Matt Brim is Associate Professor of Queer Studies in the English Department at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York; author of James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination; and coeditor of Imagining Queer Methods. His newest book, Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University, shifts queer studies away from sites of elite education toward poor and working-class students and locations, showing how the field is driven by those flagship institutions that perpetuate class and race inequity in higher education.
In what ways did your own institutional journey among universities of varying prestige incite your desire to write this book?
Higher education in the U.S. is incredibly stratified. As a matter of course, colleges are divided into class-based tiers and sorted by wealth-based rankings. Though the top of the academic hierarchy is visible thanks to the power of money and status to shine a spotlight on well-resourced academic people and places, much of the university world exists in a kind of educational shadow. Looking across tiers—and especially looking down tiers—becomes extremely difficult. You have to be a bit lucky to escape the aspirational, upward-looking vision created by the misconception that our models for good academic work come from high-status colleges and well-placed scholars.
My own educational trajectory has taken me through tiers, up and down. I want to stress that this movement was fortuitous rather than intentional. I attended Wabash College, a small rich liberal arts college in Indiana, because Wabash paid most of my way. I earned my Ph.D. in English at Indiana University, a flagship state school, because that’s the only graduate program that accepted me. And then I taught freshman academic writing as a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University. I got that job because I’d taught so much composition at I.U. and because I’d been given the freedom by my mentors there to bring Queer Studies into the composition classroom. Duke was another world, even compared to the other relatively well-resourced schools I’d attended. The privilege it draws on and the privileges it affords are just staggering. Duke, not at all coincidentally, is one of the birthplaces of queer theory. After three years at Duke, I applied for a job at the College of Staten Island (CSI), a school I’d never heard of, a school that was largely invisible and unknowable from the outside, from above. Yet this off-the-radar, massively underfunded, open admissions, public school was advertising for an assistant professor of Queer Studies. This was strange to me because I’d only heard of Queer Studies happening at colleges I’d heard of. Yet only because I ended up at CSI, only because I’ve traveled from high to low in the academy, have I been able to conceive of this book. Poor Queer Studies tells the story of my re-education in Queer Studies at a place where the field is not known, not seen, not imagined to be.
You draw out a tension between Queer Studies’ identity as site of radical thinking, anti-normativity, and as a “disruptive cog in the system” of the university and its actual entanglements in a system of higher education that actively reproduces class stratification. Is this tension unique to Queer Studies? Does it play out in Queer Studies in a way distinctive than in other identity studies fields that have similar progressive desires?
That such a tension exists means there is potential for change, and indeed Queer Studies has changed the academy in meaningful ways that have benefited several generations of students and scholars. At the same time, Queer Studies has been shaped by the two dynamics that have inarguably defined the true mission of the university for the past 30 years: class stratification and race sorting. Complicit in this structure, Queer Studies has found any number of ways to ease rather than confront queer-class tensions. I suspect that Queer Studies’ investment in radicality—which is perhaps our uniquely dominant field impulse—has contributed to such an easing of queer-class tensions. It’s not polite to ask what a radical idea costs to make, and it’s surely impossible to know all the ways some of our most radical queer ideas have been buoyed by institutional prestige, privilege, and material resources. It may also be true that the energy of powerful new ideas can make them seem self-sustaining, and we’d rather let them float free than weigh them down with the receipts from their production.
Nevertheless, powerful and even radical queer ideas get made on the cheap as well, and that fact is my entry point for this book. But because Queer Studies at schools such as CSI and other CUNY colleges endures within a thick web of class-based compromises, our queer radicality operates within palpable contexts of queer-class constraint. Needless to say, compromised queer radicality makes for a weak rallying cry, and so queer radicality tethered to and marked by class constraint makes Poor Queer Studies seem far afield from the visionary field of Queer Studies. If we want to keep the various class incarnations of the field in touch with each other—and that is one of my goals in this book—we might be more candid about the materiality of the production of all of our queer ideas. Put differently, Poor Queer Studies argues that queer scholarship ought be thought of as a workplace report, which is to say a localized record of material resources and queer resourcefulness.
In the book, you mention that you think of “poor” as a dimension of experience that informs your pedagogy at the College of Staten Island. Can you elaborate on what possibilities– linguistic, pedagogical, or theoretical– you find in the language of “poor”?
