Notes on Africa: Facebook, Egypt, Tunisia, and “the rest of us”

IF you pay (too much) attention to African voices on facebook, you become aware of the nagging fear of disorder: anarchy is being unleashed in Egypt, some say; a “revolution” is all well and good, others say, but it needs a “plan.” “Change” is a fine sentiment, but where is the “strategy for going forward?” So development-minded are we that we cannot contemplate political movements without carefully written agendas. Simultaneously, we demonstrate our own truncated forms of knowledge and awareness.

Buying into the myth of “spontaneous” revolutions “caused” by “twitter” and facebook,” we skip the labor of thinking and activism in Egypt and Tunisia, the people we may not know, though at times we know of, who have been thinking about and planning different ways of living and acting, different practices of belonging and governing. We forget that the “now” always has a history. As I think (incoherently) about Tunisia and Egypt, and, more precisely, about our reactions to them, I am struck by these two things: the development imaginary and the revolution’s amnesia.

I am struck by the conservative fear voiced by those who believe in incremental change–fire one corrupt minister, break one big scandal a year–but worry about “anarchy,” about the change that would disrupt the social order, re-order it in unexpected ways, make the “return to normal” strange and impossible. I am struck by how many of those voicing such fears term themselves “progressive,” because every so often they “defend” gay rights and lament about corruption–both restricting the radical potential of gay rights by framing it as a special right and naming an impossible abstraction, corruption, that at once names everything and nothing, as it straddles economic and moral acts.

Tunisia and Egypt are being transformed into “freak” occurrences, hinged on the randomness of a young man setting himself ablaze. This “randomness” runs up against the well-laid out plans devised in elaborate seminar rooms; the training sessions on “how to be an activist”; the professionalization of activism across Africa into an NGO-funded or at least affiliated project. We forget, conveniently, that NGOs are interested in their own social and economic “reproduction,” or sustenance. (This “reproduction” can be traced by following the career trajectories of the many people who move from one NGO to the next, following the money, and, secondarily, the “cause.”)

Anyone who has applied for NGO funding knows the importance of “outcomes,” even as those outcomes are simultaneously material and abstract—by doing x (building a bridge, buying a goat, providing haircuts, distributing condoms, spreading information about distributing condoms), the residents of x specific area will be “empowered.” But such “outcomes” become the justification for the reproduction of structures and strategies—dig one well and you get more money to build another well, and the satisfaction of knowing you are “making a difference” in places where “governments have failed.”

The development imagination of strategies and outcomes is as far away from revolutions and real political change as possible, especially as it has become one of the most important sites for producing and reproducing the African NGO middle class, a powerful group whose continued existence and prosperity depends precisely on small nudges, never huge shifts.

This development imagination, highly trained and regimented, staffed by people who can write proposals in their sleep, and who speak, alarmingly, in the same jargon of “capacity building” and “gender empowerment” and “strategic deployment” and “mobilizing resources,” this development imagination cannot make sense of Tunisia and Egypt. And it is scared of the “anarchy” such places represent.

A friend on facebook writes about the “orientalization” happening in U.S. and European press—I am struck by the silence of many African leaders who recognize themselves in Mubarak.
From this side of diaspora, I am equally struck by “revolution porn,” the proliferation of images circulating in the U.S. and Europe, to which “supportive” people “over here” comment, “you go, girl!” and similarly troubling statements. They are troubling in the assumptions they bear, in their making “spectacles” of whatever is happening in Tunisia and Egypt. I write this hearing Fanon’s warning about “white” fondness for “black” anger.

One person writes about an Arabic sign, on facebook—“I don’t know what it means, but I am sure it is something great.” Statements such as these are part of what make me think about “revolution porn,” about the “pleasure” of spectacle divorced from the more messy, time-consuming, less pleasurable labor of listening and reading. (I am being unfair, of course, in suggesting that those I critique—and parody—are not deeply engaged with Tunisian and Egyptian causes.)

Certainly, too much is happening all at once. Even those who are monitoring twitter feeds and other such sources must try to piece together fragments, try to tell “stories” whose narrative pull must be used and resisted—narrative organizes and flattens. This “too much” also produces its own affective pulls. From some voices, I hear fears of “anarchy” and “messiness,” unsubtle forms of orientalizing Egypt and Tunisia, subtended, at times, by a virulent Islamophobia. From others, I hear celebration, even when images display bleeding bodies—and this last, that someone would “like” an image of mourning women is simply too much to take.

