Challenging Higher Education with 'Poor Queer Studies'

March 29, 2020

Professor Matt Brim unpacks the ways elitism impacts the field of queer studies in a new book.

Professor Matt Brim and the cover of his book, "Poor Queer Studies"
Professor Matt Brim and the cover of his book, "Poor Queer Studies"

Professor Matt Brim (GC/College of Staten Island; Women’s and Gender Studies/Queer Studies, English) has spent more than 10 years teaching queer studies, first at Duke University then at The City University of New York. His latest book, Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University, deciphers how queer studies functions beyond the halls of highly selective, liberal arts institutions.

Brim draws on both his experiences as a queer studies professor at the College of Staten Island and encounters with his students as they navigate systems that neglect poor and minoritized individuals.  

In one instance, a student who works two jobs is forced to write his essays on his cell phone between work breaks because he doesn’t own a computer. In another, a struggling student endures three-hour commutes from the Bronx because CSI is the only school they can afford to attend. Several students are homeless. And, on at least one occasion, a student is forced to bring her 4-year-old to class to avoid domestic violence. 

“In a recent general education class, almost all of the students (sophomores, juniors, and seniors) work more than twenty hours per week,” Brim writes. “In all of the classes I have ever taught at CSI save one …  I have students who are parents as well as workers. I typically teach night school, so my classes fit into students’ work and family schedules.  

These interactions have become commonplace as Brim teaches queer studies.  Such circumstances aren’t unique to students within queer studies, but Brim makes the case that class and race issues are exacerbated in queer studies as a result of existing traditions. 

“The field of queer studies as it comes to everybody is intertwined with very elitist, privileged kinds of education and knowledge production,” Brim tells The Graduate Center. 

“You take a knowledge product that’s created in an elitist environment, and you say ‘that’s what the field is and that’s how the field should be taught.’ The problem is that those ideas don’t always work once you change the educational setting to an underclass, working, poor institution.”  

In a recent interview with Duke University Press, Brim delves further into this issue.

“The question of how to make better queer workers is not a liberal arts-friendly question, and queer studies is a liberal arts field,” Brim tells Duke University Press. “But it is the question in front of us at CSI, in night school, on weekends, after or before students’ workdays begin, or on their days off.”

He adds that his CSI students are interested in knowing “how to use the language, ideas, and politics of queer studies on the job — not only their future careers but the jobs they’re headed to after class. We talk about breakrooms and bus rides to work and customer service roles and student-teaching classrooms, and we translate ‘high queer theory’ to those local worksites. We think about how queer studies can make work life a bit better.” 

In his book, Brim unpacks the socioeconomic barriers within poor queer studies and his motivations as a professor in the field. 

“One of the things I want most for the students in my queer studies classes at CSI is for them to graduate and get good jobs and bring queer studies to bear on those jobs in some way,” Brim writes. 

Brim says his time at CUNY has best molded him as a queer studies teacher.  He teaches at both the CSI and The Graduate Center, where a majority of students are seeking associate degrees and graduate degrees respectively.  

“CUNY has been at the forefront of queer studies,” Brim says. “One of the ways you see that is in CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies. That’s the first academic center of its kind in the world. So in terms of a structured academic formation that says, ‘We take seriously LGBT studies, we put resources behind it, have a center around it,’ CUNY is at the forefront of that historically. It’s a bright spot in queer studies.”

Brim notes, however, that queer studies is happening outside of research centers like CLAGS, “beyond the halls of flagship institutions,” in places that aren’t always highlighted. And the field  is being cultivated throughout CUNY in ways we’ve yet to see.  

With that, Poor Queer Studies draws on the everyday experiences of teaching and learning queer studies at CUNY. 

“I hope everybody who is interested in queer studies reads this book. It’s that feisty underdog audience who is doing this work in the shadows that I want to know that this is the book for them,” Brim explains.  “There are queer, intellectual cultures all across the academy in many places we don’t see. By trying to see them, we can make this field more robust, interesting, and inclusive.”