About Lore/tta LeMaster, Ph.D.: Lore/tta LeMaster (she/them) is Assistant Professor at Arizona State University. Combining a background in the radical Black feminist tradition and gender studies with critical / cultural studies, performance studies, and critical rhetorics, Dr. LeMaster’s research and creatively driven academic writing explore cultural difference and trans identity and provocatively interrogate cisheteronormativity and white supremacy in culture, art, the academy, and everyday life.
Dr. LeMaster’s work has been published in prestigious and varied journals such as Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies in Communication and Communication Teachers. Also an accomplished editor and collaborator, she has edited and coedited a number of works including the collected volume Gender Futurity, Intersectional Autoethnography: Embodied Theorizing from the Margins, and the special issue of Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies entitled Speculative Fiction, Criticality, and Futurity, both with Amber Johnson. In addition, she authored the special forum in Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, Felt Sex: Erotic Affects and a Case for Critical Erotic/A.
Dr. LeMaster currently serves as Chair in the Ethnography Division of the National Communication Association. She received her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from Southern Illinois University, her M.A. in Communication Studies and her B.A. in Sociology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from California State University, Long Beach.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become invested in performance studies, cultural studies, and critical rhetorics as a means to examine and trouble constructions of gender and other forms of cultural difference?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] I would be remiss if I didn’t deliberately talk about being an outwardly-marked trans femme in the academy. I welcome delving into the personal and how I move through the academy, just as much as discussing the professional and moving more radical academic thought forward. I want to speak personally about the route that brought me the furthest into the academy.
I never envisioned myself as a professor up through my junior year of undergraduate studies, by which I mean year seven or so because it took me about eight and a half years to finish my bachelor’s. I didn’t even know that I was someone who could get a Ph.D. or that professor was a category of job I might pursue until my mentor, Dr. Angela Bowen, a Black, radical, lesbian feminist, brought me into the fold and mentored me, largely though Black feminist pedagogy. That mentorship set the foundation for what my work continues to be to this day.
Frankly, I didn’t really know about a “white feminism,” as it might be colloquially referenced, until I was in graduate school in a communication program. That was largely because the feminisms that I was beginning to encounter in communication studies, what we might call “white feminisms” today, were really out of step with how I had understood these questions of gender and embodiment.
As a root distinction here, the white feminisms I was encountering in communication presumed a biologically deterministic binary structure of bodies: the male / female sex framing. In contrast, I was coming from Black feminist circles. While I had mentors who struggled with transness in the early 2000s as the whole discipline of gender studies did, Black feminists understood a coalitional body politic. This meant that the specificity of how I was relating to or orienting toward femininity, womanhood, and so forth, was less important than my commitment to Black liberation, to Black women’s liberation, to Black lesbian women’s liberation.
In that context, I could show up however I showed up and my Black lesbian mentors didn’t comment on my appearance with any kind of discomfort. They didn’t say things like, “What should I call you now?” It was much more: “You look great and really happy now, let’s get to work.”
That distinction between white feminisms and Black radical feminism framed my experience in communication. As I entered into communication, I found that I was having a hard time figuring out how to find myself in the discipline, given that I was still reading this work outside of the discipline. I was consuming gender studies. I was consuming these conversations. I was learning about queer theory from YouTube videos made by professors who happened to upload their stuff.
Ultimately, this connects to the question about performance, cultural studies, and critical rhetorics. I find that these areas most productively allow me to refuse the borders drawn within the communication discipline. When I’m thinking about something like performance studies, I’m not necessarily thinking about a communication canon. I’m thinking about embodiment in space. It’s not about the canon in that regard. It’s about a means of approaching the world around me.
With respect to cultural studies, I’m looking at the constant cultural production of hegemony [relations of power that produce cultural norms]. That’s an everyday thing for me as a trans femme moving through a rather anti-trans state organized by some rather exclusionary politics. Critical rhetorics, similarly, are a way that I’m able to think about the discourses that certainly constitute me, and how I might more effectively reshape those to the ends that I require for my own happiness or relational wellbeing.
