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Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

‘Poor Queer Studies’ underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University
Matt Brim
Duke University Press
March 2020

Publishing academic books about the problems in the academy has become a flourishing, self-perpetuating field in recent years. There’s no shortage of texts speculating on what’s wrong with the academy and how it can be fixed. Some, of course, are more insightful than others. (Many are simply the insubstantial ramblings of university administrators looking to add a book credit to their CVs.)

In truly queer style, Matt Brim‘s Poor Queer Studies comes at the question obliquely. Ostensibly a book about the discipline of queer studies, it actually provides a searing, astute indictment of what’s wrong with the academy writ large. If you read only one book about the state of the academy, it ought to be Poor Queer Studies.

Poor Queer Studies becomes a case study for what’s wrong with the academy. Discerning something more than classism at the root of the problem, Brim takes aim at a broader system of conformism intent on disguising the inequities and elitism of the modern university. The university, he observes, encodes power and privilege in its very bones while pretending to deconstruct and challenge social injustice. Even supposedly radical and emancipatory disciplines like queer studies have professionalized into spaces where “elitist powers recode power and privilege as meritocracy – and thus beyond the purview of class analysis”, Brim warns.

The academy thrives on its self-image as a space of universality and collegiality; a construct which is the first myth at which Brim takes aim. Not all universities, and not all academic units, are created equal. Some have enormous research budgets and professorial salaries; others rely on precarious workers and don’t even have printer paper. It not only becomes materially difficult for scholars at the poorer schools to engage in the same ways with their rich colleagues, but the currents of academic elitism arbitrarily assign greater value to the work produced by richer colleagues and schools.

The latter become, to use the example of Brim’s own discipline, “queer status agents”, their ideas and texts disseminated more broadly by institutional publishers who can afford it. The wider airing their views are provided mean certain ideas develop greater valence than others in the discipline, not because the ideas merit it but because there’s more money fuelling the intellectual hype. There is no uniform “queer studies”, he observes: there’s “Poor Queer Studies” and “Rich Queer Studies”: intellectual bubbles full of students and scholars coursing in very different directions.

While poor queer studies scholars nonetheless struggle to leave their mark on the discipline – Brim offers a sampling of the remarkable intellectual and publishing output of his colleagues at the College of Staten Island (a branch of City University of New York) – they publish at their own risk, he observes. Their publications will lead to smaller salary increases; they will have to pay their own expenses for work-related travel; their colleges lack the funds even to promote the work they produce.

“We insert our work into a system of knowledge production that promises to reward us less…the risks of our good work being diminished hang over us.”

It’s true that universities remain one of the spaces of greatest potential for class mobility, he acknowledges. But that fact, which is already of diminished value in an America where glaring class inequality leaves even the upwardly-mobile in precarity and poverty, also disguises the fact that universities are spaces deeply implicated in the reproduction of existing class structures and inequalities.

Brim writes from his own experience working in a space of “poor queer studies” – at a community college where, despite a cohort of widely published and esteemed scholars, the poverty of the institution and its students render its potential as a defining space of queer intellectual culture invisible to many, and especially to those working at the well-endowed, Ivy League colleges and centres of excellence that constitute “rich queer studies”.

In many ways, Brim’s students – poor, racialized, working-class – epitomize queer culture more profoundly than the coddled, privately schooled white students who will glide into Yale, get taken under the wing of a Judith Butler and go on to become “queer status agents”. Most of Brim’s students will not leave their impact on the discipline the way a student at a rich queer studies institution will. Yet they will bring queer ideas into the world at a much more visceral, down-to-earth level which may prove even more transformative in the long run.

The Myth of Upward Mobility

The materiality of “poor queer studies” spaces – and one can apply the analysis to any other discipline – matters. There’s a myth that holds collegiality as a core value of the academy – an upward mobility myth that “you can write your way out of anywhere”, as scholar Eve Sedgwick is purported to have said. Maybe you can “write your way out of anywhere,” but it’s a profoundly easier undertaking for those who are white and come from a privileged background in the first place. There is no way that an Ivy League scholar, with an unlimited travel and research budget, can be considered to operate on the same level as an instructor at a poor university who does not even have a travel budget, let alone the flexibility to take leave to attend conferences.

