image via CWRC
By T.L. Cowan
Preface: This is a version of a talk I gave at the Universities Art Association of Canada (UAAC/AAUC) at the Banff Centre, located on the traditional territory of the Kootenay, Stoney, Blood, Peigan, Siksika and Tsuu T’ina First Nations. With thanks to Andrea Terry and Riva Symko for the invitation to be part of the panel “A Big Dull Axe Looms Large: Interrogating the Disciplinary Relevance of Art & Art History in Canada.” Dedicated to the striking OPSEU/SEFPO faculty, who are putting their bodies and livelihoods on the line to improve working conditions of part-time and full-time faculty in Ontario’s colleges.
And with thanks to the many comrades I have talked with about adjunct methods, precarious faculty survivance and feminist solidarity across institutional and community differences of rank and resources throughout the years including and to everyone who taught me how to do cabaret.
It took me 10 years to get my undergraduate degree. The first time around, university was my escape route. I used up all of my bravado to get myself into university as the best way to get out of the small town where I was raised, moved into a university dorm room and that is where the plan ended. I paid my way out of that small town with a small portfolio of scholarships, grants and loans, which I spent in a shockingly short amount of time on tapered jeans and binge drinking. Since I had only ever imagined university as an escape route and not actually its own thing, I rarely went to class and even more rarely turned in assignments. Very soon I was on academic probation and my student loans were in collection. So I dropped out, got a few jobs in restaurants, started volunteering at some feminist organizations, moved to Vancouver and became a lesbian spoken word artist. I found my way into the booming feminist and queer spoken word and broader cabaret scene in Vancouver in the late 1990s, and quite quickly realized that to meet the feminists and queers a girl most desired and to keep a scene going so you could keep meeting those feminists and queers, you had to make shit happen out of nothing. So, like everyone else I knew, and along with many collaborators, I started making cabaret—creating a theme, finding a space, inviting many performers who did different things and hoping they would invite their friends, making posters, getting the word out, bringing people together in different configurations depending on the show.
As an event organizer and cabaret curator (although certainly we were not calling ourselves ‘curators’ in those days), I regularly planned shows by inviting people I already knew and liked as well as people who I wanted to meet and whose work I loved. My collaborators and I, we were making spaces in which to gather the people we wanted to be together with. So we took the shows to where the feminists and queers were at: political rallies, marches, vigils. Take Back the Night, International Women’s Day. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. We almost never had any money to work with and even when we charged a cover at the door, we almost never took home any cash. But sometimes we took home a date. We never made solo shows. Each show was a cabaret–a variety show with six to a dozen or two performers working in poetry, performance art, dance, video, storytelling, puppets, bondage, and so on, with different life experiences and ways of expressing these ideas. We created stages in whatever show space we could get our hands on: bookstores, cafeterias, sex shops, coffee shops, strip clubs, nightclubs, living rooms, parks, theatres, squatted gallery spaces, bars, community centres, and more than one basement show space so dense with mould spores you choked when you inhaled. Together with the other folks in this scene (and like so many queer, trans-, feminist and other minoritized artists past, present and future), we were creating shows in the image of the world we wanted to live in, bringing into existence a reality that we didn’t see elsewhere, designing shows to attract the people we wanted to be together with. We were hacking together our own existences.
Five years after dropping out, I got myself back to school and made it through an undergrad and then eventually through grad school. Several years into my professor life, it has become very clear that the drop-out years filled with cabaret-making have been just as important to the academic life I want for myself, as all of the grad courses, exams, and scholarly mentoring. Indeed it has been the practice of what I have come to call survival interdisciplinarity – a skill I learned in making cabaret – that got me through the most difficult years of my career to date. As a queer feminist anti-racist trans-loving crip-loving scholar committed to equity, decolonization and Indigenization in and of corporate settler university culture, cabaret has continued to be my most important skill.
What I hope is that the revolution of adjunct faculty is coming and that it will create a new turn in our disciplines. The ‘Adjunct Turn’ which, as a method from below, will be aligned with what Chela Sandoval calls “differential oppositional consciousness” (2000), coalitional techniques for affinity-based disciplinary and institutional transformations. An orientation away from individualism and the life of a solitary specialized genius, and an orientation towards critical intimacy, towards collaborative, process- and practice-centred distributed epistemologies and an aesthetics of multiplicity and shared resources. A method aligned with what Audre Lorde called in the power of the erotic, “the yes within ourselves” (1984, 57); the yes work of making the intellectual-cultural worlds we desire.