When it comes to my approach to these areas of study, it’s about struggling with what feminism might become before considering the communication conversation. Second to that is lived experience and recognizing that communication offers important tools for survival–once we unmoor our disciplinary fetish for canonization, we might begin to honor communication for its worldmaking capacity beyond disciplinary allegiance.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your work insists on the importance of an intersectional approach to the study of cultural difference that, as you argue in your recent collaborative essay “(De)Composing Ecological Futurities: Insurgent Worldmaking at the End of a World,” captures the ways in which anti-Black racism, colonialisms and cisheteronormativity are both mutually reinforcing and in tension with one another. For those of our readers who might be unfamiliar with intersectional approaches to understanding cultural difference and power, could you provide us some background on intersectional criticism and how you apply and extend this perspective in your own work?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] First, I want to comment on the piece you’re referencing, “(De)Composing Ecological Futurities.” This was co-authored with a number of my doctoral advisees. We published this essay under the moniker “The Cacophiliacs,” which infers a collective love of waste and filth. The goal of the piece was twofold.
First, we were experimenting with means for publishing by refusing author order. For example, I am expected to denote my “percentage of contribution” for collaborative research projects on my tenure file. In turn, we agreed that we each contributed 50% to the article. The point being that people are stuck on the specificity of a hierarchy model of co-authorship and academic collaborations, where we’re not invested in that conversation. We’re intentionally allowing other people who review our CVs to try to figure that out for themselves.
The second point is we were trying to think about an argument that is unintelligible, precisely because we wanted it to decompose as we’re crafting it. It was really about a grieving of canon, given that, at least to me, an intersectional approach means releasing a canonical, modern fetish of biological determinism and binarism in favor of flux and multiplicity.
An intersectional approach understands the question of gender to be a question of race. I want to back that up because I think folks who are newer to these discussions might take that as an add-on mechanism: that intersectionality equals gender plus race. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that in order for us to understand gender as a binary, as masculine versus feminine, we have to understand it as historically connected to specifically white constructions of masculinity and femininity. That is to say, gender binarism has served the historical purpose of distinguishing humanity in racialized terms.
In this thinking, I’m taken by Professor Marquis Bey’s phenomenal work, for example their recent book Black Trans Feminism, which really teases out the relationship and tensions between transness, Blackness, and feminism in this framework. They explore how each of these three terms are productively pushing against each other. Rather than bringing us back to communication studies, this is what, for me, an intersectional approach is. It’s about trying to figure out what the effect is of incommensurable differences being placed in tension and to use that to move us elsewhere in thought and action, not as a way of reasserting the discipline.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You just discussed how intersectionality is about thinking, not about the disciplines, but about the future. This essay, “(De)Composing Ecological Futurities” engages with ideas of futurity and worldmaking that have been central to your research elsewhere, for example, in your co-edited collection with Amber Johnson Gender Futurity, Intersectional Autoethnography: Embodied Theorizing from the Margins. Can you unpack the importance of these ideas and their significance to your work for our readers?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] When I discuss worldmaking, my mind goes directly to Gust Yep in the communication discipline. He expounds on this idea in his 2003 essay, “The Violence of Heteronormativity in Communication Studies,” a meta review of scholarship at the time. Another major influence is José Esteban Muñoz and his notion of queer futurity. When I bring these two together in my work, I do so through the idea of relationality. The basis of queer worldmaking is relationality, which is to say how we relate with one another, regardless of pressures to keep us apart.
One of the keys here is that there’s a distinction between relationality and relationships. Relationships are more institutionally derived, intelligible categories of relating. There’s often a hierarchy embedded within them. In contrast, relationality references the synergistic force that keeps us connected to one another.
This framing has been theorized a lot of different ways — for example, in critical / cultural studies, as a coalitional politics, or an intersectional solidarity. If my goal is thinking of a radical trans politics, for example, the queer world I want to create is rooted in ways of relating, not just amongst trans people, but in ways that affirm transness without it having to be uttered.
This might be me going out of my way to ensure that, if I am representative of a body of people and we’ve made a choice to exist within an institution that is hostile to us, I’m going to do the labor, as exhausting as it is, to figure out restrooms, exit plans, and how frequently cops come to this place, so that I can then report back to others so they won’t have to do that labor. I have the privilege of possessing the capacity to buffer this kind of labor — to put it on myself, so then maybe students who feel the pressure to be in certain spaces, but maybe don’t know what the politics are or how to show up, don’t have to work so hard.