As difficult as it is, we must try to listen better to the range of voices around Egypt and Tunisia—often, these will not be so-called “experts” on the region. Often they will not speak in languages we understand. Often, their demands will not match what we want them to be. And, of course, our own desires for Egypt and Tunisia, for political and social change, and for political and social equilibrium, will shape how we listen and respond.

We Africans must also pay attention to the nature of the demand embodied by Egypt and Tunisia, one that extends beyond the strange compromises of “power-sharing” now understood as “imperfect solutions.” Something significant is happening. Something our outcome-driven agendas have no way of understanding or anticipating.

EDIT: I had not read Aaron’s thoughtful post before I posted. Take a look.

Queer Africa: Mourning David Kato

News arrives from a dear friend that David Kato, a Ugandan activist outed by Uganda’s homophobic Rolling Stone has been beaten to death.

I did not know David, but our networks intersect.

Most recently, David was one of three Ugandans who successfully sued Rolling Stone and forced it to shut down its hateful operations.
How should we read David’s death? How should we measure his loss?

A quick look at his facebook page tells one story. Early this morning, messages from January 3 and 4 congratulated David on the win against the Ugandan Rolling Stone. Just above them, expressions of loss and solidarity, of love and courage, of mourning. This juxtaposition enacts a certain kind of work to which I hope to return in this edit.

From what I know, which is to say, from the available evidence, it is not clear that a direct line can be traced from David’s activism to his murder. I write this not to be contrary, but because I think it’s important to be judicious, to be contextual. Simultaneously, and just as importantly, there is no evidence that his murder was not a result of his activism. For now, his death remains something that can be used in any number of ways.

The infamous Ugandan Rolling Stone, for instance, has expressed its condolences for his death, but stands by its decision to call for homosexuals to be killed. This once-obscure publication is using the occasion of David’s death to advance its homo-killing agenda, one that includes silencing LGBTIQ activists. Its very implicit message to LGBTIQ activists: You Are Not Safe. It is, of course, maddening that its campaign has worked, to the extent that it has been featured in the international press expressing its “opinion” about David’s death.

We also need to be very clear about this tabloid’s role. The judgement against it was material. It was ordered to pay damages to the three activists who sued it. It was also forbidden from continuing what was, no doubt, a very profitable series. Certainly, its publishing of the series turned it into a “spectacle,” if not a success, though it’s difficult to draw the line between the two.

What we can say for sure is that David was vulnerable, that his activism made him public, a target in a way that others might not be. And I think it’s very important to underline that the kind of publicness I am discussing is distinct from the closet/non-closet paradigm–the choice was not between being “out and proud” and being “ashamed and silenced,” a binary that only works in certain geo-cultural contexts.

At this point, what is threatened is that publicness.

And not simply in Uganda, but also in Kenya.

Over the past few years, Ugandan LGBTIQ activists have won significant legislative victories. Despite and given the vitriolic anti-queer rhetoric in the country, they have been more successful in grounding their claims within legal frames than have Kenyan activists. (A recent case on intersex rights notwithstanding.) While it would be naive to presume that legal victories should provide safety, it is disheartening to imagine that they involve trading different kinds of safety–legal protection at the loss of personal safety, as strange as that sounds.

That last sentence returns me to the juxtaposition of congratulation and mourning on David’s facebook page–the question, even now, of who can mourn publicly on that page, the cluster of associations that surround mourning his death, the risk of being public. When I looked at it earlier this morning, for instance, the “international” of the messages spoke not only to David’s reach and impact, but, more broadly, to the kinds of publics available and willing to be visible in and around African queer issues.

Queer Africa: The Problem of Evidence

Consider the following:

Taken from an archive file dated 9th May 1912, it cultivates multiple desires. For some of us, a desire that these two found comfort with each other, no matter its form; for others, a desire that these two were “gay,” forerunners of some kind; for others, a desire to relocate them from the prison to an elsewhere, so that their “desire” to be together might be “real” rather than coincidental or forced—prisons are ambivalent places in histories of sexuality, where “acts” and “identities” rub in awkward ways.

I foreground “desire” because it is not clear what the passage describes. What different readers want it to be is as much a part of the story as the truncated story. The archive document from which this comes—my thanks to Brett Shadle for sharing it—similarly tells a story of unknowing. The Superintendent of Prisons writes,

He continues,

I want to hold on to this “undecidability,” to foreground what we “know” and defer, for the moment, what we “wish to know.”

