Matt Brim’s Poor Queer Studies is the most exciting book about academia that I have read since Cathy Davidson’s The New Education, and for me personally it is even more exciting than Davidson’s wonderful volume because Poor Queer Studies is about the world I have spent much of my life in, both socially and disciplinarily.
When I bought Poor Queer Studies, I didn’t know much about it except the title and subtitle (Confronting Elitism in the University). I was surprised and pleased to discover a blurb from Cathy Davidson herself on the back cover, and then to discover that Brim teaches at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York (CSI CUNY) — the same school where a queer writer I deeply admire, Sarah Schulman, teaches, and also the school where Ira Shor teaches, as described in When Students Have Power. Shor’s descriptions of CSI have remained with me ever since I read his book, because the place he described there was one with even more significant financial and resource challenges than those at the (small, unselective, regional, public) university where I work. Brim shows that things haven’t gotten much better financially for CSI since Shor published When Students Have Power, but like Shor he also makes the school sound like one where exciting teaching and learning continue to happen, despite myriad challenges and obstacles.
When I read this series of questions on page 3, I (alone in my house) nearly stood up and cheered:
What does Queer Studies have to say about class sorting within the academy? What is the role of the field within the processes of stratification that can be said to divide the field from itself along the lines of class and institutional status? How might queer collaboration across peer and nonpeer institutions offer a model for the redistribution of intellectual and material resources, and how can that positively impact attendant racial disparities in higher education? How might Poor Queer Studies galvanize interclass, cross-institutional queer formations that do not rely on a unidirectional, aspirational model of progress? And most fundamentally, how can rethinking the work of Queer Studies in the context of students’ relative material need and raced/gendered precarity, academics’ professional liminality, and underclass institutional identity inform and potentially enrich the field, its pedagogies and theories, and the academy beyond it?
That is a rich set of questions; however, what made me want to cheer was not (only) the questions’ richness, but the experience and knowledge that I could see motivating them: the experience and knowledge of someone who works at the kind of place that is not typically included in representations of “the academy” but which is where the majority of American students go to school.
I thought immediately to a conversation I had with a professor in grad school. As we were chatting about our own mixed experiences of rich schools and poor schools, she said she learned a lot in the moment in grad school where she realized that the famous professor expounding on the glories of academic marxism was wearing a $5,000 suit and expected his grad students to clean his house. I’ve had similar moments of enlightenment at every big academic conference I’ve ever attended.
Poor Queer Studies is simultaneously two books, one a critique of the field of Queer Studies itself, the other a broad critique of academic structures in the U.S., with Queer Studies as one example that is easily extrapolated to virtually every other academic discipline. A professor of Business who works at an under-resourced, unprestigious school will find plenty to nod their head in agreement with here, because even if you are Professor Capitalist von Neolib, if you work at Underfunded State U, your experience is significantly different from that of even the lowliest professor at Harvard.
There is too much in this book for me to describe it all here. There is an enlightening, powerful sentence on virtually every page, and many passages I read with the drive of reading a thriller. (Brim’s prose is well paced, clear, and meaty, which makes the reading both fulfilling and compelling.) I could write 10,000 words on the ideas in any one chapter. I will not, though, because … well, I have grading to do, advisees to attend to, committees to wrangle, dinner to make, etc.
A quick outline of the book, though, will give a glimpse of its depths, and I will then say a few words about how Brim’s insights created a deep sense of gratitude and solidarity in me, a sense of relief at feeling, for once, seen. It’s in many ways the same sort of feeling I had when I first discovered Queer Studies itself.
The chapters, with a few comments on them:
- 1. The College of Staten Island: A Poor Queer Studies Case Study: This chapter is what it says, but also much, much more than that. “Why,” you might wonder, “should I read about the specifics of this school?” There are a few reasons, both the qualities that make CSI different from other schools (lots of queer faculty, programs, and students) and the qualities that it shares with many others (working-class student body, long history of being cut to the bone by austerity measures). But there’s also what Brim uses this case study for, and that’s what’s most important here. He asks, again and again, with great nuance and knowledge, what place Queer Studies has for students like his own in institutions like his own, and further what possibilities such students and places might offer not only to Queer Studies but to the world of academia (and the world) at large.