I chose to use the word “poor” because it offers both a precision and a capaciousness and because it’s a word that people tend to quickly reject. The precision comes from its direct reference to the economic realities of life at CUNY, for “poor” sets the material baseline for teaching and scholarship at most of our campuses. Many CUNY students and their families live below the poverty line or are low-income or have precarious housing and food insecurity. Many of our campuses are crumbling because the State of New York refuses to fund repairs that it can, in fact, afford. Even with recent raises, our adjuncts are dramatically underpaid when compared to adjuncts at local public and deep-pocketed private universities. Coalescing in the term “poor,” these material conditions are the starting points for our intellectual work at CUNY, including the work of Queer Studies. You can’t go around them or set them aside. They preface and infuse all we do.
Appearing in so many forms, “poor” also becomes a conceptual baseline and a discursive construct, as well as a material reality. One interesting consequence is that in theory many CUNY community members try to reject “poor.” We are incentivized to turn away from “poor” because, on the one hand, it situates students too statically at the wrong end of an educational narrative that pins its hopes on social mobility, while on the other hand it deflates what I call the “aspirational mood” that characterizes the work of administrators and faculty alike at lower tier schools. Rather than reject “poor,” however, I try to integrate it into an analysis that asks about how Queer Studies actually happens at sites where “poor” is perhaps the primary coordinate by which we locate our “queer” work. And because “poor” evokes “rich,” I am also able to pursue a very differently located, comparative class analysis, setting Poor Queer Studies schools in relation to Rich Queer Studies schools—a relation the field very rarely pursues or acknowledges.
At non-elite institutions, faculty are expected to develop curricula that are both intellectually rigorous and train students for the workplace. What is the role of Queer Studies in improving and changing work? What kinds of queer labor can Queer Studies prepare students for?
Unlike most students at elite colleges, most students at non-selective four-year colleges and at community colleges already work for money, many of them full time. Insofar as Queer Studies has longstanding, field-defining associations with the wealthiest and most privileged higher education institutions rather than schools that serve non-traditional and working students, the field has been unprepared to think about the intersection of queer knowledge production and worker/working-class education. We haven’t asked very much about how Queer Studies classes can prepare students for the workforce; indeed, that question seems pretty unqueer given Queer Studies’ frequent critiques of the neoliberal university’s insinuations with capital. Also, the question of how to make better queer workers is not a liberal arts-friendly question, and Queer Studies is a liberal arts field. But it is the question in front of us at CSI, in night school, on weekends, after or before students’ workdays begin, or on their days off.
My students are interested, in other words, in how to use the language, ideas, and politics of Queer Studies on the job—not only their future careers but the jobs they’re headed to after class. We talk about breakrooms and bus rides to work and customer service roles and student-teaching classrooms, and we translate “high queer theory” to those local worksites. We think about how Queer Studies can make work life a bit better. On a personal level, doing this kind of queer-class integration has enabled me to reorient my own work life toward other kinds of labor and to appreciate the impoverishment of Queer Studies classrooms where the only queer career modeled is the Queer Studies professor’s own.
What is one thing you hope readers take away from Poor Queer Studies? What kind of future research do you hope it might inspire?
I recently organized a panel at MLA on “Queer Studies and Its Class Locations.” The other panelists, Longoria and Eric Solomon, blew me away. Longoria works on queer issues in teacher education with a particular focus on queer immigrant youth and those with UndocuQueer identities, and Eric works at the intersection of poverty, the American South, and higher education. While each generously suggested that a poor queer studies framework had helped them conceptualize their work, they’re actually doing incredibly unique and groundbreaking research that recasts poor queer studies in ways I never would have imagined or predicted. That’s exciting to see. Moving ahead, just how many ways can we answer the question, “What’s poor about Queer Studies now?”
I end Poor Queer Studies by suggesting that we need more “queer ferrying” between non-peer institutions and, especially, between rich and poor colleges. We need more cross-class, cross-institutional sharing of opportunity, resources, and place-based knowledges and pedagogies. We need to train graduate students to do Queer Studies in its many institutional locations, not just in its class-based holding pattern at R1 and top tier schools. For me, working at CUNY, Queer Studies has become inseparable from open access public education. I hope Poor Queer Studies not only gives a name and a framework to a set of ideas that are imminent or nascent but also paves the way for the anti-elitist queer ferrying of those ideas around the many queer places of the academy.