I do so for a number of reasons.

While I appreciate the polemical and political reasons for advocating a “we are everywhere” and, in many cases, a “we were everywhere” stance, I am never quite sure who this “we” is and, at times, even less sure why it is. Surely the homosexual colonial officers cannot be so easily aligned with their colonized intimate “partners.” Nor can homosexual slave owners be so casually conflated with their intimate “partners,” even though, as a semi-good Foucauldian, I know there was “no” homosexuality then. More pointedly, I am concerned about the kind of spatio-temporal anachronisms that would seek to take this incident in Mombasa as “evidence” for a “queen-sized” narrative about a transcultural “we.”

I am also interested in thinking about the spectrum of male intimacies, about the range of friendship and ethnic and work-based and kinship-based practices. Rather than terming these “gay” in the pejorative high school sense that fears male-male intimacies, I would like to privilege an expansive range of male-male interactions that are not driven by homo-panic.

Focusing on a more expansive range of intimate male relationships is risky, of course. It can align too easily with conservative and sometimes homophobic interpretations of history that claim men slept together because they were “more friendly” in those days, and that men wrote each other love poems to demonstrate their “great friendship.” All of this might be true, but rather than accepting a potential range of male intimacies, conservative commentators dismiss altogether the possibility for some intimacies. Put more bluntly: some men kissed as friends and others kissed as lovers.

Yet, I also want to resist the homophobic logic that “always knows” what “those people” do. It is the logic of Martin Ssempa, which says all homosexual men fist each other while high on drugs. It is the logic that claims homosexuals cannot teach in primary or high schools because they are out-of-control pedophiles. It is the “bar” and “locker room” logic of the now repealed DADT that positions all available men as irresistibly objects for homosexual lust.

How, then, might we read this fragment from 1912?

I am intrigued by Convict 168. What did he report and why did he report it? One answer might be that he is newly aware of “homosexuality” as a criminal offense, and his report is thus evidence of a “homo-logic” among Africans at this time. Another answer is that he is aware of prison offenses, being subject to what Florence Bernault aptly describes as the petty criminalization of life under colonial rule. That is, Convict 168 reports an “act” he understands to be “against the rules.” Whether or not he “agrees” with the “rule” is irrelevant. He might have understood that favor might be gained for “telling on” other convicts. Or, he might have wanted to share Convict 3188’s mat and blanket.

I want to hold on to all these possibilities—to suggest that Kenya’s sexual(ity) archives are more often “winks” than firm handshakes. In other words, I want to hold on to the “of course there must have been” and the “we cannot know for sure,” because both statements create conceptual possibilities, though not necessarily empirical ones. I want to suggest that “unknowability” is less a theoretical gambit with little payoff and more an instance of generosity toward the past and possibility for presents and futures.

Of course, we cannot avoid the problem of “location.”

The file comes from Mombasa, a location that had “a reputation” by the late nineteenth century for its modes of gender and sexual flexibilities—I had written “dissidence,” but that assumes a normative framework that I am not sure was in play. As a port, Mombasa, though explicitly excluded from Richard Burton’s “Sotadic Zone,” implicitly dwells there. After all, the logic guiding the “Sotadic Zone” is spatial as well as racial: such zones are “contact zones,” places where capital flows and bodies move in a variety of ways, marked as much for their economic possibilities as for their socio-cultural promiscuities.

As a site for and of Modernity’s intimate promiscuities, Mombasa is a peculiar knowledge world, one where the meanings of the convicts’ actions, those who share the mat and blanket and the one who reports them, acquire additional significance, even as this significance is still filtered through the logic of the colonial prison. However, because Mombasa is such a site of arrival and departure, and because we know so little about these convicts, we also cannot know for sure how they understood Mombasa’s intimate reputation or participated in its forms of intimacy.

In following this trace, I build on Anjali Arondekar’s powerful and suggestive provocation on the uses of colonial archives to “read” sexuality:

The critical challenge is to imagine a practice of archival reading that incites relationship between the seductions of recovery and the occlusion such retrieval mandates. By this I mean to say: What if the recuperative gesture returns us to a space of absence? How then does one restore absence to itself? Put simply, can an empty archive also be full?

“How sexuality is made visible in the colonial archive,” she continues, may “paradoxically disclos[e] the very limits of that visibility” (3). With her, I am interested in rethinking the assumption that finding an “object” in an archive—a document, a stain, even a used condom—“somehow lead[s] to a formulation of subjectivity: the presumption that if a body is found, then a subject can be recovered” (3).

