Ph.D. in German Studies or the Possibility of Becoming an Unhappy Queer

by Simone Pfleger

In the fall and winter of 2017, I spent the majority of my time revising my dissertation, which I then defended successfully in December of that year. Like many of my fellow graduate students, I was working on my dissertation while constantly keeping an eye on the job market. Keeping an eye on things is necessary to know what is happening in the field and to stay informed, but it also means that my attention is directed elsewhere or redirected.In order to know what comes up and comes about, I have to look away—at least briefly and with one eye—from the dissertation to focus on the various job ads to then turn away and right back to the writing process at hand. Concentrating on something else means that I shift my center of attention from dissertation to job market and back—and this necessitates a change of affect. My feelings (have to) move and adjust according to where my eye and mind travels, between dissertation and job market, between writing and reading, between making myself know and known. In keeping with the paradigms of neoliberalism, I am expected to be flexible and adaptable as long as my affects remain within a certain acceptable range—don’t “snap” if you do not want to be perceived as a troublemaker, a killjoy, as Sara Ahmed might say; stay within certain lines in order not to be out of line.

In light of my own position and a conversation on the Women in German email listserv about the alarming state of graduate education in North America in July 2017, I want to use this short essay as a point of departure for a conversation about the possibility—or rather the impossibility—of being and becoming what Ahmed calls in her scholarly writing an “unhappy queer,” which means, in other words, resisting the necessity to pursue normative notions of happiness as the only viable options to experience the ostensible good life (Ahmed, Promise 88). I wonder whether Ph.D. students are truly able to become and remain willful feminist scholar-activists or whether, despite the best efforts on the part of many scholars, certain (invisible) structures remain in place that keep our hands tied, in regard to both the dissertation and the job market. While I feel encouraged and supported by colleagues and mentors in certain professional organizations, I have reservations about whether it is possible for graduate students to become scholar-activists without being perceived as unruly, difficult, and disruptive to the holy hegemon of academia. In other words, are we able to embrace our inner Ahmedian willful child—“one who is disobedient” (1) and who is “unwilling to preserve an idea of happiness” (Willful 2), of heteronormative happiness that is. This child, also often seen as the figure of a killjoy, extends its arm to redirect our focus and, in embracing to “become a problem” (3), potentially causes us to veer off the beaten—read straight—path and thus register as a problem ourselves?

In order to examine these questions, which reflect my ways of thinking about my dissertation writing process and the job market, I inhabit my own precarious position as a graduate student, a queer scholar, a feminist, who increasingly feels the weight of the present full of moments that are hard to take. And while these moments make me want to snap and many colleagues openly call for the necessity to resist and to revolt against the system, I wonder whether the hailing of this type of refusal perpetuates normative ideas about what it means to snap and becomes oppressive to those whose options are limited. One viable option is not to fight but to “survive in [the] system to survive [the] system” (Feminist Life 237). In order to do so, we often have to reflect and evaluate how we position ourselves vis-à-vis our work and the field of German studies.

What is hard to take is to experience the pressure of having to produce a self-directed, major research project within a certain time frame and the impact of the necessity to adhere to the rhythms of labor time under neoliberalism. Masked as a time of self-directed, independent work, which allows for the graduate student body to develop into an independent scholar, the writing process at first sight appears to be an often-hailed and romanticized idea perpetuated by faculty members and people outside of academia alike. When taking a closer look, however, writing a dissertation might require one to strive to survive within the system insofar as it necessitates the performance of a certain type of labor within certain institutional structures—both departmental and faculty-wide—that impose rigid schedules. Indeed, the writing and research demands autonomy and is self-supported, but the work has to be completed within a certain amount of time since chapters must be written, revised, and distributed at certain intervals in order to assure a timely graduation. Thus, embracing a tempo that does not align with the demand of a German studies program or the time frame set by the graduate school is often not a realistic and sustainable alternative, particularly when these temporal misalignments with the normative expectations and timelines creates and correlates with financial precarity that many graduate students experience.

Exposed to this kind of pressure, I do not think it is an overstatement to claim that I have seen and experienced a plethora of affective responses that research and scholarly writing engender. Ranging from fear and anxiety to hate, anger, misery, irritation, envy, and paranoia, but also joy, euphoria, and thrill, the feelings with which graduate students, like myself, are often confronted shape how we position ourselves—or are encouraged to do so—toward or away from our research interests and subjects in the hopes to secure a position upon graduation.

In this vortex of affects and demands, I feel akin to the Ahmedian unhappy queer. That is, I am coerced into viewing certain professional and personal goals and idea(l)s as “good” and happy-making while others are “bad” and thus turn me into a graduate student who is just not marketable enough—or even marketable at all. I sometimes find myself pressured to “sell” myself without feeling that I am selling myself out. In other words, I constantly struggle with the need to select particular texts that are widely appreciated and recognized/-able—read canonical—by scholars—read mostly white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and more senior scholars who work on said canonical literature—to find happiness: a permanent position at a highly ranked institution. While I do not deny that I strive to obtain such a position, I do not want to follow certain narratives of what, when, and how to do “good” research. Rather, I aim to embrace my inner unhappy queer self, to acknowledge and experience “ugly feelings,” and to write not only my affective responses but also my own self into my work.

What is also hard to take is how well-established, successful colleagues call to arms, call on us to develop the ability “to think and be able to articulate that [we] have alternatives” (Hock), call for teaching assistants to “[go] on strike” (Maierhofer), or call graduate students, albeit jokingly and as a way to express anger and frustration, “dipshits who don’t know what they’re doing” (Schuman). Of course, it is crucial that people within and related to the profession speak up and voice their concerns about the “embarrassing” and “sad” state of higher education. They ask for a response; they hope for others to become willful and to turn into killjoys who should raise their arms up into the air without they, themselves, lifting their hands further than their computer keyboards. Of course, this is a valid way of expressing criticism and disapproval of the status quo. It is, however, equally sad (and embarrassing) to see how these same people place onus on those of us, who find themselves in precarious conditions of employment. In so doing, these scholars perpetuate similar kinds of patterns that have shaped the feminist movement for decades: that is, certain kind of feminists enjoy the privilege of speaking from within dominant spaces and demand from those who inhabit the most insecure and unstable positions to speak, without necessarily taking measures themselves.

And while a request to take actions through an email listserv that reaches the entire membership of a national organization is in theory extremely productive to stimulate a conversation and to set things into motion, those who are called upon are less likely to dare to respond. Indeed, there are different reasons why people participate and why others stay silent, but the impossibility to become legible as a willful or an unhappy queer at the wrong time is a reality for some—or many?—of us. We can speak up and out in certain venues—for instance, a closed group on Facebook—but then the discussion often remains limited to those who merely survive within the system to survive “for other, with others” (Ahmed, Feminist Life 235). We all pack our own survival kits to persist and to sustain ourselves and each other, but we will utilize our tools on our own terms and not when asked—or, better, told—how, where, and when to participate in the discussion.


Works cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life, Duke UP, 2017.

—. The Promise of Happiness. Duke UP, 2010.

—. Willful Subjects. Duke UP, 2014.

Hock, Lisabeth. “Re: comment on recent job posting: Basic Language Prog. Director.” Received by WiG listserv, 17 July 2017.

Maierhofer, Waltraud. “Re: comment on recent job posting: Basic Language Prog. Director.” Received by WiG listserv, 23 July 2017.

Schuman, Rebecca. “Rate My JIL 2018: to Be Fair My Head Only Just 67 Percent Exploded.” Pan Kisses Kafka, 16 July 2017, Accessed 25 July 2017.