Institutional Feelings: Practicing Women’s Studies in the Corporate University (Feminist Formations, 27.3, Winter 2015)

By Jennifer C. Nash and Emily A. Owens

The term corporate university —and a host of other terms that have developed to describe this institutional moment, including neoliberal university and academic-industrial complex—fails to do justice to what Kathleen Stewart (2007, 4) describes as the “situation we find ourselves in.” The articles in this special issue explore how the corporate university and its attendant formations, including adjunctification, debt, precarity, graduate certificate programs, study abroad programs, or the MA factory, feel, and how they make themselves felt in myriad quotidian ways. This special issue, then, is oriented toward an ethic of specificity and marked by an investment in considering how the contemporary university feels, and how it feels differently for the various bodies that inhabit it.

Our starting point is an investment in women’s studies as an (inter) discipline with a distinctive and fraught relationship to institutionalization’s pleasures, pains, pulls, and perils. We are concerned with how the conditions that mark the contemporary university make themselves known and felt in particular ways in women’s studies’ institutional spaces: the classroom, the faculty meeting, the program or department mission statement, the rigorous pursuit of departmental status, and the feminist scholarly journal. This special issue, “Institutional Feelings: Practicing Women’s Studies in the Corporate University,” invites women’s studies practitioners—graduate students, tenure-track and tenured faculty, contract faculty, and administrators—to act as ethnographers analyzing, documenting, and theorizing this moment in women’s studies’ history—one that might be described as being between precarity and legitimacy. Even as some women’s studies programs and departments gain institutional traction, others fight not only for legitimacy and recognition, but for the necessary resources to stay afloat. Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Evelynn Hammonds (2008, 161);remind us that “women’s studies is still institutionally fragile, in the sense that most women’s studies programs are without their own faculty lines and have inadequate budgets and very little control over their curricula because they depend on departmental courses or joint appointments.” Our special issue is interested in the varieties of ways that women’s studies inhabits this in-between space inside and outside of institutional legitimacy. Given our own investment in specificity, the articles in this issue carefully trace how that in-between-ness is felt differently in different institutional spaces (for example, the research university, the small liberal arts college, the regional college, the community college); by practitioners who occupy different institutional spaces (for example, the undergraduate student, the graduate student, the program or departmental administrator, the adjunct lecturer, the tenure-track faculty member, the tenured faculty member); and shaped by gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, disability, and other categories of difference.

To be clear, this issue is not meant to be only an exploration of oppression, violence, and subordination or a triumphant account of feminist resistance to the institutional demands of corporatization. This is the case even as the articles included in this issue are written against the backdrop of academic violence of various kinds—from the physical brutality inflicted on Ersula Ore at Arizona State University to the production of violence masked by neologisms like “unhiring,” as in the case of Steven Salaita. Rather, we are drawn to feminist feelings that are ambivalent, contradictory, and fraught, including our continued attachment to the university even as it is an agent of violence, our pursuits of institutionalization alongside our rigorous critiques of the university, and our pleasures in the interdisciplinary and institutional “travels” of women’s studies’ key analytics like intersectionality and transnationalism. We are interested in questions like: What are the pleasures— feminist pleasures—that attach to the very positions and locations that we incessantly describe as constraining us? How do we understand our attachments to our universities, and to the university itself as a structure? How do we see these pleasures manifested when we become gatekeepers who perform that role zealously, whether as PhD admissions committee members or job-search committee members? What are the hierarchies that we come to enforce and invest in, and how do we understand our investment in hierarchy alongside our teaching strategies, which decenter or upend hierarchy? These are the circuits of ambivalence and contradiction that this special issue seeks to consider, alongside the feminist feelings that these paradoxes engender.

Amber Jamilla Musser’s “Specimen Days: Diversity, Labor, and the University” takes women’s studies’ in-between-ness as a point of departure, asking how the university’s investment in diversity and the women’s studies classroom’s investment in so-called difference produce (and reproduce) Black queer female faculty as “specimens,” as desired objects of value, and as “a commodity, static and rare.” Musser’s careful attention to the ways that bodies, particularly Black queer female bodies, are read, interpreted, hailed, vilified, and desired reminds readers how deeply bodies continue to matter in the classroom. Her article also engenders an important shift, asking how the classroom might stage encounters with difference that move beyond objectification and its obsession with the visual, instead producing and representing difference as relational, affective, and sensational.

In “Affective Activism: Answering Institutional Productions of Precarity in the Corporate University,” Janelle Adsit, Sue Doe, Marisa Allison, Paula Maggio, and Maria Maisto explore the relationship between women’s studies and contingent faculty labor, arguing that the discipline can and should be at the vanguard of labor activism, as it is intimately related to issues like academic freedom, the democratization of access, and discrimination. The authors offer political strategies for what they term affective activism, including organic theater, position statements, and institutional discourse analysis; these affective strategies respond to precarious labor within women’s studies, and to the discipline’s own precarious location in the university.

Rachel Corbman’s “The Scholars and the Feminists: The Barnard Sex Conference and History of the Institutionalization of Feminism” turns its attention to the (in)famous 1982 Women and Sexuality conference at Barnard College in order to examine the variety of ways that the conference has become central to how US feminists narrate feminist history and politics. Corbman invites readers to consider the conference as part of a moment in feminism’s history when feminism was “not yet formally attached to universities,” and when feminist theorists and practitioners included organizations like the Lesbian Herstory Archives, feminist bookstores, and feminist researchers located both inside and outside of universities. How might we re-narrate feminist history, Corbman asks, when we consider Barnard as a moment that foregrounds the “collision of feminist activism and knowledge production,” and what might this new story illuminate about our present moment and its institutional politics?