It was while I was completing my undergrad (my third go at it), that I started to realize the vast inequalities of the professoriate. It became very clear to me which of my professors were working on a contract, sessional, part-time, precarious, course-by-course way. Perhaps this is because I grew up underclass, so I can spot another one easily. What this meant was that when I started grad school, I was very determined to never work as a sessional faculty, since I had a notion of the humiliations that sessional and adjunct faculty were experiencing in the context of my education, and the humiliations of being underclass was not an experience I wanted to repeat in my adulthood.
In the first instance, I got very lucky and did, in fact, go from grad school to post-doc to tenure track job. However, in 2011, I left that tenure track job, in order to live with my partner, who had been offered a job in New York City. Although we didn’t have kids, I did what people with children call “keeping our family together” and took a career risk in order to live the intimate life I wanted and needed.
My immediate experience in New York City was not the explosive success I had hoped for. No one knew me. My reputation did not cross the border. I had to start over. I had signed a part-time contract at The New School, which meant that I would teach somewhere from 1-3 courses per year, with a salary cap of something around $21,000. If I wanted more work, I would have to look elsewhere.
Even though I thought I had previously understood the underclassness of part-time faculty, I soon realized that I had underestimated how my new status as “an adjunct,” “a part-timer,” would so significantly and negatively impact what kinds of contributions I would be invited to make at my home institution and beyond. The reality of adjunctism started to set in, and I realized that it was going to be more difficult than I expected to have the life I needed. It was in the context of working from the marginal, isolating, humiliating and largely unresourced position of an adjunct faculty that cabaret methods became so clearly central to my life as a research-practitioner of trans- feminist and queer cultural and political production. It was in the context of working as an adjunct faculty that I realized “the state” of our profession and our cross-disciplines in the Humanities.
Rather than honing an expertise in a small, specialized area of research, it became clear to me that I needed to be able to mobilize my capacity for indiscretion – I had to be able and willing to teach absolutely anything, anywhere. The cross-disciplinary, make-do training of my ongoing cabaret worlds bolstered this practice. The precariat in academic industries work where we can, when we can, and how we can.
And it is in these conditions that we find the “state” of our disciplines and our profession. What is the work being done by adjunct faculty in the classrooms, conferences and research cultures of the professoriate? What are the knowledges about our disciplines produced within the conditions of desperate, degrading, crushing, strategic survival economies of part-time and contract professorial labour? How can our profession and disciplines account for and value these knowledges even when that labour is treated by our institutions as infinitely replaceable, disposable, unspecialized, undisciplined? These are questions I am continuing to ask myself again, as I find myself with the good fortune of being in a new tenure-track position. And importantly, I owe this new position to the kindness, solidarity, patience, generous help, understanding and recognition from feminist comrades, along the way. We cannot survive in this system without making worlds that we want to be in together; this means that tenured and tenure-track faculty have to acknowledge that it is their job to simultaneously work and break this broken, vastly unjust system. We have to pay attention to the ways our departments, faculties and institutions are using contract faculty in ways that become increasingly invisible to those of us protected from such realities in the daily life of our jobs.
And when we are on hiring committees and grant juries, we need to be attentive to the inclination of our profession to punish the undisciplined for their insubordinate expertise in everything—an insubordination produced by the need to create something awesome from nothing while living out the conditions of massive and unforgivable collegial neglect. The survival work of adjunct faculty needs to be acknowledged as a specialization, as expertise, in our disciplines and in the research and teaching economies of the contemporary university.
A story to end, a dispatch from the stage of the Loud & Queer Festival in Edmonton from many years ago. It is story that has shaped my intellectual and creative life and it offered me a survival practice that I used constantly when I was working as an adjunct faculty. The story comes from the Edmonton Queen, Gloria Hole and her drag mother, Halifax-based drag queen high priestess, Lulu LaRude (it is told with permission from Darrin Hagen aka Gloria Hole):
When Gloria was just a baby queen (so, in the early 1980s), she and Lulu found themselves offered a gig out in Gibbons, north of Edmonton. They were booked for a show at a place called “Sensations” or “Celebrities” or “Hot Spot” or something very gay-sounding. For weeks before, an excited Gloria had told all of her friends that she’d booked a FEATURE gig and she just couldn’t stop talking about it. It turns out the place was a strip club with patrons who were not impressed by these drag queens, and Gloria and Lulu barely escaped with their lives.