- 2. “You Can Write Your Way Out of Anywhere”: The Upward Mobility Myth of Rich Queer Studies: If I could ask you to read only one chapter of Poor Queer Studies, it would be this one, even though I pretty much love the chapters equally, for different reasons. But it is here where my own dissatisfactions with academia and, specifically, with my experience of disciplines such as Queer Studies is laid out with a clarity I have never seen before. The quotation in the title comes from a comment Brim heard at a conference on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, with the commenter saying that they found it powerful to hear Sedgwick say, “You can write your way out of anywhere.” Brim writes that it’s possible the quotation was imagined by the commenter or misremembered, but it’s believable, and it’s also believable that Sedgwick might not have known just how flat-out wrong it is, because she herself “seems, inarguably, brilliant enough to have written her way out of anywhere. She wrote her way from Cornell (undergraduate) to Yale (graduate school) back to Cornell (post-doctoral) to Hamilton College (first tenure-track job) to Boston University (second tenure-track job) to Harvard (fellowship) to Amherst (third tenure-track job) to Duke (first tenured job), on her way to the CUNY Graduate Center (distinguished professor)…” Brim’s perspective is nuanced, and recognizes both Sedgwick’s brilliance and the many obstacles and hardships she faced, but the fact is that most people don’t get to spend much — or any — of their lives in schools like Cornell, Yale, Amherst, and Duke. Hence, Rich Queer Studies.
- 3. The Queer Career: Vocational Queer Studies: This chapter brings the insights of Labor Studies to bear on Queer Studies, and vice versa, suggesting many fruitful possibilities when we see universities as work sites — and not just work sites for the faculty and staff, but also for the students, who are workers both in the academic sense and in the very practical sense of having jobs outside of school so that they can pay for school and, later, pay off the loans that higher education so often burdens students with.
- 4. Poor Queer Studies Mothers. This is in many ways the most brilliant and surprising chapter of the book. I began it thinking I would skim it, since I felt invested in the other issues the book raised but worried that a discussion of motherhood was somehow ancillary. After a few pages, I began to read it with at least as much excitement as the other chapters. The section titled “Spelling for Mothers” is a thrilling account of a class session in which a student brought her child — and the class rose to the occasion in marvelous ways. I fell in love with these students. And I wanted to fight for them, because by the end of this chapter I was furious that academia so often sidelines, marginalizes, erases, and insults motherhood and the extraordinary moments for human solidarity that it offers. Further, this chapter offers one of the starkest differences between rich schools and poor schools, because the kind of pedagogy that came naturally to the classroom at CSI is very hard to imagine at a rich school. And that is one thing that is unequivocally a loss for the rich schools.
- 5. Counternarratives: A Black Queer Reader: This chapter uses John Keene’s extraordinary book Counternarratives as an example of how a literature course at a school like CSI can use challenging material to create meaningful learning opportunities. I was excited to read this chapter, because I think Counternarratives the most impressive short story collection by an American writer in the last 20 years, if not longer. (I wrote a bit about the book, and specifically its sentences, in 2017.) Brim proposes that Counternarratives is a kind of primer, a “reader” that teaches us how we must read if we are to step away from the deformations and ignorance that white supremacy imposes on our culture. Further, the chapter shows how Brim has used the book for that purpose in his classes, turning its very real difficulties for even the best readers into tools for learning. The chapter ranges beyond Keene’s extraordinary and essential book, though, to other conversations that intersect with the previous chapters herein. It ends with a strong critique of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s idea of “the undercommons“, a concept that Brim finds attractive but also too tied to privileged ideas of academia: “I therefore question but do not abandon the undercommons,” Brim writes. “Instead, I look for models of being of and not of the university that rely less on claims to immaterial prophecy, less on the figure of the undoubtedly queer subversive intellectual, and less on a nonplace imagined from above. For me, that trifecta opens up too great a class- and status-based gap for Poor Black Queer Studies to fall through.”
