It’s a well-documented fact that the US system of higher education steers all but the most exceptional Black, Brown and low-income students into two-year and unranked four-year colleges and universities or for-profit proprietary programs that promise real-world job training and placement to graduates. It’s also well known that many students who enroll never earn a degree. Instead, they drop out when it becomes too difficult to juggle course completion with family and financial responsibilities.
Still, as common as this scenario is in public universities throughout the 50 states, another parallel academic universe exists. In this one, top-tier—read rich—students attend toptier schools and have the luxury of focusing on their studies and social lives to the exclusion of all else.
Call it the rich school / poor school-divide.
Matt Brim, an associate professor of Queer Studies at the College of Staten Island [CSI] of the City University of New York has taught at both types of institutions so has the expertise to compare and contrast them. Indeed, his reflections on the frustrations and joys of teaching queer studies classes to poor and working-class students at the chronically underfunded CSI are heartfelt and enraging. Nonetheless, Poor Queer Studies may be off-putting to readers unfamiliar with the many texts he references and the jargon used.
That said, the book is at its best when chronicling the many obstacles facing CSI’s students, many of whom live at home with parents and siblings, have children of their own, and more-likely-than-not hold down full-time jobs while enrolled.
Grabbing a candy bar from a vending machine in lieu of a meal, then sitting in an overheated, underheated, or leaky classroom—with a computer and overhead projector that may or not be working during a particular class—will be appallingly familiar to many CUNY students and instructors.
Likewise, they’ll recognize the restrictions on students whose ability to access readings are stymied by limitations on how many total copies they can print for free each semester—at CSI it is 350.
Unlike richer schools where such conditions are unheard of, Brim posits that these deficits, however frustrating, also have an upside. By integrating with community, “Poor queer studies at a public commuter college makes its way home, into houses, neighborhoods, and into workplaces by traveling with its dynamic students,” he writes. This, he explains, can provoke questions and dis-cussion amongst those who glimpse titles such as Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens being read.
Add in the benefits of an inter-generational student body and the richness of the personal and political exchanges that are fostered becomes evident. What’s more, it becomes clear that poor queer studies classes—like classes in other disciplines—can provide a richer tableau than is found within more homogeneous student populations.
This crossover, Brim writes, allows students “to cre-ate and practice speaking in a shared, nonstandard queer studies tongue…My students translate our classroom discussions, filled as they are with standard and queer academic languages and rhetoric, into non-academic and non queer languages and rhetoric: cross cultural ones, religious ones, familial ones.”
Black queer studies classes raise the ante further, he writes, by centering stories that might otherwise be dismissed or forgotten.
Brim finds this inclusiveness exciting and sees significant potential in the ability of poor queer studies to straddle the class divide and push a more egalitarian politics forward. “Poor queer studies refuses to pit race, class, and queerness against each other,” he writes, “even as it necessarily asks how rich queer studies participates in class stratification in the academy in it own ways and with its own impacts and with its own race-queer-class negotiations.”
Brim further believes that poor queer studies instructors can reject classism “as part of their intersectional work.” As the same time, he concedes that while “cross-class ferrying” is possible, “class and race contradictions abound.”
The stakes of eliminating these contradictions are, of course, extremely high. “As long as higher education operates from the current system of race and class sorting, as long as the rich get access to one kind of education and the poor get access only to another,” he writes, “and as long as queer studies follows the line of educational hierarchy rather than steps out of line to form collective resistance,” the status quo will be maintained. As someone who taught at Kingsborough Community College-CUNY for 16 years, I know that creating an egalitarian academy will require a complete reorganization, with a redistribution of resources to ensure that every student has full access to the materials and financial supports that are necessary for them to thrive. To do less betrays the long-deferred dream of education as a universal race-class-gender equalizer.
Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University
By Matt Brim
Duke University Press, 2021, 247 pages
Eleanor J. Bader taught in the English Department at Kingsborough Community College from September 2004 until June 2020.
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