Welcome back, Academic Feminists, I hope that your new year/new semester is off to a good start. Today’s column features a dialogue between John Jay College of Criminal Justice colleagues Marcie Bianco and Victoria Bond. Marcie Bianco, Queer Public(s) Intellectual, PhD, is a columnist and contributing writer at AfterEllen and Lambda Literary, as well as an adjunct associate professor at John Jay College at Hunter College. Victoria Bond is the co-author of Zora and Me and a lecturer at John Jay College. The two caught my eye when they teamed up on AfterEllen to discuss Beyoncé’s latest album, which they analyzed using Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Erotic” (!!). Their conversation today touches on everything from the importance of public intellectuals to the challenges posed to creativity in the academic setting, with a little Zora Neale Hurston and Girls mixed in.
MB: Vicky, tell the Feministing community a little about yourself, and maybe a little about how we met, as we are colleagues at John Jay College. What does it mean, for you, to be a feminist teacher at this particular college? What does it mean to be an educator as a queer, feminist, woman of color?
VB: I’ve been at John Jay College for nine years. Seven of them I spent as an adjunct and I’m in year two of being a full-time lecturer. Over the summer you were a guest on HuffPo Live in a segment on “LUGS” or “lesbians until graduation” and informed the department of your appearance, thank goodness! Since I had spent years reading sex research and about six months taking sexual histories from women it made sense to reach out to another queer woman in my community who is really smart and a writer and who is a public intellectual.
Many of the students at John Jay want to change communities for the better through public service so as a queer feminist teaching composition a lot of my assignments ask students to recognize and grapple with sexism, homophobia, and sexuality. For students who want to be cops and social workers and teachers, the perspective of queer feminism is an especially powerful tool. Students who are sometimes more conservative than I anticipate begin my courses less defensive than they otherwise might. Being a black cisgender woman in my 30s scripts me as non-threatening because the students are largely of color themselves. When they see me, they see a version of who they are and who they aim to be, which gives me an enormous advantage.
Which brings me to my first question for you, Marcie. How did your life as an academic begin?
MB: My academic life truly began the moment I attended my first Shakespeare lecture, during my senior year at Harvard. I was at a critical juncture in my life: I had spent three years working for Al Gore and was completely disillusioned after the Supreme Court handed George W. Bush the election, and I became jaded with the entire political process, and with America’s political climate in general. I had begun looking for something else, something other than a career in politics, and I found it the day after 9/11, when I, planning to go to a Dante lecture later in the day, had an hour to kill and thought I’d see what Shakespeare was all about. That single class irrevocably changed my life, in a myriad of ways: I turned toward literature, I turned gay, and I started thinking, critically thinking, perhaps for the first time ever in my life.
Did you have a similar moment of turning towards literature?
VB: No. I had a moment, but it was a mundane one in childhood.The library where my grandmother still works discarded many of their poetry books in the late 80s. Grandma brought them home and I found my way to the pile. Almost immediately they made me a reader and set my heart on writing.
You described your memoir as being a mind and body coming of age story. Based on your initiation into the field what did you think academia was going to be like? How have your perceptions changed?
MB: I thought academia was going to be an idyllic “life of the mind,” a veritable green space of critical thinking and feminism…and lesbianism. I imagined collective engagement and activism derivative of a kind of humanist ethos of civic mindedness that aims to elevate an entire commonwealth of people. Funny, this naiveté. The pervasiveness of corporate and neo-liberalist ideologies have ironically rendered academia simultaneously anti-intellectual and elitist, as well as profoundly uncreative. There are very few creative people in academia, very little value is placed on the imagination and true independent thinking.
Would you agree? I mean, you, a YA fiction writer, are a creative person who works within the confines of academia. How do you perceive academia’s impetus, or even reason for existence, in 2014?