- Epilogue: Queer Ferrying. Many people who attend or work at CSI ride the Staten Island Ferry to get to campus, and Brim uses the idea of the ferry as a beautiful, even hopeful, coda to the book. He questions the popular progressive idea of free public education, an idea with plenty of merit, but which, on its own, would likely only exacerbate inequities between public and private institutions. He asks, from a Queer Studies perspective, why “do we not call out in one voice for our queer teaching and research to be done as part of an equal-access, open-access, public educational project that does not reproduce class and race stratification? … With all our talk of queer publics, why are Queer Studies professors, as a field-based collective, not refiguring ourselves as public servants charged with educating people regardless of income, class, or status? What would that discipline look like, and where?” (The call for this to be field-based is important. Brim’s book, for instance, is not open-access, and it is published by Duke University Press. He addresses this elsewhere in the book, but he also provides the frankly ridiculous requirements for tenure and promotion at CSI, which suggests that this book can’t both serve his career and serve the public good, because his career relies on publishing frequently with prestigious presses. A Queer Studies commitment to open access and the public good would not change CSI’s tenure and promotion requirements, but it would shift what is considered a “prestigious” publication. Personally, I dream of an academic future where the prestige of a publication is not tied to the prestige of the university whose name is in the press’s title, but on how many readers have access to and are discussing the work.) Finally, Brim posits CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies at CUNY as an example of a Queer Studies ferry, an institution that actively and deliberately uses its resources to connect people from disparate places, people of very different backgrounds and experiences, in as equitable a way as it is able.
(There is an obvious extension of Brim’s ideas that he doesn’t mention, since it would turn his book into a very different one, but it is fertile ground for continuing scholarship: a postcolonial, global critique of Queer Studies with a similar attention to class and to the realities of higher education around the world. Rich Queer Studies is not just Rich American Queer Studies, and Poor Queer Studies ought to find solidarity and enrichment in an expansion beyond the borders of the USA. Many other hierarchies and assumptions can booby-trap such work, though, and so it must be grounded in the knowledge and insight of postcolonialism and associated disciplinary work.)
Finally, I want to return here to Chapter 2, both to offer some quotations from the book that particularly resonated with me, and to offer some bits of personal reflection on the ideas.
One’s institutional and personal power is easy to be unconscious of, all the more so in a time when education generally is under attack and neoliberal austerity politics have had repercussions across the academy. But problematically, these generalizations, while apt, rhetorically flatten different perspectives within the hierarchy. “It’s rough all over.” “We’re all in the same boat.” As indeed in some ways we are. I must admit, however, that I continue to feel shock and not a small bit of disbelief when professors in the humanities and social sciences at elite colleges and flagship campuses … talk to me earnestly about the lack of funding for their work. … It doesn’t seem to me that we are all in that same boat, and indeed some of the loudest cries of scarcity come from dry land, that is, from the top of the academy.p. 79
It’s true that attacks on the humanities, on identity-based disciplines, on education in general have had terrible effects at even the wealthiest schools. But the effects are not evenly distributed. The fate of a professor with degrees from Ivy League schools and a position at a place where the endowment is bigger than many countries’ GDPs is not the fate of a professor without such a privileged pedigree. The losses to students at wealthy schools are very different from the losses to students at underfunded schools, just as the fate of graduates of wealthy schools are very different from the fate of graduates of underfunded schools.
Elite Queer Studies relationships often date back to undergraduate and graduate educations at exclusive colleges and universities. It’s a small Rich Queer Studies world — like Facebook, in its early days, at Harvard.
When one’s livelihood depends not only on one’s own written words but on the words inscribed on that most cherished work-permit-by-another-name — a letter of recommendation by a high-status advisor at a top school — then we need to ask just what kind of work relationship is getting reproduced, rewarded, and coded as knowledge within Rich Queer Studies. … The payoff of becoming permanently ensconced at the top of the system of class and race stratification of higher education is that magical ability to forget or ignore or dismiss or doubt the fact that Queer Studies is Rich Queer Studies. The payoff is that one doesn’t have to talk about what one’s ideas cost to make.p. 84
Academia loves hierarchies. This is an uncomfortable truth for people whose disciplinary work requires them to question hierarchies even as their daily existence depends on them and perpetuates them. Tell Famous Queer Studies prof that they should try teaching at an unselective school, or even a school with open admissions policies, and watch them turn into a big fan of hierarchies and gate-keeping faster than you can say “hermeneutical imbrication”.
When I was in grad school, a professor optimistically told me that the nascent ideas that ultimately led to my dissertation were of such a quality that I would certainly be attractive to a top-tier research university once I was on the job market. This was utter nonsense and fantasy, and he should have known it — I certainly did, even at the time. The school I got my PhD from was ranked as an R2 research university (though it has since gone to R1 in what I think is a futile and likely to be financially catastrophic quest for prestige). I was half of a cohort of 2 in my entrance year for the PhD in Literature, a program always on the verge of disappearing. I didn’t know anybody who was especially famous academically. The chances of my being hired for a tenure-track position at a major research school were (are!) lower than my chances of becoming a billionaire. Ain’t gonna happen. There are various reasons for that, but a big one is that schools rarely hire people with degrees from schools considered less prestigious than themselves.