Much can be said about what it means to “recover” a “subject,” and I will return to this problem later in this series.

Let me “conclude” by noting the problem of feeling this particular trace arouses. It is difficult to lionize the two convicts who shared a mat as queer heroes. Traces in the colonial archive, they do not have the aesthetic presence of a Wilde or a Whitman, nor is it clear if their being imprisoned has anything to do with their intimate practices. Even if it did, it’s not clear that their intimate practices merit our approbation, or even that it would matter. The search for “others like us” too often results in such moments, where what is found disappoints or frustrates or leaves us faced with our own desires for other stories, and slightly guilty for having those desires.

Making Academic Labor Public

In primary school, I was always puzzled by students who claimed their parents (usually fathers) were in “business.” “Business” had a self-explanatory power that remained mysterious. In contrast, I knew my father was an OB/GYN: I visited him at work, I flipped through his medical books, and while I could not have explained what he did with any degree of sophistication, I had a fairly solid idea.

In part, of course, “business” was “explained” by structural frameworks or, more precisely, the assumptions attending those structures. “Business” was suits and suitcases, meetings and conferences, 40-hour weeks, and regular paychecks. That it was also self-owned businesses, commission-based sales, petty forms of trading, and thievery was beside the point. Structures make possible and thinkable.

This “business” structure continues to have an unfathomable explanatory power. All one needs to say is that one works in “business” or that one has a 40-hour-a-week job to receive credit as a laborer, to make “public” one’s labor. And in this terrible economy, hard-fought gains are being taken away—60-80 hour weeks are more common than they should be, with little promise of overtime to make them “profitable.”

Of course, not all 40-hour-a-week positions are equal. Work weeks fluctuate—at one clerical job, the labor would be anywhere from 10 to 60 hours a week. When it got slow, and this always happened, I dusted and re-filed. At yet another job, the labor assigned for a specific period was laughable. So much so that after a while, I started creating new labor, including putting together a training manual for work processes—uncompensated labor, but I was incredibly bored. And, in the one job where I worked for overtime, I handed out electronic devices to “guests” at the EMP in Seattle. Of the three jobs, one at a University, the other at an insurance company, and the third at a museum, the third was the most physically demanding—it also required the least education. My co-workers were 16-year old high school students saving to buy cars.

My labor was “visible”: guests to the museum would ask about our hours, sympathize that we had to be on our feet, acknowledge that we “were doing something.” In the grand scale of things, I’m not sure what we were doing qualified as something “necessary” or “useful.” But it was visible labor, made even more so because we wore uniforms.

At the same time, it was seasonal, temporary, and we all craved something better. We understood that labor to be a means to get “something,” perhaps a new used car, or to get somewhere else, a chance to “make connections” in “the industry,” or as the mindless dreck that would enable us to pursue other passions, be that creating music, writing poetry, or biking on the weekends. We applauded and envied those who accomplished their goals—the 16-year-old girl who worked massive amounts of overtime and bought her car; the college student who saved enough money to buy books and returned to school; the temp who found a job that paid $12 an hour, $2 more than what we made.

Those who worked the hardest and the best were also (frequently) those with the plans for how to “get out,” “do better,” “be different.”

The visibility of our labor made it “valuable” in ways I am still trying to process. We shared a common language of uniforms and time cards and difficult clients and excellent clients and overtime. And the 40-hour week. We were recognized as “hard working,” marked by what we wore as “hard working,” no matter what we actually did. Many times we did nothing.

Along with my colleagues, I am interested in the question of what it means to make academic labor visible. Clearly, we cannot all be “public intellectuals,” even as we can be more public about our intellectual labor. Yet, I also wonder what it would take to make academic labor visible. Many of us develop eccentric working patterns: I have spent more hours reading and writing in the early hours of the morning, from 2-6, than I have sitting in offices. Electronic communication means that I now collect and evaluate students’ work online—certain “paper trails” are virtual. While I appreciate those who post their reading, writing, and revising schedules online, to keep track of their progress, I also know that those schedules bend and flex, just as our labor does. We are hired as much for our flexibility as our expertise. It is worth noting that, at least in my discipline, all faculty can teach broad introductory classes in a range of historical periods—contrary to what some may think, we are neither our dissertations nor our books, but the accumulation of all our education.

