Fringe Division. Department of Defense.
Yes, we are very edgy. We’re so far out on the edge of the university, we’re sitting out here on the sidewalk!
Once upon a time, I fancied myself wanting a livelihood out of my devotion to the study of culture. I loved sociology and anthropology. However, I was daunted by the extremely detached scholarly stance that seems to be prevalent in both disciplines. Postmodernist, critical, and deconstructionist perspectives were pushing difficult questions that put a traditionalist in the hot seat, making for very tense, very offensive-defensive sorts of interactions. Coming of age in the late 1990s academy–in San Francisco, California, no less–I grew drunk with promises of social and political relevance for the emerging scholar. The subaltern was speaking and she was pissed, emotional, and that was okay. What’s more, she was learned, scholarly, and not taking any guff from anybody, just because she was a brown woman. She’ll do analysis, publish, and do social theorizing herself, with or without permission from anybody.
The promise of this sort of scholarship was not forthcoming from the more-traditional programs that I encountered. This made me opt for cultural studies at Claremont Graduate University. One of my most vivid memories of doing cultural studies at CGU is encapsulated in the quotation above, made to me by a fellow student in the program–cultural studies makes no apologies for doing scholarship with purpose. We were racking up the student debt in the tens of thousands without any promise of future employment. Much like real life, there were no guarantees. We knew it would be hard to get a job afterwards, but we were there to become activist scholars, not worker drones of the university machine. We just didn’t care. Or if we did, we didn’t talk much about it.
During my time at CGU, I was immersed in literary theory and philosophy, reading about art and literature in ways that I hadn’t done before (Benjamin? Who’s that? Hoggart who? You mean the Frankfurt School has nothing to do with sausages?). What I recall most of all about my scholarly program, however, wasn’t the intellectual growth or stimulation. It was the high level of isolation and dread that permeated my existence as a grad student. The discomfort I experienced was so palpable that I burst into uncontrollable tears during one of my paper readings in class, in front of people I had to see the next day. I had reached the limits of faking for survival. Perhaps I just wasn’t cut out to be a cultural anthropologist and scholar. Maybe I didn’t have the chops to be the well-spoken subaltern. I just couldn’t read a dense academic text each week, for each class, and still be the sort of mother and wife I wanted, needed to be. In 2000, I dropped out of CGU and the graduate program I was a part of. I left feeling like a failure. In my darkest moments, to this day, this failure still haunts me. What’s more, I left after spending a number of semesters becoming really intimate with the student health services and various forms of SSRIs.
Looking back, my trek to San José State University’s library school was a small personal triumph. It was an act of defiant return, with the recognition that I wasn’t wanted or meant to succeed.
Now, I’m being pushed out…again. Is it time for me to admit defeat? Should I finally accept that I suck? That my academic space would be much better used by a more ardent scholar? That none of this has anything to do with my being born brown, in a little-known colonized nation, and with a particular type of reproductive function?
Got words for me? Please write in the comments. I haven’t yet concluded this tale. Maybe you can help me do that?