The students accepted into rich institutions – the future cohort of scholars – are more often than not those who have had the privileged backgrounds necessary to stack an impressive CV. Their first language was probably English, they were probably white (and didn’t have to deal with police brutality and harassment), they probably went to a private school and had ample time to hold exciting volunteer positions and publish, thanks to rich parents and hefty scholarships. (Scholarships, being based on these misconstrued forms of merit, are more reinforce privilege than they do perseverance). There are exceptions, of course. But they merely uphold the broader illusion.

The “U.S. educational system does not merely reflect class disparities; it actively reproduces them by rewarding the most affluent students with admission to the most prestigious colleges and by channeling our poorest students and students of color into two-year and unranked four-year schools and, even more insidiously, into exploitative for-profit colleges,” Brim writes.

There is a deliberateness to this process, he observes, exposed by the lack of effort richer institutions put into figuring out ways to be more equitable. For all the flair with which those institutions advertise their purported diversity, they remain disproportionately white and wealthy.

“That the most selective colleges cannot figure out how to admit smart, qualified, and interesting poor students in far greater numbers while they have proven themselves quite capable of figuring out how, legally, to perform tax wizardry by using offshore investments to achieve lucrative tax breaks on their enormous endowments, reflects not only ugly elitist values but also an ironic disconnect: [these] schools could use the riches earned in tax breaks to identify, inform, encourage, and admit the low-income students they refuse to see and to serve,” Brim writes.

How to Succeed in Academia Without Really Trying

Poor Queer Studies lays bare many of the unspoken hypocrisies of the academic system. There is a certain cultural competence – a cultural capital – at work in the academy (and particularly in its richer spaces). which also works to exclude many poor students of colour and other marginalized backgrounds.

“Competition, hoop-jumping, ass-kissing, and proof of belonging commingle to create a barrier to Queer Studies knowledge – even for the students who, once again, make the cut. In this environment, strategically working one’s way into a professor’s presence (i.e., glomming on) becomes a tactic of being a good student, of progressing, of being on the inside…the learned protocols of endless proving constitute a kind of knowledge practice, one inculcated and ingrained precisely as academic protocol at sites of intellectual competition and among already winnowed (disproportionately wealthy) students.”

“Bald-faced elitism” Brim observes, masquerades as “savvy professionalism”.

I witnessed many of these processes as a graduate student myself. I’ll never forget the poor fellow graduate student – an international student whose first language was not English – who made the mistake of posting disparaging comments about the undergrad students she TA’d on social media. (She was also, apparently, unfamiliar with privacy measures to control who saw the posts.) She was singled out, exposed, harassed, excoriated in the media, put through a gruelling institutional investigation, had her future academic career (and her very presence in the country) threatened simply due to a few stressed-out, overworked late-night posts.

What struck me as most hypocritical about the whole affair is that her only fault lay in being open about a broadly prevalent attitude among faculty and graduate students. I myself attended countless departmental meetings where faculty made vicious fun of undergrads, painted them as deceiving, lying, cheating criminals who had to be hounded and harassed for the sake of academic integrity. It became a veritable rite-of-passage in many departments I worked in for graduate students and faculty to bond over this pile-on directed against [poor, racialized, immigrant] undergrads.

It is little wonder that this very attitude took hold and was subsequently expressed by an impressionable graduate student struggling to be accepted by her mentors and peers. She wound up scapegoated for a broad system of “bald-faced elitism” because she made the mistake of transparently admitting the views her own professors were inculcating in her and others. Meanwhile, those professors sanctimoniously avoided her from then on and washed their hands of the whole affair.

My graduate work was in Gender Studies, a discipline which epitomizes in equal measure the divide between “rich” and “poor”. My institution would probably have been classed as “poor gender studies”, insofar as it was also a commuter school which drew significant numbers of students from the poverty-stricken immigrant neighbourhoods in which it was geographically located. But the large, sprawling university was also somewhat of a bubble, in which tenured professors – artifacts of a previous time in which the institution briefly verged on being a space of “rich gender studies” before neoliberal austerity measures demoted it – desperately struggled to retain their sense of status and privilege.

