This summer, I’m being paid to think.
For some, this is the job of an academic, to think, to make connections, to wax intelligent on often obscure and relatively unimportant things, and to feel a sense of self-importance that justifies this “work.” The latter part of that sentence is certainly an unfair generalization. I try, along with many of my current peers, to only think about things that are not so obscure and that are indeed important in the “real world” (a phrase most of us in the academy have a problem with—is it not “real” to be in company with others and make sense of our selves and the world around us?). In addition, because I am an educator before I am a researcher, I like to think I get paid to teach more than to think. As a graduate student, this is the case. I’m only funded because I teach a class a semester, and often TA for another class.
But this summer, I’m getting paid to study for “prelims,” a series of tests that we’re required to take after completing coursework and before jumping into the dissertation stage of our PhD work. My partner refers to it as the “the academy’s most formal hazing ritual.” Every department and university is different in terms of how the tests are administered, but for us in Communication Studies, we work with members of our committee to come up with “a question.” The question will, ideally, reflect much of what we’ve already been learning and discussing and reading, but may introduce us to new reading material, and force us to make connections and articulate our thoughts a little more coherently. In theory, we’ll all be writing on topics our dissertations will presumably cover, and this then becomes justified as preparation for that long “final paper” (ha). The frustrating element of this is that it’s “no open book”—a phrase I honestly hadn’t heard uttered since high school. We have about five weeks to “cram” as much knowledge as we can fit in our brain and be prepared to sit for four hours per question to give quality answers to some truly complex questions (e.g. “Why should queerness matter to contemporary labor movements? In particular, why is it a significant problem for contemporary labor movements to ignore and/or minimize the importance of queerness?”; that’s one part of one of my questions). In addition, we’re basically forced to undo all we’ve been taught about citing…We have no books, no notes, and thus doing proper citations or adding helpful direct quotes will be impossible.
At worst, it’s a stress-inducing waste of time that renders us with no useful finished product. At best, it’s a really great way to force ourselves to read stuff we want to read, to think about things we want to think about, to “live a life of the mind.”
It’d be easy enough to focus on the silver lining, if it didn’t feel so fucking meta. You see, aside from the question above about queers and labor, I have another question that asks me to discuss the way class has been taken up in queer studies. I’ve spent the last week or so diving into literature written by working-class queers—by folks like me—many of whom are now in the academy and who struggle to make sense of themselves not just as queers (that, for some, is the easy part), but to make sense of themselves as classed subjects who live in what is continually claimed to be a “classless society.” Rendered invisible because of their sexuality is less common than being rendered invisible because of their class. And this becomes especially true for members of the working-class, and queers in particular, who “transcend” their class background and possess an upward mobility their background had formerly denied them.
That’s where I am, that’s what inspires the most sense of outrage about our prelim process. How dare I?, I often ask myself. How dare I have a “job” that allows me to create my own hours, to sit in my air-conditioned apartment or coffee shop and read and think? How dare I not be participating in something that breaks my body and poisons my lungs, the same way my mother and father’s bodies have been broken by their late-night shifts, and second-jobs, and lack of benefits. How dare I?
Historian Alan Berube discusses living a life on the margins both as a gay man and as a working-class boy in his scholarship-funded college-prep school. He writes, “I knew that their attractive prep-school world wasn’t really mine. I was their guest. Yet I no longer belonged at home, either. When my parents came to visit me, I was stunned to see them through the eyes of a different class….Who was I becoming? And where was I going?” (p. 148).
I wonder the same thing all the time, who am I becoming and how does my new language, my newfound comfort with higher-education/fancy conference hotels/performing manners that appease the upper echelon of the University elite…How do these things actually bring me any closer to living the life of a revolutionary, or making the world a better place for the people I think need it most: the poor, the working-class, the abject subjects eaten up and spit out by an insidious capitalist system? I echo bell hooks who says she has “long struggled to make sense of class in my life, to come to terms with what it means to have a lot when many people have so little. In my case, among those have so little are my own family and friends” (p. viii).
I wrote about this before, around this time last summer. Must be something about the heat that makes me remember the life I lived as a child of the working-class. The love, the hardship, the lack of decorum, the stockcar races, the beer and nudey lady calendars in my dad’s garage, the beat up old cars, the food stamps, the smell of the thrift store and the taste of fast-food….In his essay “Currency” from the collection Queerly Classed, Justin Chin writes:
Being the first person in generations to break out of one class and into a more privileged one is a very strange thing. It is very much like immigration and exile: unless you’re there for a long, long time, you remember too much of where you came from. You start to get nostalgic, you start to describe so you won’t forget, you visit a lot and think that maybe one day you will return, but most of all, you realize that too much of your body is invested in too many places, too many memories and warnings flow in your blood. You never really fit in, you’re always a stranger in a familiar land. You can try to pretend, you can be comfortable in your disguise, but you know you still can’t buy your way out. (p. 188, emphasis added).
