A stray comment on an article in the NYT prods, not quite enough to grate. The article itself replays a long-standing debate on the relevance of higher education, in general, and of the liberal arts, in particular. In such debates, and they are persistent, versions of gender studies and minority studies are always the worst exemplifications of “what’s wrong with the academy.” And I tend to get defensive, or at least to try to explain what it is I teach, albeit without giving everything
This coming semester, I teach a class called “Queer Conceptions of Race,” a class that, arguably, has no “real world” value. The most general description I can provide for the class, indeed for all my classes, is that we read widely, in a range of genres, and through a scope of tonal registers. As we move from feminist theory through queer memoir, detour through histories of pseudo-science and meditations on rural and urban space, engage with bombastic manifestos and libidinal erotica, we trace the series of debates and passions that enable and traverse multiple kinds of attachments, affiliations, and allegiances. For this U.S.-focused class, we explore the conditions that allow for diverse kinds of belonging, ranging from citizenship to kinship to friendship. We delve into the social worlds that enable these forms of belonging, think through the ideological and emotional complications of multiple affiliations, trouble and become troubled by the claims made on us by our readings, and by the kinds of unexpected demands that affiliation places on us.
At the end, we might emerge a little more troubled, a little more uncertain, a whole lot better read, and much stronger thinkers. I am less invested in producing students with “strong” opinions and, I confess, I have not the magic that creates better people. Were I to describe what I hope to accomplish, it would be to have students whose minds can bend and stretch, who, given almost any scenario, can weigh its possible implications, who dare to think into the future.
We undertake a kind of labor that makes visible, for instance, the sex-gender politics that subtends the linking of terrorism and underwear. A politics that has a persistent history. And we trace, when we can, the recursive, intertwining of race-gender-sex. How it is, for instance, that race-sex-gender typing, be it positive or not, is historically and conceptually mobile, often forging unexpected affiliations. We complicate, as well, such mobilities by thinking of how class and region (two of the strongest variables) complicate such affiliations.
When successful, we learn not only how to negotiate the personal, the historical, and the conceptual, but also how to weave the three in unexpected, pleasurable ways.
When unsuccessful, we ask why it is that our emotions, our affiliations, our attachments, and our desires remain stubbornly inimical to thinking, to articulation, why, that is, we can’t simply engage in screaming and crying as modes of intellectual exchange. This, too, has value. We need to understand modes of critique and resistance that are irreducible to elegant or clunky phrases.
This particular class, and my particular way of teaching it, is, no doubt, a somewhat nightmare scenario for those who believe education is about job training, a lamentable phrase that has emerged from Obama’s mouth much too much for my taste.
There are modes of equipping students for living that have nothing to do with “job training.”
There is, of course, a broader argument to be made here about what it means to engage in humanistic training, in a holistic model of humanistic study. We humanists have yet to articulate why the off-beat, the idiosyncratic, the irrational, and the plain weird live on our syllabuses—and the traditional claims for “aesthetic excellence” are, to my mind, frequently inadequate.
“xyz sexual minority orientation studies” is intellectually and emotionally demanding, frequently uncomfortable, and its rewards seem few and far in between—though, as some students note, I can be entertaining. We dare to take seriously what others dismiss and ridicule.