Rich schools protect their status. I’ve seen it in action, because my own pedigree includes a master’s degree from an Ivy League school, Dartmouth College. I once asked an administrator there why they charged such high tuition, since they could do okay without charging any tuition at all, and most students got huge discounts in the form of grants. She looked at me somewhat aghast. “Nobody wants to be the cheap Ivy,” she said.
Look, too, at how rich schools keep getting gigantic donations from philanthropists. Dartmouth doesn’t really need anybody to donate to it, but people love to send them millions of dollars rather than send millions of dollars to, say, my own little financially-struggling regional university. One day of donations to Dartmouth would make a big difference in the lives of the employees and students at my school. But there’s no great prestige in donating to No-Name Regional U, whereas all your friends at the country club will clap you on the back for donating to Famous Rich U.
It’s prestige and status all the way down.
…my initial framing of Poor Queer Studies/Rich Queer Studies redeploys class terms that seem rigid or stale. My intent in using these overly familiar (yet ever-ambiguous) terms is to insistently locate Queer Studies within its milieu — the unflinchingly hierarchical, class-stratified, category-loving context of higher education. We teach in tiers. We write with resources. Yes, Queer Studies names a category-busting intellectual project, but at a material level it also names a job that is site specific. We have offices (shared or not?), we have classrooms (packed or not?), we have office equipment (printer paper or not?), we have restrooms (hot water or [as at CSI] not?), we assign books (affordable or not?), we write books (accessible or not?). These questions of materiality can raise questions about relating — or not — across class-overdetermined academic tiers. They can reveal the power of structural disparities in higher education to condition mixed-class encounters. Yet they are not questions Queer Studies organizes itself around. Why not?pp. 90-91
Queer Studies has long embraced the idea of examining our embodied realities, and yet has remained mostly silent on the material realities of its own people. Perhaps out of embarrassment, because, as Brim repeatedly suggests, a lot of the people who get to write and speak most prominently in the field have a pretty good physical-economic-labor reality, at least in comparison to most other people in the world. Queer Studies may be marginalized within academia, but if you’re pulling a six-figure salary, have a nice research budget, only teach a few classes (probably to highly-selected grad students), get to travel the world giving speeches … well, you’ve got it good.
Worse, as Brim brings up in his discussion of Sedgwick and elsewhere, your class privilege in an institution with wealth and resources will render invisible the life of someone at an institution without wealth and resources. As I talk with friends and colleagues at richer schools than my own, I often hold back, because it’s clear that they flat-out can’t conceptualize what the reality of my day-to-day academic life is. (And my day-to-day academic life is relatively good, in the grand scheme of things!) It’s not just that they can’t imagine what resource shortages are, but that they can’t imagine what my students are like, both in the challenges those students face and the challenges I face in trying to figure out how best to meet their needs. Similarly, I can’t imagine a lot of what my friends and colleagues at rich schools experience, despite my experience as a student at such schools (Dartmouth, but also three years undergrad at NYU). Imagine, for instance, having enough professional development money to not have to cover a big portion of a conference’s costs yourself! Imagine unlimited academic databases! Imagine being able to afford catering for events on campus! Imagine — well, it doesn’t matter. Imagine winning the lottery!
I don’t want to end this on a down note about the deprivations of life in world of Poor [Insert Name Here] Studies, because something else Matt Brim makes clear is important: The kind of knowledge that Poor Queer Studies discovers, shapes, creates, and shares is remarkable and valuable, and Rich Queer Studies is itself poorer for not recognizing it.
If you want innovative pedagogy, don’t look to big rich schools where everybody’s terrified that they might lose a little bit of status. Rich Queer Studies may be a place of conceptual innovation, a place where brilliant people have the time and resources to research abstruse concepts and publish esoteric monographs, and where they get to teach the most academically accomplished (and privileged) students on the planet, but practical innovations — the innovations of living — occur in the margins and among the marginal. That’s a lesson I learned early on from Queer Studies itself.