I feel that. That need to describe, to remember. To tell my story, but it a way that acknowledges that “the working class is so much bigger than poor people.” That our stories our necessary, but not unless they acknowledge the systems and structures that put us there. “People make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing.”
Amber Hollibaugh has a similar story, except Amber skipped college and went straight to revolutionary organizing and the New Left. Even without a college degree, Hollibaugh describes her access to ideas and language as the thing that told her she could never again go “home.” Like Burbube, Hollibaugh got a scholarship to attend a college prep-school where she received an education (and a copy of The Communist Manifesto) that became a sign of, she writes, “how I had become different….[My parents and I] had grown irrevocably apart. I was no longer duplicating the motions of women in my family. Now, it was clear, I was becoming a different kind of survivor” (p. 39).
A survivor. I am one, and I can’t deny myself that truth. I experienced the highs and lows of working-class life through lots of the stereotypes you might imagine. But even though I’m reminded of my economic barriers when I can’t take all the trips some of my colleagues take, or can’t rely on a parent to cover rent if I don’t get a TAship one semester, “struggle” seems a distant memory to me, as I sit, in my large apartment, typing on my Macbook…living a life of the mind. I can’t get over that phrase, how absurd it is, how it would be laughed out of the bars and shop rooms in my hometown.
But Berube insists we cannot give up so easily. That we can not let guilt plague us to the point of paralysis. He explains,
While I can now proudly call myself gay without feeling the shame I once knew, it’s still not easy to call myself an intellectual without feeling like an impostor. But none of us can do our best work until we believe that the life of the mind really does belong to us, from the pleasures of theoretical analysis and brilliant insights to the way an idea can save lives. When we who are independent scholars, or the first generation to go to college, or avid readers and writers, do claim our intellectualities as our own, we become a force to be reckoned with. Among our most valuable resources are the abilities to see the familiar in new ways, to question privileged assumptions, and even to use our intellects to dismantle the powerful systems that cause the class injuries we know too well. (p. 155, emphasis added)
Berube’s right about one thing: ideas did save me. And it’s not because I reflect some sort of “exceptional individualism.” I am not a diamond in the rough of my working class community—the men and women who maintain the village where I grew up (the factory workers, the mill hands, the waitresses, the school bus drivers) probably understand Marx more than I ever will, I just happen to have the language to name it. I am not special, I just made certain decisions that now make me a “different kind of survivor.”
But I hope he’s right about the rest of it. I hope that members of the working class who work and stumble their way into privilege can be a “force to be reckoned with.” I hope we are more about a new form of power than a perpetuation of oppression.
My family is proud of me. I rarely talk in detail about the work I do, which is probably most a result of the failure (and a fear) on my part to make sense of it in a meaningful way. So my family may not totally “get” what I do, but they are proud nonetheless. My mom tries more than anyone to understand. She just bought her first Marx and Foucault readers, and she asked me to send her an article when I used it in a conversation about the queer critique of marriage. I found myself trying to explain notions of “queer worldmaking” to her, and just kept falling back on quotes from Dustin Goltz and Jason Zingsheim; “I don’t know how else to explain it, you’d have to read the article,” I stated, exasperated with my inability to translate thoughts—the one thing on which I’m supposed to be an expert. So she asked for it. Jury’s still out on her response.
The prelims process is one of privilege and pain, and still also stimulation and desire. Berube is right again when he describes theoretical analysis as “pleasurable.” I am torn, reading words that simultaneously charge my heart and literally give me goosebumps, and also make me swim in a self-reflexive pool of guilt and loss and helplessness. What is perhaps most refreshing about this week of studying about class is that my reading list contains more narratives and non-‘high theory’ readings than any other question. It is not a surprise that most of what has been written about class and queerness starts with body and affect, not just brain and intellect.
I guess that’s where I should try to be too. In my body, in my feelings, the way I was taught to be in the working class. Over theorizing my positionality is the exact point I’m trying to fight against, I suppose….
So, living a life of the mind or class traitor? Maybe both, maybe neither. Maybe the working class that lives in my bones and blood and heart will never let me live a life just in the mind, and maybe that pull will never let me really betray the class of which I still proudly claim to be a part.