Role MODELLING!

Fadi Abou-Rihan

 

I was asked a couple of weeks ago to participate in a conference on equity in graduate studies. But it was only yesterday that I found out, and to my dismay, that I have been slotted to address the question of role models. I am assuming that, since the event is presented under the title of "Rescuing Graduate Studies," what is required of me at this point is not so much to identify those individuals who have made it possible for me to pursue my intellectual interests with a modicum of quality, not that there haven't been any for indeed there have been quite a few. Instead, my task has been set in the context of the present, of how I could perhaps act as a model to those whose work and interests might fall outside the limits of the acceptable mainstrea m. I say this because, while my work in queer theory has been regarded as marginal or inconsequential by many, I have nonetheless been able to achieve a limited success in my career as an academic, perhaps not because of my work but in spite of it. In any case, I am not so sure I can step into the shoes of a role model, and not so much because of a false sense of humility but because of the persistent obstacles of contradiction and paradox that hinder my thoughts on the topic, some of which stem from p ersonal circumstances and others from systemic institutional ones.

Now with respect to the first point I want to make, I must confess that logic has never been my forte. Still, I cannot help but notice the double bind some of us find ourselves in. Our employer, the research institution, evaluates and rewards us on t he basis of our capacity to be original and we, in turn, expect that same originality from our students. I want to set aside for the time being the laughable notion of a manufactured originality, of an originality on demand. Instead, I want to underscor e the impracticality of the motto by which we operate: "follow me by not following me" and the absurdity of the imperative we as role models, supposedly, impose on our students: "be original, like me." Highlighting the contradiction here is not an exercis e in mental gymnastics but a test to the practical limits of our modus operandi. For as we posit originality as the motivation and value of our work, we simultaneously set for it boundaries beyond which it may not venture. And so the dictum "be origina l, like me" should actually read "be original, but not too original" otherwise the asset will become a hindrance, a threat.

These are not my paranoid phantasies but my present reality and that of my not too distant days as a graduate student. For instance, I cannot ignore one faculty member's warning that he would fail my dissertation if he were to serve on my defense comm ittee. The issue for him was not so much one of quality but of territoriality. In fact, he admitted his lack of qualifications to evaluate five of the dissertation's six chapters. His ignorance however did not stop him from making the judgment. I had presented him with something he did not know and his response was: "this is not philosophy." Interestingly enough, a graduate student of mine now is facing similar obstacles. Her work too is being considered "not philosophy" by the powers that be and he nce deemed unworthy of support, financial or otherwise. I cannot in all honesty posit myself as a role model for her, assuming that, indeed, the decision is mine to make. What I can do is outline the stakes, the losses, and the rewards. My experiences are not necessarily hers to relive and her choices are definitely not mine to make.

Practical circumstances also make it almost impossible for me to play the part of role model. If, as some have claimed, my discipline, philosophy, is the mother of all sciences, then it is lagging behind its offspring by at least one generation in mor e ways than one. Queer theory is being recognized by, admittedly, a small minority in departments of English or women's studies or cultural studies as a legitimate minor field. Philosophy however, and at the institutional level, remains totally oblivious to this recognition and blindingly resistant to any theoretical contributions the study of sexuality has made and can make. And there are some fairly forceful and crucial reasons to believe that the situation will not change in the near future and these reasons, I believe, are ideological even if they get expressed i n economic terms. In any case, and practically speaking, I can encourage graduate students in my department to pursue this filed of study only if I also urge them to define for themselves what personal success they want to attain beyond or aside from the specific goal of a tenured position which at this point is, sadly, unattainable. And so again, I do not wis h to set myself up as a model and not just because of what might come across as my ardent individualism but mostly because of the cynicism which I cannot shake and would much rather contain.

Another difficulty that I have with the idea of a role model ties directly to the way I define the nature and scope of the work that I do. As I mentioned before, my research and writing fall under the heading of queer theory. And I am not the first t o insist that this theory is not merely a theory of the queer designed to generate a credible discourse explaining and defending perverse sexuality, but that in fact it itself must be queer, in other words, that it must locate itself in the gap between th e perversely fluid body and its desires and the institutionally static theory and its disciplines. At the level of methodology, this involves furthering what I like to refer to as queer theory's nomadism. Through an interdisciplinarity that consists in borrowing tools and techniques from one investigative field and applying them to a totally different one, queer theory can generate experimental and fluid forms of knowledge that are to be judged by the standards of neither. This theory can thus allow no t only for an encounter between the various bodies of work to which its interdisciplinary nature may be traced--feminist criticism, philosophy, history, psychoanalysis, medicine, and literary and cultural studies--it can provide a site for their mutual co ntestation and the repudiation of their orthodoxies. All of this is to say that, the way I see it, queer theory is premised on an openness and exteriority that would preclude a fixed cannon or methodology and that, if it is to be defined in oppositional terms at all, queer theory is a function of a resistance not only to the norms of the various disciplines but also to itself as it encompasses a multitude of differing and discordant communities, intellectual, political, sexual. In this context then, the idea or practice of a role model seems not only highly contradictory but also counterproductive, if not regressive.

Lastly, what I find most disturbing about the rhetoric of role models is how it assumes that those in need of guidance are in fact graduate students who, from my own experience at least, remain the most original, the most flexible, and the most welcomi ng of new terrains and strategies. It was, and still is, advanced graduate students and junior faculty not yet tenured who, for the most part, carry the responsibility for advancing the new field of queer studies. Their investments have yet to be recognized (conference organizing and participation, intellectual output-dissertations and articles--, and the contributions they make that allow for the circulation of ideas-everything from quoting texts to buying texts). It hence seems to me that if th ere is anyone in need of a guide or role model here, it is not so much the graduate students but those amongst the senior faculty who interfere in and obstruct the work of their students and junior colleagues. For it is they who constitute the defense, tenure, hiring, and curriculum committees that legislate the academically acceptable. To put it bluntly, graduate students do not need us to tell them what to do but to let them do what they want to do and what we all know they can do.

         



This essay was originally presented at the
"Rescuing Graduate Studies" conference
at Innis College, University of Toronto, March 1, 1997.

©Fadi Abou-Rihan

abouriha@chass.utoronto.ca


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