The current crisis in higher education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic prompts those who work in higher education to think back to previous comparable crisis situations. For faculty at public universities, recalling the last time the university was not in crisis poses a far more formidable challenge. As state and city budgets are slashed with predictable regularity corresponding to the political affiliations of state governments, following an equally predictable hierarchy in which certain departments (the fine arts and humanities) bear the brunt of these cuts, public education becomes increasingly inaccessible to the very publics for whom it is intended. Interdisciplinary programs, such as ethnic studies and gender studies, are particularly vulnerable—recurring casualties in seemingly never-ending culture wars.
Given this state of affairs, it is quite astonishing that one of the most underfunded colleges (the College of Staten Island) within one of the nation’s most underfunded public university systems (the City University of New York) has proven itself a fertile ground for vibrant research and pedagogy in queer studies. And yet, Matt Brim’s Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University (2020) demonstrates precisely how such an institution—designed, through systemic neglect, to fail minoritized students, such as low-income students, LGBTQ students, and students of color—can succeed in both educating these students and maintaining a thriving culture of queer scholarship and pedagogy. The College of Staten Island, and institutions like it, can do so through transforming a field—once thought to originate and survive in exclusively elite and elitist institutions—to serve instead the very students excluded from such institutions.
Brim’s book performatively inaugurates a new academic field—the eponymous “poor queer studies”—as an intervention into the elitism produced and reproduced by academia and its sources of funding. Meanwhile, Sara Ahmed’s What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use (2019) critiques the exclusionary practices of the same institutions discussed by Brim but does so through analyzing the affective experiences of the bodies they exclude. In Ahmed’s latest book, bodies—those that come to inhabit spaces and structures that were not meant for them—go on to inform a broader and ongoing philosophical inquiry into the concept of use.
Ultimately, both Ahmed’s and Brim’s works demonstrate how “queer use,” defined as use by those for whom something is not intended, occurs quite regularly in the university. Such queer use inspires us to disrupt the university’s structural reproduction of social, economic, and racial hierarchies.
The premise that higher education should be accessible to all is radical only in a society that does not believe its government should unconditionally serve the public good.
The City University of New York (CUNY) is a poor public municipal institution. It is poor, because its historic mission to serve New York City’s students of color and working-class students—emblematized by Black and Puerto Rican students’ successful fight for open admissions in 1969—has been systematically devalued by a white-supremacist and oligarchic political status quo.
This past summer, for example, CUNY laid off 2,800 adjunct faculty and part-time staff. And its brutal layoffs, in the midst of a global pandemic, show no signs of abating. Among the poorest schools within CUNY, the College of Staten Island suffers from a chronic lack of basic equipment and supplies: printer paper, intact desks and chairs, ventilation (through air conditioning, as well as functioning windows), and toilets in working order. Amid recent calls (and largely symbolic gestures from the New York City Council) to defund the police and reinvest in public infrastructure, including education, no funds, to my knowledge, have been redirected from the New York City police budget to purchase chairs or paper for the College of Staten Island.
Brim’s book is largely inspired by his experience of teaching queer studies at this massively underfunded CUNY college. Within the vast inequality of US higher education, a college beseeched by its valedictorian at graduation to fix its air conditioning is the same college where Brim asks a crucial pedagogical question: “How do we teach queer theory to our students, who work for money full-time and take night class?”
“Poor queer studies” pedagogy, according to Brim, rests upon a simple premise: “elitist education is bad education. … When we’re choosy about whom we teach, we limit learning.” Brim’s proposal to name and introduce this new field of study is tied to his related proposal to rename queer studies, as it currently exists in much of the academy, to “Rich Queer Studies”—a field affiliated with elite institutions and exclusionary practices. While rich queer studies “often claims radicality,” the selectiveness of the colleges and universities reputed for their queer-studies programs (private institutions and what Brim calls “mega-rich public Ivys”) deprives their students of the breadth of learning experiences afforded by racially and economically inclusive institutions. Poor Queer Studies offers nothing short of a proposal for a radically inclusive queer pedagogy.
The premise that higher education should be accessible to all is a radical one only in a society that does not believe its government should unconditionally serve the public good. As such, the recent momentum gained by democratic-socialist politicians driven by grassroots demands for free universal education and healthcare suggests that this premise is no longer a radical one for students in the US.
Thus, we and our students are better served by a philosophy once adopted by CUNY, one which, I would add, has seen invigorating revivals in initiatives, such as the Free University, in recent years: “Accept all, serve all. For a few years in the early 1970s, this was the CUNY mission put into practice, imperfectly, to be sure, but in ways that democratized the student body in terms of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and, crucially, sexuality.” This is also the mission of the College of Staten Island, which, to this day, follows an open admissions policy.
Moreover, free universal higher education should be a minimum requirement for making education accessible to all. This is to say that everyone should be offered the opportunity to attend college for free, and this opportunity will only be attractive to students if college can help them navigate the world, or enrich their lives in some way.
To use Ahmed’s phrasing, we should be asking, “What’s the use of college?” Only by making college universally accessible and continuously asking who and what college is for can we properly revolutionize the exclusionary academy.
Historically, neither universities nor queer studies have been intended for poor people. The kind of transformation of the academy Brim’s book invites would, therefore, necessitate what Ahmed terms a “queer use” of the university.