VB: It exists for students!! But as a lecturer who has roughly 100 students every semester, I have no other choice but to be clear on that. I haven’t lamented the lack of creativity in academia because I never thought of academia as a creative place to begin with. As a writer without a doctorate who adjuncted for years, my expectations in this regard were non-existent. The job for me has always been about the classroom in a pure way. Which funnily enough is a privilege, irrespective of how overworked I am, that results from being very low on the totem pole.
Marcie, it’s so romantic how you were swept up by Shakespeare, seduced really! Because what’s more relevant than desire and discovery! Which brings me to the issue of relevance more broadly. Your writing as a journalist is absolutely relevant to the moment. You’ve mentioned before that academics claim to want cultural relevance yet most of the writing they do is not in dialogue with the students in the classroom or the general public for that matter. In other words, with the culture.
Can you talk some about how your training as a Renaissance Drama specialist intersects with your life as a journalist and vice versa?
MB: Yes, I think this is one of the great ironies of academia: scholars lament “the decline of the humanities,” while at the same time refusing to actually create a dialogue with their students. Nothing of what they publish in those ridiculously arcane, “peer reviewed,” academic journals speaks to a general undergraduate population. They are talking to themselves and for themselves—what kind of intellectual community are they fostering, really?
I always think about teaching Mrs. Dalloway in one of my “Modern Literature” course last year. One of my students raised her hand on the first day of discussion and said, “Professor, what is this white woman complaining about?! She just has to put on a party!” And this comment says it all: What is Clarissa complaining about? Or, better yet, why am I teaching this particular text to this particular student body? Tradition? Because of curriculum requirements? Yet I think the older generation of scholars, who are clinging to their tenured chairs with icy death grips, don’t listen to what their students are really saying when they make such comments. Our students want to learn, they want to engage. They aren’t lazy or stupid, but that’s the perception that I think many scholars have when entering their classrooms.
I’m interested to hear what you, as a teacher of writing, think has become of writing in the 21st century. One of our colleagues Andy Selsberg wrote an editorial about teaching to the text message. In the age of Twitter and 140 character and emoticon-filled missives, isn’t there a place for sustained, articulate communication?
VB: Of course there is! And over the past few years student work hasn’t been getting shorter in my courses; it has been getting longer because I think students are frankly desperate to express who they are and find out what they think. In the 21st century, the practice we get in creating personas on social networks and tweaking them by adding and omitting information is an edited, truncated, sped-up version of the writing process. For the students who enjoy expressing themselves, social media only wets their appetites for doing the thought pieces in the classroom that writers like us can’t stop planting on the Internet. At the same time, it also makes a lot of sense that Woolf would strike the chord you just described because many of the lessons her work teaches are about the emotional calculus of bourgeois life, which many of our students are not privileged enough to experience outside a character in a novel. So in comp the reading has to communicate to students that they have something to contribute to discourse while simultaneously it has to be broad and assorted enough that the process of self-discovery is always front and center.
Speaking of discovery and writing, what’s to be learned about your activism from your work on Christopher Marlowe, Gertrude Stein and Girls?
MB: The juxtapositioning of an English Renaissance playwright with a 20th century writer and a 21st century hit TV show is an interesting one, I agree. For me, in many ways the relationship can be simplified into terms of ethics, and of the inherent connection between ethics and aesthetics. The stylizations of one’s life constitute her ethics. My ethics is revealed in my daily hows: how I do this and that. This is a large reason why I contend that sexuality is a choice, because I actively decide to live my life in certain ways and engage in certain activities, in this regard, sexual activities, that “makes” me a “lesbian.” So, when I teach literature, I examine it as an ethics, of the self, of a community, and, secondarily, I analyze how the aesthetics and form of the text also impart its ethics.
VB: I know that you have a lot of love for Melissa Harris-Perry. What do you think of the back and forth over Coates at The Atlantic claiming she is America’s foremost intellectual? Is the backlash emblematic of a few people being out of touch? Or does it indicate something deeper?
