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‘Poor Queer Studies’: Away from Elitism, Toward Anti-Racist Education

For more than 10 years, Professor Matt Brim has taught courses on queer studies at the College of Staten Island. There, he’s seen firsthand the struggles his students face as they navigate higher education in a field steeped in elitism.

A homeless Latinx student. A student forced to bring her 4-year-old to class to avoid domestic violence. A student who works two jobs and must write his essays on his cell phone because he doesn’t own a computer. A transgender Asian American student desperate to leave home. 

These are the kind of stories that have become so commonplace for Brim as he teaches queer studies that he describes them as “daily observations and unremarkable interactions.” However, he argues, these realities haven’t been prioritized in the field’s tradition.

“Working at an institution with a lot of poor and working-class students, you come to understand the incredible drama of class mobility,” he writes. He adds to SUM: “I started thinking about queer studies and work life because so many of my students talk about their jobs, about coming to or going to work, about struggling to be a worker and student.”

In his new book, Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University, Brim unpacks how queer studies functions in academia, and how its traditions neglect poor and minoritized students.

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

“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.” 

Students in his recent education classes, for example, are workers and parents: “I typically teach night school, so my classes fit into students’ work and family schedules,” Brim writes. 

He argues that “poor,” working, non-traditional students often go underserved within the larger field of queer studies.

“[I] argue for a reorientation of the field away from its prestigious and well-known institutions and toward working-poor and working-class people, places, and pedagogies,” Brim writes.

Brim draws on both his experiences as a queer studies professor at the College of Staten Island and encounters with his students. Brim, who also teaches at The Graduate Center, says his time at CUNY has best molded him as a queer studies teacher. 

“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.”