Monday, January 9, 2017

Mimi Thi Nguyen on Intersectionality, Radicalism, and the Reactionary Response

July 2016's Teaching Resistance is from punk lifer (and oft-contributor/shitworker at MRR) Mimi Thi Nguyen, who is an author, public speaker, and professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois. Her column focuses on questions of what justice, intersectionality and radicalism actually mean at college campuses today, and she addresses the challenges of being a radical educator who actually gives a fuck about students in an often-reactionary, cynical and neoliberal modern higher education environment. Mimi can be emailed directly at mimi [at] .

5 July 2016
In a faculty meeting to interview a prospective candidate (one I opposed, and my reasons will be clear in a moment), one of my colleagues said, “The students we get in Gender and Women’s Studies are so radical, so activist, but they don’t understand the real world. How do you think your scholarship could teach them about the real world?” The candidate happily agreed that radical students are impractical heads-in-clouds dreamers, and bubbled on about statistics and samples as useful instruments for familiarizing students with the truths of the so-called real world. (This, despite the fact that she admitted that her own samples in her studies of gendered expectations in the workplace did not disaggregate according to race, occupation, or economic status, while referring to Black women –and I suppose the rest of us—as “sub-groups” and trans persons as “statistically non-impactful.”)

I was absolutely furious at both these smiling, “nice” feminist scholars nodding in agreement, Oh, silly students! Because a candidate interview is not the time or place, I said nothing even as I sat stiffly, staring down at my notes (which the offending colleague kept trying to read over my shoulder) or Vaguebooking my outrage (my only outlet during the meeting). It is true that our students, our students in Gender and Women’s Studies, are among the more vocal campus activists. In past few years, our students successfully fought for trans-inclusive healthcare in the student insurance plan – a perhaps “statistically non-impactful,” but tremendously significant, concession to the necessity of more expansive practices of health and caregiving. They walk the picket line with our graduate student instructors and other non-tenure track faculty whose contracts (teaching each course for a few thousand dollars, far below minimum wage for all their hours) are held in suspension by the administration, year after year. Furthermore, our students often work multiple jobs on top of their course loads, which tend to be heavy because most of them come to Gender and Women’s Studies after they’ve declared other, more traditional majors – and complete our requirements too for love and rage. Many of them are women of color, or queer or gender non-conforming youth, who’ve either witnessed their friends and peers being policed by adults –administrators, cops, teachers, and other authority figures— or experienced these encounters themselves, for years. Because a substantial number of our students hail from Chicago, where the Chicago Police Department has committed racial terror for decades, I have met more than a handful whose friends or neighbors have been beaten, or shot in so-called “police-involved shootings.” For all these reasons I wrote on Facebook, in the heat of the meeting, “Our students are radical because they live in the real world.”

This is a bit of a side step, of course; so many people (young and old, students and professors) live in the so-called real world, and are not radical, as evidenced in this meeting. But it was important to me to refuse the condescension implicit in that declaration –our radical students don’t live in the real world— aimed at both our students and those of us who hope to encourage our students to fuck this shit.

I went to graduate school on a whim (back when it was more economically viable to be do so “on a whim”), to have an opportunity to think through my concerns about politics and activism, with no particular desire to become a professor – that decision came later, and when it did, I imagined (naively, admittedly) that “being a professor” (what I thought that meant) would allow me some autonomy, flexibility, and creativity, and I strongly identified with an idyllic view of the work –writing, teaching— and its non-material rewards. (We know now that these same qualities are pitched to us as pluses to ameliorate the troubles with uncompensated or undercompensated labor, as attributes of an ideally flexible worker of the neoliberal economy – increasingly subject to insecure employment, semi-secured in temporary networks.) I remember saying, as a young punk, that it was not my “job” to educate others, whether about race or gender or empire. I’m not getting paid to teach you! was and is a familiar refrain about such uncompensated labor, one we all learned from Audre Lorde.* And yet teaching others about race or gender or empire is totally (part of) my job now. It is how I access an income, healthcare, retirement, and, because I am in that increasingly minority of tenured faculty, status (however limited), and I hope to do so thoughtfully, and with intention.

That the neoliberal academy treats students as consumers is a frequent target of criticism, especially from professors who chafe at being confronted with students who complain that they did not pay tuition for a B+, or who treat evaluations like Yelp! reviews, complete with microaggressions about our accents, clothes, and characters. I agree absolutely that we should not treat our students as consumers; it’s a shitty way to teach and also to learn. But neither do I believe that we need to return to an older model of apprentice-master, and that is what galled me about the encounter with which I began: the condescension implicit in imagining that young persons are the ones caught in an impassable tower, and that we professors are conduits to the “real world.” (The reverse is also not true –I come from the real world too, not a tower.)

With that in mind, I try to bring a DIY politics to my classroom, as a refusal of the alienation and divisions of activities or skills (through formal conferrals of expertise, for instance), and as well a sliding under institutional or state overpresence. (No state, as the anarchists say, can give you freedom. Or as Foucault wrote, freedom is nothing more than the relation between the governors and the governed.) And because I know now how much I did not know as a nineteen year-old (without presuming that these nineteen year-olds in front of me also don’t know what I didn’t know), I hope to approach the labor of teaching with generosity and compassion, with regard to students’ critical capacities and foundational knowledges. (That said, I undermine the my own authority all the time – not as an anti-intellectual exercise of fuck knowing stuff, but as epistemological critique, or questioning how we know what it is we think we know, and that does include criticizing the premise that “experience” is somehow more real, less abstract, than “theory.”) I also do my best to recognize the histories that have put them there in those seats, saying those things because it has never occurred to them that other possibilities are sayable, let alone thinkable. I teach with this insight from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in mind, Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you? 

Toward that end, I also disagree with my colleagues that to engage in (seemingly) impossible dreaming is somehow childish, foolish, or shortsighted; and that the path to “useful” knowledge must take the familiar forms of institutional or state appeals – such as policy or law, none which have not protected us yet from the violence of their evaluation and implementation. As someone who has a critique of reform-minded, ameliorative campaigns and yet also recognizes that what I do in the classroom might be understood as such, and as someone who has been inspired by revolutionary movements and yet also knows that these can foster authoritarianism and political arrogance, I hate prescriptions and imperatives. This is the right way! We have to do that! We hear all the time that our moment of ongoing crisis requires practical action, straightforward prose, clear reasoning, hard facts, common sense, and so forth, and we hear this from both reformist and revolutionary comers. I am not against these things, but I am against arguments that these things are the only forms through which we define “activism” or politics now. Our imaginative leaps and wild theorizing are what make it possible for us not to succumb to the already-known directives and demands --be practical, be straightforward-- that haven’t yet gotten us out of this mess.

  • It is a refusal to spend time and energies to augment others’ lack (or perceived lack) of critical knowledge about power or violence, oftentimes knowing that to name an act of power or violence is sometimes to be perceived as an agent of power or violence itself. This is what zinester Bianca Ortiz long ago called the trap of being either educator or enemy, and independent scholar Sara Ahmed calls the feminist killjoy.
--Mimi Thi Nguyen

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