- Feminist Teacher Plays Possum
I wouldn't take crap off anybodyIf I just knew I was getting crap In time not to take it.(Miller Williams, "Ruby Tells All")
In August 2016, I left Louisiana after a night that seemed decidedly and "naturally N'Awlins." Or "natural" to the New Orleans I had come to know in my years of teaching at Tulane University. Surrounded by my partner and friends at Bacchanal Wines, I felt a frisson of pleasure and subversion when a former student ran over to the table to proclaim that I was her best teacher ever and, after handshakes with those at the table, to express surprise that my partner is a man. "You'd never know," she said. "Professor LG says 'partner,' and she is so good with pronouns." She confirmed my lifelong goal to become a sexually illegible minor authority figure. Whatever they'd guess would scarcely capture the strange fits and starts, the fortunes and pitfalls, of my career (both academic and romantic), so I had long ago chosen to leave them guessing.1
I suspected Mississippi had changed me a few months later, when I made my excuses to a student in office hours, saying I was "on my way to meet my husband," rather than using the word "partner." A couple of days later, a colleague in another department asked me who I had replaced. When I mentioned my predecessor's name, my colleague said, "oh, I think she left the South because she's a lesbian." That incident reminded me of a former composition director, who rejoiced in telling graduate students to "to meet undergrads where they are" [End Page 158] and responded in horror to my proposition, "let's meet them where they are, but not leave them there." What had I offered and refused by calling my partner my husband? If I had detected homophobia in the student, why had I chosen to "leave them there"?
During my waking hours, I was surprised that I grew reticent not as a contingent, term-limited faculty member at Tulane but when I landed a permanent instructorship that communicated my enduring value to the University of Mississippi. While I hemmed and hawed with offers at the end of that market year, a friend warned of delay, telling me that I needed to "learn to quit dancing when the music stops." Apparently, I aim to be a moving target, a cryptolesbian unpinnable by partisan politics or lepidopterology, with opinions somewhere between Sarah Palin's and Emma Goldman's.
Perhaps I had learned to play possum in the classroom or perhaps I had woven a cocoon to insulate myself against market failures. Teachers negotiate consensus. In the interest of dialogue, for example, they note that the conservative and liberal student agree on the necessity that feminism not reduce women's choices to some Manichean resistance to or collaboration with the patriarchy. These gestures demonstrate that the "both sides" rhetoric of cable news is itself a refusal of many sides, of the diffuse pleasures of dissent, of the jolly immigrant aphorism of what it means to be a minority (or minoritized) in America: "five Jews, ten opinions." But the most frantic possum, ostrich, and hibernation games happen not in the front of the classroom but when contingent faculty find themselves proximate to their tenure-track colleagues, strategizing how the presumed, consensual we might increase enrollments, fill classrooms, and get those undergraduates "woke." This essay constitutes my first refusal to play, to borrow—perhaps outrageously—Judith Butler's definition of justice as a place to "savor … failure."
Butler offered this statement on the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement in 2013, when there were actual attacks on left speech on college campuses. Conference programs from the period are generously dotted with references to Palestine—that is, to a politics about which most Americans know very little. Following the failure of a 2017 resolution to support BDS, the MLA took up climate change, peppering their generally turgid programs with references to the Anthropocene. Now, campuses are awash with Trumpian claims of suppression of conservative speech. While I welcome, expect, and, yes, demand...