I have suggested, jokingly, that a live camera feed of academics at work might help to make our labor “visible.” But I cannot imagine anything more dull than watching people search on JSTOR and Project Muse, write conference abstracts, watch TV, grade student work, and write papers and books. Though, perhaps, some committee and departmental meetings could be interesting.

While it is true that we have done a terrible job of explaining what it is “we” do—not to mention the radically different expectations that stem from field and departmental requirements to school aims and goals (tenure requirements and research and teaching expectations are not at all uniform across universities and colleges)—it is also true that “what we do” does not translate easily, if at all, into “uniforms,” “40-hour weeks,” and “timecards.”

It is difficult to explain, for instance, how a 7,000-word article can take longer than a year to write. And why that matters. It is hard to explain that the 10-40 references used often suggest a much broader process of reading and selection—that what appears highly specialized emerges from an expansive knowledge base that translates into other scholarly and non-scholarly activities.

But it is also true that this justification is not asked of the 40-hour-a-week laborer in some “definable” position. Typists, to use an outmoded characterization, “type.” Those who “process” data, “process” it. That this may simply mean punching in numbers into a database so that more people can receive junk mail is irrelevant. There is an explanatory power granted to “business” and other professional activities that is often unavailable to academics.

I am not sure that making public a careful accounting of one’s hours would suffice to “demystify” what “we” do, in part because that “we” is so very varied in what it does and how it works. We are also, always, working with and alongside different groups of people: how one works in a department is related to but also quite distinct from how one works in a field. How one works for an institution is related to but also quite distinct from how one works in a discipline.

I am now becoming interminable.

I started writing this post a few days ago to think about what it means to make academic labor visible. I believe that such labor can and must be made visible: I think this is good for all of us. Whether this will take the form of inviting legislators to attend classes, of offering “public classes” to all who are interested, of making our academic work publicly available online (as is happening increasingly), of detailing our labors in ways that “translate” to non-academics, I do not know. I do know that some of these efforts are difficult—friends who work in economics have given up trying to explain what they do to me; I just “don’t get it.”

Perhaps I still buy into the “mystique” I learned as a child. “Business” is important. It need not explain itself.

Uncomfortable with this “mystique,” I would prefer to learn how to explain “what I do” better.

Queer Africa: Pre-Writing, Writing, Re-Writing


I have been reluctant to write something on “queer Africa,” even though that phrase recurs on this blog and in my scholarly work. The “essay” that tries to “map the field,” so to speak, was planted a while ago, germinated, and then stagnated, “waiting for the rains”: an occasion, a provocation, an intention, a direction. My reluctance repeats (tediously, predictably) my ambivalence toward being identified as an Africanist—I continue to believe in what Amanda Anderson terms “the powers of distance,” in the roles of “alienation” and “deracination” to enable certain academic endeavors. If my “location” demands that I play native informant, it cannot compel me to believe in the “truth” of that position. Even if that “truth” is contingent or strategic. Another way to say this is that when I am asked to write on “queer Africa” or think about it, (the invitations rarely come, so this is hypothetical), I am asked to do “something” “impossible.” The nature of such invitations will be the subject for another moment of writing.

This “impossibility” has something to do with the “fiction” of “Africa,” its simultaneous existence as “real” and “invented,” as “fact” and “fantasy.” One need only look at NGO documents to see this blend of “fact” and “fantasy” instantiated through contradictory desires—as one measure, one might consider the rise of the African NGO middle class, something absolutely new and unprecedented (class, Althusser reminds us, exists to “reproduce” itself). It also has to do with my reluctant decision to act as an unstable, worrying metonym: to “filter” Africa through a particular body and life that is often remarked upon as “not” (African men are “not” vegetarian, I hear too often for it to register).

A simpler way to summarize all of the above: it matters who writes this and why.

The form of “this” also matters.

With the exception of edits to aid reading, I want to “stage” a series of “raw” posts on writing queer Africa. I like arbitrary numbers, so let us say between 8-10. These posts are less “maps” to somewhere specific and more paths waiting to be tried, sediments of long-standing thinking and newly formed particulates. That I mix my metaphors might be called carelessness and part of “the process.” I am interested in how “left out bits” might mean, in holding on to those things a polished essay would discard, the “detritus”—the used, the unusable, the unrecyclable, the fetishized, the unfundable, the unreadable, the obvious, the unthinkable, the unempirical, the untheoretical, the unhistorical, the too-speculative, the banal, the boring, the frivolous, the stupid, the cryptic, the obvious.