MB: Melissa Harris-Perry is undoubtedly the greatest public intellectual in contemporary America. Period. I can’t even see how this is debatable. Who else holds a candle to her? Politico’s Dylan Byers retorted with a list of public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and E.O. Wilson. Noam Chomsky? He was in his prime as a public intellectual in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when he debated Foucault. Now he’s like Slavoj Žižek minus the mania but with all the depression, or pessimism about the world. Perhaps that’s something else I see uniquely in MHP: she’s an optimist.
MHP has successfully created that bridge between the academic and non-academic communities, effectively elevating us all. No one has created and fostered thoughtful and thought-provoking conversations on race, gender, sexuality, or class like MHP. She is a conversation builder who works across communities. She’s dedicated entire shows to critical social issues like “being trans in America,” and black masculinities. I’m in awe of her and her career. She teaches during the week and opens her mind to the world on the weekends. She is my role model.
Who are your role models? Do academic pressures affect what you write about? I know you’re working on a sociological study of bisexuality—can you say a little about this project?
VB: My role models are all writers and they are mostly poets with some novelists thrown in. With my dear friend Tanya Simon, I co-authored a novel for children inspired by the life of Zora Neale Hurston called Zora and Me. A murder mystery with a black girl genius at its center, Zora and Me tells a story of friendship and home with a passing narrative folded in. One big piece of my identity, and I think we share this Marcie, is that I’m a fangirl. The book, though I think it is much more, is Hurston fanfiction.
In 2009, I started journaling about my sexuality and what felt like out of the blue. At that point, I hadn’t had a girlfriend in a couple of years and had been married to my husband for two. When I started writing, I identified as bi. I realized I had no idea what that meant other than I was sexually attracted to men and women, not that it had to mean more. But it did mean more to me. So I started looking up books on bisexuality and then sexuality, followed by studies and surveys before I started interviewing women myself. Ultimately, I’m a fan of the study of sex; bisexuality, in all of its gordian-knot-glory consistently challenged, interested, and frustrated me. The book I am working on is a biography of women post-sexual revolution. Only instead of having work, or motherhood at its center, I’ve chosen bisexuality to tell the story of the female experience. As you might imagine, the motivation to work on this is completely internal along with the pressure I feel to keep going. Which brings me to the spaces where we create…
Can you talk about the intellectual space where you think academic writing is forged? What does the term “complicity” mean to you in this context?
MB: Academic writing is defined by an ethics of complicity. One must conform to the methodological and stylistic rules of Journal X in order to be published in said journal. When I look at academic journals, every article to me reads the same, and this is incredibly boring. I’ve had articles refused from journals because of my style of writing; I’ve been told if I simply revise my style—a deliberate style in relation to my methodology and overarching project regarding the a-morality of Christopher Marlowe’s drama—that my articles would be “reconsidered.” I refused revisions. This is a type of compromise I will not make.
VB: You called complicity the enemy of creativity. Can you explain more about that?
MB: The two as concepts are at odds for me. If one is complicit, how can she be creative? Perhaps within the confines prescribed by the field of complicity one can be creative, but that creativity is inherently circumscribed by the conditions of that contract, or arrangement. This can be construed as an ethical dilemma pertinent to any aspect of life. Again, in the space of academia, complicity rules, even in the queerest of circles.
Do you feel a creative pinch working in academia? How do we not lose ourselves in the machine?
VB: I feel the pinch very literally in terms of the time I have to create given I teach so much. But the silver lining is frankly meeting folks like you Marcie. The fact that we are queer and here is sustaining. You make me want to work more and figure out how to be more present! Too often folks go unacknowledged and given that you do so much great work it felt nuts to not tell you how awesome you are and how much I admire you and that I want to learn from you.
MB: I feel similarly. As an adjunct it’s quite easy to remain an outlier, and interact with no one save the department assistant or secretary in charge of course scheduling. I’m so happy to have you as my colleague and friend, and confidant. Finding people to be “queer (and feminist!) together” within these kinds of spaces is so necessary.
Gwendolyn Beetham loves Melissa Harris-Perry and has never seen Girls.