They got back in their dragmobile and high-tailed it back to (the relative safety of) Edmonton. As they are driving, poor young Gloria turns to the wise Lulu and says, “Oh Lulu what are we going to tell everyone? I’m so ashamed.” Wise Lulu turns to Gloria and says, “Darling, have I taught you nothing? We’re going to tell them it was FABULOUS.”
The risk of being fabulous, as many a drag queen knows, is the risk of being under-appreciated and misunderstood, disciplined by a life-threatening set of rules that you’re not even playing by. I propose that we all begin to appreciate and reward the fabulous as it is mobilized by faculty working in the shittiest of conditions. As Anjali Arondekar and Geeta Patel note in their introduction to the recent introduction to their special issue of GLQ, Area Impossible: The Geopolitics of Queer Studies,
we have opted for the fabular because it can be thought of as the form through which one imagines a better or perhaps just a good enough analytic. Fables underscore peculiar commonalities and repetitions of belief and orient routinized habits of analysis
while attending to the generation of value/capital that is implicit in both. [Whereas] translation (especially in embodied elsewheres) could inadvertently slide into literalization, punctiliousness, or conversion, mislaying in the process the fecundity that the fabular can lug along. (2009, 154)
I suggest that we need to recognize and reward the fabulous in our fields, not only to work to eradicate the entrenched and enforced maldistribution of resources and life chances within our profession and disciplines, but to begin to assess and appreciate the radical disciplinary transformations at work through the X-factor (Coleman 2011) specialties of colleagues working as adjunct faculty. The fabular is the practice of creating and holding what is necessarily generative for ourselves and those who listen to our stories in the face of obvious disaster (Cowan & Rault 2016); it is “a good enough analytic” for these times and I propose that this is the analytic from which we are all working, adjunct and otherwise; to operate securely is to disavow the situation that produces these massive inequities in our places of education. As Tavia Nyong’o writes of fabulation: “The overriding of our rational brain is key to how fabulation, as an instinct for the virtual, unlocks and unleashes novelty in an otherwise deadlocked symbolic order” (Nyong’o 2013/2014). I suggest first that we identify and seize upon that symbolic order in which we are deadlocked; and then we must begin the cabaret work of fabulating a new reality.
Arondekar, Anjali, and Geeta Patel. 2016. “Area Impossible: Notes toward an Introduction.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 22 (2): 151–71.
Coleman, Beth. 2011. Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation. MIT Press.
Cowan, T.L. & Jasmine Rault. 2016. “Transmedial Drag: Cabaret Methods, Digital Platforms & Technologies of Fabulous.” Talk delivered at Trinity College, 25 February.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.
Nyong’o, Tavia. 2013. “Wildness: A Fabulation.” S&F Online 12 (1-2). http://sfonline.barnard.edu/activism-and-the-academy/wildness-a-fabulation/.
Sandoval, Chela. 2000. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
T.L. Cowan is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies (Digital Media Cultures) in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media (UTSC) and the Faculty of Information (iSchool) at the University of Toronto. Before moving to the University of Toronto, T.L. was a Presidential Visiting Professor in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale University, and Chair of Experimental Pedagogies in the School of Media Studies at The New School. T.L.’s research focuses on cultural and intellectual economies and networks of minoritized digital media and performance practices. This work includes a first monograph on intermedial performance, poetry and digital culture, entitled Poetry’s Bastards and a second, on the translocal methods of trans- feminist and queer cabaret in Montreal, Mexico City and New York City, entitled Sliding Scale, both nearing completion. T.L. is also the Primary Investigator on a collaborative digital research-creation project called the Cabaret Commons: an online archive and anecdotal encyclopedia for trans-feminist and queer artists, audiences and researchers, and is writing a co-authored book entitled Checking In: Feminist Labor in Networked Publics & Privates with Jasmine Rault.