Along the way, I hope to consider the problem of “the there”—what archives can actually do—and the equal problem of “what-I-want-to-be-there.” (Archives are always structured by desire.) I want to think a little about “method” (and its discontents). About the ongoing tension between “theory” and “empiricism,” exacerbated by the funding for “knowledge on Africa.” I want to think about the “useless” and the “useful,” about the “uselessness of knowledge” and the “usefulness of ignorance.” I want to toy around with transnational paradigms for framing knowledge and global “rhetorics” of gayness. To think, in some way, about “interdisciplinarity” and anti-intellectualism. About affect and actions. Fissures and formations. About “geographies of queerness”—the view “from” South Africa that shapes our knowledge-worlds and “our” resistance to it. About the “medicalization” of knowledge and the creation of new class mobilities. About the politics of location and the location of politics, the potential for both and their absence and negation. About the presence of bodies, their persistence, and fossil histories—a sense of “engraved” Africans. I want to take seriously big and small events, whispers and ghostly touches, to think about genealogies and generations. And even to have some fun.

I hope to have some after-thoughts—on the now-forgotten Malawi scandal, on the ongoing Uganda scandal, on my own earlier thinking on Kenya. But I also want to try some new thinking, looking, perhaps, at some court cases, tracking online commentary, trying to register a “sense” of an elusive now that still feels “stuck.” I’d like to pursue a few idiosyncratic paths—into cruising spots and places of fantasy, into foreclosed spaces designated as sacred, taboo, or both. And perhaps into a few paths too-frequently-taken, marked by broken twigs and bruised leaves.

My goal is not to pursue “clarity,” though I will be grateful if the glass is less cloudy at the end. Instead, I want to inhabit the messiness of thinking and unthinking, to circle and pounce, to become entangled and snarled. I might even become “autobiographical,” explaining how a “turn” to theory, at a certain moment, seemed necessary in the absence of histories I found “useful” or “reparative,” to use Eve Sedgwick’s reading of the term, and how the emergence of new work means a different orientation to theory has emerged, though it remains inchoate. Which is to say that the “new” histories on African “queerness,” ones being discovered, written, and lived, have changed questions of “approach” and “method,” demanded different things to be said and imagined and thought. That this “newness” is as much a function of putting old archives to new uses and also more extensive reading should also be said.

I want to think about the “pull of now.”

Are Students Learning?

It’s a good question.

Should professors demand more? And will doing so make students learn more?

One take from The Chronicle of Higher Ed:

The study makes clear that there are two kinds of college students in America. A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest—most college students—start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don’t get even that.

English: A Long View

A comment from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the “state” of English:

Post-colonial studies, transnationalism, postmodernism and poststructuralism have taken hold as the dominant foci of English faculty. It is not enough that these scholars refuse to read the literature of historians, anthropologists sociologists and the like, they also refuse to teach basic literature (Blake, anyone?) and relate it to why they became interested in literature in the first place. As these fads move English further and farther away from their basic subject matter, and infuse their writing with their own bias and desperate attempts to be novel, it is the students who suffer. They would be much better off with less Foucault and more Dickens (Western and non-Western) and leave the arguments about transnationalism and cosmopolitanism to the scholars of disciplines who actually read the literature of these fields (with no comments implied about their worthiness in the long run).

I will draw from my academic history to think about this comment. I want to take a broader view of what it means to study English, what it means to write, and what it means to teach.

Here what the English Major looks like (now) at my undergraduate alma mater:

REQUIRED: 30 credit hours*
CORE REQUIREMENTS: 12 credit hours, including:
ENGL 300W: Critical Issues in Literary Studies
9 credit hours chosen from the following:
• ENGL 217W: Survey of British Literature I
• ENGL 218W: Survey of British Literature II
• ENGL 219W: Survey of American Literature I
• ENGL 220W: Survey of American Literature II
DISTRIBUTION REQUIREMENTS: 18 credit hours, including:
One 400 level course from each of the following categories:
• American Literature
• British Literature
• Senior Seminar
One 400 level Literature and Diversity course.
6 hours of electives, with no more than one course below the 215 level.

