propped up my laptop to take notes throughout the interview. I would struggle to concentrate on taking notes, however, as my focus would be fully pulled in by a compelling conversation about the creative process, taking risks, and the power of writing.

We started by chatting about Hinnefeld’s path to Moravian. Originally, she attended Hanover College (Ind.) as a psychology major. Though her brother was an English major, the rest of her family leaned toward the sciences, and she hadn’t thought English was right for her. It was when she took her first English course as a junior that she fell in love with the subject.

Hinnefeld decided to pursue English in graduate school at Northwestern University, where she received her master’s degree. She then took a leave of absence and got a job as a staff editor at World Book Encyclopedia in Chicago. She had always wanted to live in the city, and it was a fun job with fun people in a beautiful art deco building.

Eventually, she got restless and went traveling, settling in New York to work at a book packaging company for five years. Then she got her doctorate at the State University of New York at Albany, taught one year of community college at Duchess County in upstate New York, and started teaching at Moravian in the fall of 1997.

“I always tell students to be careful not to think you’ve got it all figured out now, because you may hit a wall,” Hinnefeld said. She advised that being open to opportunity is so important in finding what makes you happy. Her own path was one of trying different things and taking risks to discover what she loved.

Looking back on her early college studies in psychology, Hinnefeld also recalls going into a state hospital to speak with young people, many of whom were in juvenile detention. She found them fascinating to talk to.

“That might have been related to creating characters, being intrigued by people whose lives were so unlike mine. I think that’s always been pretty important to me.” She viewed meeting other people as an outlet for understanding and helping those beyond herself. 

We see those same values reflected in Hinnefeld’s work of doing story exchanges with the incarcerated people of local prisons.

Hinnefeld was introduced to this work through the Lehigh Valley Friends Meeting, her Quaker group. With mass incarceration being the group’s theme in recent years, she volunteered at Northampton County Jail and eventually set up Moravian students from “Writing as Activism,” a course she designed, to participate in story exchanges there. These exchanges were based on the Narrative 4 model, where the students and incarcerated people were put in pairs to write and share a piece based on the same prompt.

Hinnefeld recalls in the fall of ’19 driving to the prison in the dark and pouring rain, where the students were at first nervous but became exhilarated when they participated in the story exchanges.

“Nothing will top that experience of face-to-face story exchanges with incarcerated people,” she said.

She’ll never forget the night when the incarcerated people and students, who happened to all be women, were crying after their exchanges. It was moving to hear each other’s stories, many of which involved sexual trauma, and to recognize their shared experiences and humanity.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic took away the option of future face-to-face exchanges. Still, students in Writing as Activism both this year and last have had powerful conversations via electronic messaging with the incarcerated women at Muncy State Correctional Institution in central Pennsylvania.

“I first had class with Dr. Hinnefeld during the pandemic, and despite the difficulties of meeting online, she always went above and beyond to make the class feel welcoming, connected, and meaningful,” said Amanda Whitworth, who participated in these online exchanges in Writing as Activism. “Our discussions on sustainability, accessibility, and incarceration have stayed with me far beyond the scope of the classroom, and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with someone who makes me feel inspired to face difficult questions and cultivate empathy.”

When asked about the power of English and writing, Hinnefeld said, “I can’t imagine doing anything else in my life, and at some point I think I admitted that to myself.”

Hinnefeld said that she’s happiest when she’s writing – and can be miserable when life doesn’t allow time for it. She grew up in a small town and always felt a strange feeling of not belonging. Creating characters who were outsiders became an outlet for that feeling, a source of grounding. Writing is fundamentally what she needs to do.

“You gotta have something to hold onto,” she said, speaking of stories’ ability to keep her anchored in what can be a very disorienting and frightening world.

Her array of published work includes the award-winning short story collection “Tell Me Everything and Other Stories,” the novels “In Hovering Flight” and “Stranger Here Below,” and her poems and essays appearing in various literary magazines.

 Early on in her work, she was drawn to setting and the idea of depicting a world as fully as possible with graspable sensory input. She often explores environmental themes; the novel she’s currently writing involves endangered whooping cranes.

 This story, set in Northern Virginia but rooted in southern Indiana, was inspired by her dismay at hearing that an endangered whooping crane had been shot where she grew up. Though the novel addresses social issues, it is ultimately a love story about people coming to terms with different attitudes about violence.

When I asked how she balances her time between teaching and writing, Hinnefeld responded with, “Well, not very successfully.” She tries to work on her novels over the summer and on sabbaticals, but getting into the headspace of a novel requires a lot of immersion. She said that having more time to devote to her work is partly why she’s retiring a bit early.

In addition to working on her novels, Hinnefeld plans to stay connected to the incarcerated women at Muncy after Moravian. She is already working with her Quaker group on writing spiritual autobiographies in partnership with the women. She also wants to volunteer for the Prison Journalism Project and do more editing work.

 I asked what things Hinnefeld was most proud of doing during her time at Moravian. 

She is very proud of the Moravian Writers’ Conference and thrilled that Kate Brandes will take up leadership of it. She is proud of creating the Writing as Activism course – for there were few courses like it at Moravian at the time – and of her work to help create a more meaningfully diverse English faculty who are making the curriculum richer. She is proud of her students, many of whom have gone on to do graduate studies, creative work, and teaching.

 “I carry some pride in feeling that I tried to be a truthteller,” she also said.

 And she is proud of her remarkable husband and daughter, who is an English major herself (“of her own volition!”).

 Finally, I asked Dr. Hinnefeld what she hopes she is remembered for at Moravian. She acknowledged that probably every professor hopes that their past students remember their classes and presence. Hinnefeld feels especially happy when students remember her classes because, as an introvert who prefers to be in her own head, teaching never came easy to her.

 “Every class I walked into, I had to calm myself down. For 25 years!” she said.

 And she’s proud that she did it anyway. Because when she’s in the moment and the students are engaged, it is such a rewarding feeling.

 Before we finished our interview, Hinnefeld pointed to the bookcase in the corner of the room.

 “I’m probably going to pull out the books I want to take home, and then I was thinking of just inviting all the English majors to come in and help themselves. What would you think of that?”

 I thought it’d be really nice, I said. And I thought the gesture emphasized so clearly what a kind, thoughtful, and passionate English professor Moravian had had for 25 years.