There was tremendous student-faculty conflict at the graduate level, reflected in the department’s astonishingly poor completion rates. I often wondered at the antagonistic environment: why did it seem more pronounced in Gender Studies than in some other disciplines (the sciences, for instance)? There’s surely no single answer, but a lot of it could be attributed to the greater sense of betrayal students experienced in disciplines like ours. Students were attracted to disciplines like Gender Studies because of its progressive and emancipatory promise. The reality – that it is often dominated by privileged white folk who are more concerned with entrenching and enhancing their own privilege than with the pursuit of justice – hits harder and crueler for working-class students of colour and those with marginal identities who enter the field hoping to change the world.

I saw conflict regularly erupt over a myriad of issues: an older white feminist scholar instructing her Teaching Assistants to ignore the special needs of pregnant Black students, “because they probably won’t finish the course anyway.” Professors refusing working-class students the right to eat during a four-hour evening class, even though they’ve been working and transiting all day while the professor sat in an air-conditioned office. A professor teaching a course on anti-racist feminism, who clandestinely curves her students’ grades in order to avoid conflict with her department head – and even though curving is well known to disproportionately impact racialized and immigrant students.

The microaggressions are many, but can so often be traced to a certain hypocrisy in which those who play a lead role in perpetuating the system fail to recognize (or cognitively deny) their own complicity in maintaining a broad system of class and racial hierarchy. Brim’s work in Poor Queer Studies does not purport to solve the problem, but aims to make it more visible, as a step toward identifying practical ways in which those with power and privilege can work to reduce the negative and oppressive consequences of their actions. Above all, it is a reminder that queer work in poor institutions matters – and perhaps has a bigger impact on the world than what goes on in the ivory towers of the Ivy League.

Can Change from Within Happen?

Scholars in progressive-minded disciplines are often their strongest critics. By criticizing the neoliberal bent of the academy (as so many scholars do, so well, so often, and so lucratively), academics in disciplines like Queer Studies “allowed ourselves to continue to imagine that a defining feature of the field of Queer Studies is its impulse to fuck up the academy. Admittedly ensconced, we can all the more dramatically position ourselves as subversives, thieves, vandals, committed to egalitarianism,” writes Brim.

It’s a dangerous delusion, he observes, citing Kristen A. Renn, who has observed that “colleges and universities have evolved to tolerate the generation of queer theory from within but have stalwartly resisted the queering of higher education itself.”

Brim’s book is, in part, an effort to find ways around this dilemma. There may be no neat way of resolving it – a scholar seeking tenure is inevitably shoring up an oppressive and regressive system, whether they like it or not – but that doesn’t mean they still can’t do some good. And in this struggle, poor queer studies may be better positioned than its rich counterparts. Insofar as their students are the ones who will actually wind up in the non-academic workforce, and regularly bring their queer insights home to families and communities that may never have encountered them before, they have the potential to truly queer a broader cross-section of society.

Brim doesn’t consider the transnational dimensions of this work – he is focused primarily on the United States – but there’s a reason why regressive regimes around the world have explicitly targeted disciplines like Gender Studies in recent years. It is the poor and working-class students that are exposed to these disciplines who, released into the workforce and the community, have the potential to actually begin challenging and transforming the status quo at an everyday level.

Brim offers insightful examples of all this from his extensive teaching experience, and there’s much here that other scholars could learn from. Above all, it underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

The reader should not approach Poor Queer Studies looking for a systematic, step-by-step guide to the dilemmas of the academy and their solutions. Brim tackles the matter in truly queer fashion, circling the problem, exploring tangents, losing himself in creatively constructed rabbit holes. But there’s nothing wrong with this. It renders the book a delightful and rewarding read, full of insights that transcend the author’s ostensible subject matter.

Directed largely toward other academics and written at an advanced intellectual level, Poor Queer Studies nevertheless retains an intimacy and confessional honesty that makes it well worth the effort to work through. Brim’s powerful and excoriating critique of Queer Studies reveals, paradoxically, just how vital and essential the discipline truly is.

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