If memory serves—it has been some time—I took British Survey I, which included Beowulf, “Piers Plowman,” and healthy doses of Spenser and Sidney and Shakespeare. It was a survey, so nothing really heavy. I wrote a final paper on Spenser’s “Colin Clout’s Come Home Againne” (1589-90). And I remember falling in love with “The Wanderer,” relishing then what I would later come to think of as deracination. An American Survey class with Elizabeth Rich introduced me to modernism and the wonders of Gertrude Stein. For that class, I read the entirety of Maureen Honey’s Shadowed Dreams, and wrote about black women’s poetry.

After my general survey classes, I took a class on Shakespeare’s comedies and another on the poetry of the Early Modern Period. A special topics course on Jane Austen and her contemporaries introduced me to Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, and Ann Radcliffe—I continue to adore the Gothic novel and turn to eighteenth century novels to clear my palate. A subsequent graduate-level course on the Romantics covered the better-known and lesser-known figures (better than saying “major and minor”).

With Linda Kinnahan, I took a wonderful class on women’s innovative poetries that introduced me to Erica Hunt and Marlene Nourbese Philip and Kathleen Fraser and Susan Howe among many others. A subsequent graduate-level class walked through twentieth century American poetry, and there I discovered Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer, though we read broadly and deeply.

Nor was my reading confined to class assignments. Clumsily, mostly on my own, I worked through what I later recognized as founding texts in queer studies, feminism, African American studies, and postcolonialism. I cultivated the habit of creating and reading through bibliographies, following up footnotes, creating an ever-more expansive sense of “the field.” I will note that my undergraduate professors were incredible–the Department of English allowed me to take 3 graduate level classes.

While my teachers were “theoretically informed,” they taught me to focus on the primary text, to take it as the grounds for any argument I might make. I still work this way. This approach helped me in the liberal arts curriculum, where I took classes on Cultural Anthropology, Religion (a requirement), Simone de Beauvoir (a graduate student class), and introductory classes in Philosophy, Sociology, and Art History.

Graduate school offered other flexibilities. In terms of “chronology”: two classes on the Early Modern Period, both deeply inflected by new historicism, which means we read works in context. Subsequent classes on the Victorian period, the American Renaissance, and two classes on Modern British (not contemporary). Yes, I read Dickens and Hawthorne and Melville and Pound and Eliot. And, yes, I enjoyed reading them and return to them in my teaching, if not necessarily in my scholarship.

Three classes from the History Department, one from Anthropology, and another from Communications filled out my roster. Then, and now, I had no illusions that classes taken in one department could be everything I wanted (or needed). And this simply because there are differences in disciplinary method, in how evidence is understood, archives are constructed, arguments written. I was as interested then as I am now in how historians, anthropologists, sociologists, legal scholars, economists, and a whole range of other people organize knowledge. I read them. Not with any claims to being an expert, but wanting to expand my frames of reference: I want to be “honest” to the complex, messy ways that knowledge travels and is understood.

I offer this somewhat idiosyncratic, though by no means unusual, narrative to complicate the easy caricatures that circulate about what English professors read, know, and do. Only a very narrow vision of English would claim that we do not read “outside” our discipline. Anyone who argues that, for instance, postcolonial studies has not engaged with Anthropology does not understand the range of the field. Certainly, in conversations with anthropologists, it is clear that I am not an expert in the discipline. But it is also clear that we can learn from each other—and we read “toward” each other.

It is also not clear to me how literary works can be disembedded from the contexts of their historical production and circulation. I cannot teach Ngugi wa Thiong’o without talking about his education at Makerere, his encounter with Fanon and Marxism while in England, and his subsequent exile to the U.S. All of these infuse his work, though they may not exist as its content. Perhaps the simpler way of saying this is that we in English might approach “transnationalism” and “cosmopolitanism” differently, but a different approach differs from the ignorance and irresponsibility suggested by the comment I cited at the opening.

More recently, circumstances—one might say history—have compelled me to think about law and policy, about NGO structures and activism, about contemporary art and artists from Africa. Over the past few years, I have read multiple official government reports, law cases, NGO reports, studies on disease and health, studies on internet usage and Africa’s digital revolutions—history has forced me to stretch in ways I could never have anticipated. Some of this work finds its way into the classroom, some of it into my scholarship.

I worry when we model education as a thing that produces what Kenneth Burke termed “trained incapacity.” I am troubled by people who police fields and disciplines by privileging narrowly defined parameters of “expertise” and “excellence.” I inhabit English as a life-long learner who desires to share the process of learning. I seek to foster curiosity in my colleagues and my students, even as I seek to remain open to the knowledges produced and circulated by others.