Melissa Fernández Arrigoitia, Gwendolyn Beetham, Cara E. Jones, and Sekile Nzinga-Johnson’s “Women’s Studies and Contingency: Beyond Exploitation and Resistance” archives the conversations initiated at the National Women’s Studies Association’s 2014 conference about contingent faculty labor in women’s studies. These conversations posed critical questions, including: “How do feminists working in a variety of disciplines reconcile their feminist labor politics with the need to grow their programs and departments under the edicts of the corporate university, particularly when relying upon contingent labor to do so?” The article ends with tangible calls for political action within the university on behalf of contingent faculty, including efforts to give such faculty a voice in academic governance.

In “Post-Identitarian and Post-Intersectional Anxiety in the Neoliberal Corporate University,” Tiffany Lethabo King turns critical attention toward what is arguably women’s studies’ most widely circulating (and widely institutionalized) analytic: intersectionality. King asks how the university generally, and women’s studies specifically, produces intersectionality as “a passé analytic and ‘risky’ space destined for relegation to the anachronistic time-space of the ‘post.’” Indeed, King reveals that graduate students’ intellectual socialization includes an introduction to intersectionality as a form of “risky” knowledge, as a dangerous analytic that must be jettisoned and moved beyond. This logic of intersectionality as already in the past, she persuasively shows, “align[s] with the often ‘unspeakable’ anti–Black women racism and misogyny of the corporate university.”

In “Sexual Divestments from Empire: Women’s Studies, Institutional Feelings, and the ‘Odious Machine,’” Anna M. Agathangelou, Dana M. Olwan, Tamara Lea Spira, and Heather M. Turcotte offer a critical genealogy of women’s studies as a discipline, arguing that feminist critiques of sexual empire “have long laid the foundations for the most radical visions of sexual and gender revolution—movements generated through global militant anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, Black, and antiracist struggles of the mid-to-late-twentieth century.” Yet, the authors argue that these intimate collaborations have often been erased from feminist theory and history as women’s studies has become institutionalized. The article, then, is a response to the “institutional amnesia that comes with problematic promises of inclusion.”

Moya Bailey and Shannon Miller’s “When Margins Become Centered: Black Queer Women in Front and Outside of the Classroom” is a critical rupture in the silence surrounding Black queer women’s pedagogical experiences. Bailey and Miller instead embrace ethics of transparency, honesty, and collaboration to construct a rich experiential and ethnographic archive documenting the experiences of queer Black women laboring in various locations in the academy, particularly the experiences of queer Black women teaching in women’s studies—a space that promises critical attention to difference, inclusivity, and an ethic of anti-subordination, yet can reproduce its own violent hierarchies.

Susanne Gannon, Giedre Kligyte, Jan McLean, Maud Perrier, Elaine Swan, Ilaria Vanni, and Honni van Rijswijk develop collective biography as both a method and political strategy to explore the emotional and affective life of academic labor for women in universities. Their article “Uneven Relationalities, Collective Biography, and Sisterly Affect in Neoliberal Universities” explores “academic ties” as ways of countering neoliberal policies, and collective biography as a strategy that might produce more ethical ways of being in academic spaces.

“Practicing Institutional Feelings: A Roundtable” features the critical voices of thirteen graduate students engaged in feminist and queer scholarship and research, some in graduate women’s studies programs and departments and others in allied disciplines. They provide critical accounts of how institutional forms of feminism transform daily practices of teaching and research, and how women’s studies’ institutional forms shape their investments in the field itself. They also engage in imaginative work, offering their dreams—utopian or otherwise—of what academic life might look and feel like beyond graduate school and into, away from, or beside the tenure-track ranks.

The issue’s closing article, Merri Lisa Johnson’s “Lez Be Honest: Queer Feelings about Women’s Studies at a Public Regional University in the Southeastern United States,” examines the legislative battle to close the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate, a center that Johnson had directed. In the midst of accusations that the center was “too lesbian,” she explores questions about the discipline of women’s studies itself, particularly its continued inattention to “the question of where lesbians stand in this discipline.”

The labor of producing this special issue was marked by a kind of feminist pleasure that remains under-theorized and under-celebrated in academic life: collaboration. We were supported by Sandra K. Soto, who offered her encouragement and wisdom at every stage of this project; Brooke Lober, Liz Kinnamon, and the Feminist Formations staff shepherded it through the editorial process; and a cadre of smart readers generously devoted their time to reviewing manuscripts. If this project was made possible by the everyday act of collaborating—e-mails sent, Skype dates scheduled, dropboxes managed—it was also made possible by our enduring friendship. As feminist colleagues who exchange work; as friends who e-mail one another every morning to ask “How is the writing going?”; as colleagues who cheer for one another as we (to use our favorite writing metaphor) attempt to “move the ball a few yards”—we see collaboration not simply as intellectually productive, but as a practice that is emotionally and personally sustaining. This special issue, then, is a tribute to the pleasures, possibilities, and everyday practice of feminist friendship.


Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, and Evelynn M. Hammonds. 2008. “Whither Black Women’s Studies: Interview.” In Women’s Studies on the Edge, edited by Joan Wallach Scott, 155–69. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.