Like Brim’s, Ahmed’s critique of the university is influenced by auto-ethnography (in Ahmed’s case, as a diversity worker). “Queerness can be infectious. But it does not always happen,” writes Ahmed in What’s the Use?. When queerness does happen, it happens most effectively and meaningfully when it infects exclusionary institutions. We can heed a call to queer use—to disrupt an institution’s intended purpose—as a call to decolonize and truly democratize the university.
What’s the Use? combines an intellectual history and a philosophical exploration of the concept of use with ethnographies and personal reflections on institutional diversity work. The book builds on Ahmed’s previous critical engagements with diversity work, most notably On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), in which she argues that institutional diversity functions as a “non-performative”: institutions say the word “diversity” in various documents and initiatives as a way to avoid doing diversity and maintain the status quo.
Ahmed’s paradoxical undertaking reveals one must first subvert institutional diversity practices, in order to truly diversify an institution. “We become diversity workers when we try to challenge or dismantle the structures that are not built to accommodate us,” writes Ahmed, but institutions often use diversity initiatives to reinforce the very structures designed to accommodate only a select few.
We can surmise from What’s the Use? that diversity workers, too, can non-perform, as a way to resist institutional co-optation of their work and even their very existence. Heidi Mirza, one of the first Black female professors in the UK, tells Ahmed of her repeated requests to have a photo of her smiling face removed from her university’s website. Thus, “diversity work can also be the work you have to do not to appear smiling or even not to appear.”
In Ahmed’s own case, not appearing occurs in a more dramatic sense. Notably, Ahmed completed What’s the Use? after resigning from her academic position, in protest of her university’s refusal to address institutional sexism and student complaints of sexual harassment. Resigning in protest also works as a mode of interrogation; a way of asking, “What’s the use?” of a university that cannot commit, or deliver upon a commitment, to serving all of its students.
The relationship between use and usefulness figures prominently in Ahmed’s study. Central to the history of higher education, utilitarian thought, as Ahmed demonstrates, is responsible for aspirations toward both inclusivity in universities and the creation of “a useful class.” Ahmed connects the latter to colonial monitorial schools, arguably a precursor to vocational postsecondary education.
While appreciative of arguments for an education that need not justify its usefulness, Ahmed notes the uneven distribution of the right to uselessness:
Pascal suggests that usefulness is a form of memory: to be useful is to remember what you are for. Not to be useful is to forget you are part of the body, to forget what you are for … . [Pascal] implies we are all parts and that as parts we must be willing to be of use or of service to the whole. But … some individuals come to be treated as the limbs of the social body, as being for others to use (or more simply as being for). If the workers become arms, the arms of the factory owner are freed. If some are shaped by the requirement to be useful, others are released from that requirement.
The right to uselessness for some, Ahmed makes clear, depends on the burden of usefulness for many others.
If students are already workers, then what does it mean to be a better queer worker? Or perhaps a queerer worker?
There has been, perhaps, no clearer illustration of the unevenly distributed responsibility for the social body than the distinction between “essential” and inessential (or “nonessential”) workers made during the global COVID-19 pandemic. At CUNY, students and their family members bear the disproportionate burden of essential labor—more so than at other US universities. Accordingly, as of the summer of 2020, CUNY had lost more students, staff, and faculty due to COVID than any other university system in the US. Within the massive class and racial inequalities of the US and its educational system, the “useful class” becomes a disposable class.
That students at CUNY, and especially at the College of Staten Island, are also workers is among the fundamental premises of Brim’s Poor Queer Studies. Brim’s related suggestion that one goal of poor queer studies is to help students become “better queer workers” thus invites serious engagement. The suggestion, as Brim acknowledges, sounds controversial in its departure from critiques of the neoliberal university, but it is perhaps not so controversial to a reader in tune with the realities of CUNY (and other municipal university) students’ lives. If the students are already workers, and if our critiques of the neoliberal academy, in all of their validity, do not offer a way out of the predicament of being a worker, what does it mean, then, to be a better queer worker? Or perhaps a queerer worker?
Brim is not overly prescriptive here, leaving these questions somewhat open-ended. He does suggest, however, that just as students can bring queer-studies knowledge to their jobs, they can also bring their existent job training to the classroom and the university. A student, for example, who works in a toy store can use queer studies to help mediate a conflict between a boy who wishes to buy a doll and a resistant parent. And a student with experience in labor organizing can use that experience to demand better learning conditions within her systemically underfunded municipal college.1
Perhaps to “queer work” is to refuse to be useful and still survive, and even thrive, despite a lack of class or racial privilege. If a municipal university can refuse to fulfill its mission of serving all students through systemic and intentional neglect, then perhaps these students who are also workers can shut down an institution that does not work for them.
Ahmed’s observations about the quandaries of diversity workers in institutions that understand diversity initiatives as “non-performatives,” as well as these workers’ attendant impulses to not perform as token “diverse” bodies within these institutions, can be instructive here. Perhaps, in fact, CUNY students can go a step further. “To open up institutions,” explains Ahmed, “that have functioned as containers [of white supremacy, patriarchy, and class inequality] you have to throw usage into a crisis; you have to stop what usually happens from happening.”
New York City and its universities (public and private) rely on the labor of CUNY students, alumni, and their families. Simply put, CUNY students can shut down the entire city and demand access to the education they deserve. It will, then, be up to these students to determine the parameters of usefulness for a radically inclusive, queer education.
This article was commissioned by Carolyn Dever.
- Matt Brim made this latter point in a personal conversation with the author. ↩