In 2010, I began teaching a course at Rutgers called “Politicizing Beyoncé.” My students read a survey of black feminist activists across American history, alongside critical analysis of Beyoncé’s music.
The class quickly became one of the university’s most popular, filling to capacity each of the 11 times I’ve offered it since. I’ve been invited to teach mini-sessions on the subject everywhere from Claremont McKenna College to Harvard University. I’m currently adapting the curriculum into a book.
Then, the class was cancelled.
I wasn’t warned in advance — I found out only when I received my 2016 schedule. The University’s Women’s and Gender Studies department has refused to communicate with me about their decision.
Sadly, this is an all-too-common experience for adjunct lecturers, who make up 5o percent of college faculty nationwide. Rutgers’s 1,300 adjuncts teach 30 percent of all courses. Often, we’re saddled with low-level classes that tenured faculty prefer not to teach. Yet, only 0.6 percent of Rutgers’s operating budget is devoted to adjunct teaching. Unlike tenured faculty, adjuncts don’t receive a salary. Instead, they get a small lump sum for each course taught. Even teaching four courses a semester (considered full-time) results in poverty-level wages. And if an adjunct receives no courses for a semester, they receive no income. It’s a precarious position to be in on a good day.
This is even more complicated when an adjunct wants to offer a class that challenges the academic orthodoxy. And my Beyoncé class did just that. Though the singer has been featured in courses on the music industry and economics, just a handful of professors situate her as a black feminist figure in line with Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells and more contemporary black feminist activists. These courses are hugely popular at their respective schools. Even so, my colleagues and professors at other schools attacked the course as unserious.
Obviously, popularity or pop associations shouldn’t be the arbiters of what gets offered in university classrooms. But why shouldn’t students themselves have a say in what comprises their own education? Can’t education be fun as well as informative? My Beyoncé class resonates deeply and powerfully with my students. This isn’t often the case. University faculty are often more invested in their own egos than teaching, or finding new and creative ways to reach students. Sadly, this often persists regardless of the identity of those who hold the power in any given academic department. Often, scholars in departments assumed to be politically progressive are those most tied to traditional power dynamics so as not to rock the boat. Those that theorize power’s demise in the abstract are often the same ones clinging most directly to their own sense of power and elitism in academia. And just like in society, in academic departments, the powerful few make decisions for the powerless many — regardless of what students themselves desire.
Audre Lorde famously stated, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” At first glance, Beyoncé might seem to many like the definition of the master’s tools. She works from within capitalism; she’s selling a brand, selling records. But at the same time, she’s something different. Her challenge to power unsettles. Her surprise 2013 visual album release — a giant middle finger to the traditional rules of the music industry — is evidence that she has tools that, at the very least, pose a threat to the master’s house.
When students see the explicit challenge to the status quo that Beyoncé enacts, though, they get inspired, empowered. Beyoncé might be selling a brand, but she’s also selling students hope that the “things people pretend they’re too smart to like” deeply matter, to paraphrase TV-host and activist (and author on the “Politicizing Beyoncé” syllabus) Janet Mock. And when you take seriously the things that matter to students, students themselves believe that they matter.
My story has a happy ending. I found a new home for the class in the American Studies department, where it fits in beautifully with other courses they offer on Bruce Springsteen, hip hop and U.S. pop culture. Look to American Studies at Rutgers for Fall 2016. “Politicizing Beyoncé” will be there.