general description

My research is about how people survive in precarious circumstances while still holding onto utopian hopes. Drawing on ethnography and critical theory, it examines how we can get trapped in toxic structures and institutions, getting put in our place or cast out altogether. It unpacks how we live with ambivalence, disappointment, frustration and sometimes violence; but also how we keep going anyway, finding new communities, relationships, forms of teaching, and ways of inhabiting social spaces. In more academic terms, it's an inquiry into social reproduction in moments of crisis, drawing especially on queer and materialist-feminist theory. Empirically, it's about labor, politics, and ordinary life in the (partly) globalized spaces of higher education.

In my early research, as a student, I was trying to understand hierarchy and social domination in academic institutions. I wrote classroom ethnographies about the ways we teach “theory” in the humanities (social and literary theory, in particular). I generally found these classrooms to be premised on elitist forms of social capital and exclusion. In this earlier work, I was mainly influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s critical sociology of educational reproduction. What I appreciated about Bourdieuian methodology was threefold: (1) its permanent critiques of power, hierarchy and symbolic violence; (2) its focus on how social actors get produced through the social games they play, and through persistent forms of social misrecognition; and (3) its laudable efforts to produce reflexive, relevant social research. But ironically, as I began to do research in France about higher education politics, I ran into the limits of Bourdieu’s theoretical system. The Bourdieuian school recognized gender and racial inequalities without exploring them deeply; it was unattuned to postcolonial geographies and was surprisingly ahistorical. It had an overly structuralist account of experience and perception; it was unfairly dismissive of social movements; and it tended to undertheorize labor and the global political economy.

My work has since evolved into a more extended study of politics, social movements and social reproduction. Especially since I taught in South Africa, it has shifted in a much more intersectional feminist direction. In my dissertation and in several papers that emerged from it, I explored protest movements within the French public university system. In a 2019 paper, "A Campus Fractured," I argued against the view that global higher education is largely dominated by “neoliberal” policy. In my French case study, at least, neoliberal policies did not abolish previous forms of democratic governance or make people into calculating, market-oriented actors; rather, they sparked conflicts over what campus governance should look like. In an earlier 2016 paper, "The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn," I showed how French faculty activists worked to keep open the possibility of a “democratic future” for higher education, inventing a new protest form that was based on political stubbornness without hope. I also published an analysis of precarious labor in French public universities, "Precarity Outside," which showed how French activist discourses about “precarity” could work to erase racial and class hierarchies. I'm finishing up these studies of French public universities with a final paper about the anxieties of academic capitalism and the work of reflexivity.

Meanwhile, my current book project, Disappointed Utopia, shifts away from social movements towards a renewed focus on reproduction, space, race, and gender analysis. In political terms, it situates French left-wing radicalism in larger contexts of structural whiteness and masculine domination. In spatial terms, it explores the relations between an urban public university and its urban environment in the banlieue (urban outskirts), focusing on the politics of campus space, which involved racialized security work, student occupations, and a deeply gendered graffiti culture. In terms of a larger postcolonial geography, the book shows how postcolonial students were welcomed as doctoral students but then told to go home, because the protectionist French academy would not offer them jobs. And yet the book is not only critical. Drawing on queer theories about utopia (à la José Muñoz and Kathi Weeks), it also seeks to show that utopian politics can persist in compromised environments. My French interlocutors remained committed to imagining a university free of debt and precarity, a university supported by the public but beyond nationalism, a university based on international solidarity and on practices of “emancipation.” In this, I think, the French case can continue to inform our own utopian impulses in the Anglophone world.