academic reorganization · queer

Here’s to the House of Arts

One of the things I’ve been bending my brain around lately is the question of how a large Faculty (mine has 365 TT professors) might best be organized to provide exciting collaborative possibilities, good support systems, and cross-disciplinary teaching possibilities. While there might have been an organic relationship between discipline, department and program back in the days when, say, papal bulls were big news, nowadays the ties between scholarly specialization (“discipline”), administrative unit (“department”) and area of study (“program”) are at best traditional, the result of historical accretion, and at worst stumbling blocks to the kind of work we’d all prefer to do.

I’m all for reorganizing. But how?

There are examples within the university system. Some have colleges, which allow for at least two simultaneous affiliations among faculty members. It sounds good on paper, but given that a college is, among other things, a building, and since no one has lately written to offer me a building for my progressive think tank (hey, if we’re gonna reorganize, let’s reorganize!), I’m not sure the college route is the way to go.

We could break up: let humanities, social sciences and the fine arts be their own non-departmentalized Faculties, with disciplinary difference built in (Music is not Visual Art is not Drama). But while that would decrease the number of departments, it would increase the number of Deans, and I haven’t heard a loud clamour lately for more Deans. (Kidding! Everybody loves Deans!)

We could organize around objects of study, like Literature, Performance, Cultural Studies, Area Studies. This would potentially solve long-standing schisms like physical vs cultural anthropology, but what are you going to do with the residuum, or as I call them, the people who don’t fit in? Arguably, ahem, this could comprise the majority of our colleagues.

We could number ourselves off into administrative units with no relationship to discipline or program, just take 365 and divide it by, say, 7: a kind of Mao-hosts-the-Tea-Party solution.

Then it struck me. Okay, okay, honesty compels me to say, then it struck my partner Mo, who said it to me, who put it in this blog – that the model for rearranging a large and complicated Faculty like ours might not come from another university at all. It might come from a completely different institution, yet one that is similarly longstanding, well-organized, socially vital, self-sustaining and imaginative.

I mean, of course, drag houses.

Remember Paris Is Burning? Drag houses take wayward souls under their wing and bring them into the kind of kinship network that universities can only dream of. The House of Xtravaganza imparts an identity – or a subjectivity – or both – without worrying the differences between them. Tired of academic patriarchy? You’re in luck: drag houses are typically matriarchal.

Drag culture teaches significant survival skills for the Balls and, I’m arguing, the Academy: “reading,” for sure, but also vogue, snark, thrift, spunk, and shade. Drag mothers show you how to nip and tuck and stuff and paste – and pass. Balls reward you for posing. Just think about that for a second. Drag queens invented the diva. And as for surviving tough times?: the underfunding of the humanities in the twenty-first century has nothing on the redlining of New York neighbourhoods in the 1970s and ’80s.

We’d have to modify drag culture somewhat, of course. Not for us the House of Blahnik, but the House of Butler, the House of Durkheim, the House of Marx (categories: Teutonic Pretty Boy, Working It). We’d turn ghetto fabulous into – well, one can always hope.

I’m writing with my tongue in my cheek, but I actually have a lot of admiration for the African American and Latino drag culture of the 1980s and 1990s. I respect its organic connection to both queerness and blackness, and I admire its resilience. As bitchy as drag queens can undoubtedly be, these houses also nail the mentoring/belonging problem. Ball culture’s focus on performance is both serious and fun, and drag houses also take up other concerns, like community fundraising and leadership cultivation. I think the academy could use more of all of these: mirthfulness, connectivity, fierceness, and the wisdom of minorities.

So, go ahead: sign me up as the Dean of Realness.