How we relate to one another is how we create worlds. I want to give one other example. As a non-binary trans femme who presents the way that I do — bald, hairy, wears loud clothes — with that comes a critical understanding of self in space. I’m constantly reminded about the lack of imagination the larger world has for gender, and I’m constantly reminded how beautiful and vast the imaginations of queers and trans people are. When we see one another in public, we affirm one another in passing glances and moments: moments of respite, which may be in a shared breath, or in a glance because of some transmisogynist in the corner who’s catcalling one of us. A nod that says, “I’m letting you know I’m here, that I’m with you,” is still communicating, even in silence, a sense of that relational solidarity and a coalitional politics.
When I invest in futurity, it’s about seeing the ways that I already live in this future terrain and recognizing how out of imaginative step most people around me are for not being able to perceive things differently.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Would you expand on how the concept of futurity applies to your lived experience and academic work? Specifically, would you reflect on your remark in the conclusion to Gender Futurity, “I write where I am, in the future”?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] To me, that statement is driven by questions of rhetoric and questions of audience. When I am interviewed for this book, or similar work I’ve done on gender studies and communication pedagogy that centers trans bodies, I’m often asked, “What do you imagine for the cisgender or non-trans students? What will they gain from this experience?” I’m taken aback by these questions because over the years, before a book like Gender Futurity was available for me, I was never asked, “What about the transgender students in your classrooms who are forced to read all these cisgender-centered texts?”
I’m affronted by this question often, because what it highlights to me is a temporal problem. It reflects that someone’s logic is absolutely anchored by this question of modernity [in connection with binary, essentialist constructions of gender and identity] and these logics that constrain our capacities to imagine otherwise.
I live a life where I have facilitated a trans-centric world. There’s one cisgender person whom I’ve allowed to enter my home over the last few years. I am trying to live in my futurity. That means that, when I encounter things like a lack of access to a gender-neutral restroom in the workspace, I experience the affective sensation of my body slowing down. My flow completely shifts, my affect completely drops. Someone might call it being triggered, others might call it all kinds of other things. I experience it as a temporal drag: a literal dragging down that requires that I work hard in relation to bring myself back to a space where I feel capable of reengaging in that world.
That’s everyday labor that I have to do if I’m going to the grocery store, which is quite dangerous sometimes, or just going to campus because of a mandatory meeting in a space that’s not necessarily friendly to gender expansive colleagues. To that degree, if I’m thinking about the future, when I have to reenter these institutions, they’re absolutely just sedimented in this historical hegemony that is not designed to include.
Yet, here I am. Here some of us are. When we are existing under the auspices of superficial inclusion, we can feel how out of step the surrounding world is. It’s a painful drag. When I’m in trans space–or space conducive to trans wellness–and sensing trans joy, I’m able to increase my affective capacities. I’m able to turn outward as opposed to inward when I move through those spaces.
I’ve always experienced anti-transness as a temporal problem. Not necessarily that people or our culture will evolve past this problem. But when someone asks me, “Are you a male or female?,” I think, “What are you talking about?” The language is so incredibly rooted in historical notions of the sex binary, and the kind of labor that would have to go into bringing that person “up to speed,” as it were, is not worth my investment.
Now, to bring this back to the question of audience, I’m often asked, “How do you write work that is about trans bodies that just jumps into these conversations?” I hear two things in this question. One thing I hear is that my work is really philosophical and too complex, to which I respond with, “So is gender. The fact that you fetishize binarism is the problem. You expect this to be easy, when I’ve had to work extremely hard to understand what gender is well outside of this discipline. I’ve had to understand it for myself.”
I would venture to suggest the same is true for many non-trans people. They just have yet to confront how complex gender can actually be for themselves if they were to release, to draw from Adrienne Rich’s terms, the compulsory drive to just be heterosexual or cisgender and so forth. I see this as a temporal problem of being tied to structures sedimented in the past.
My second point about audienceship is, when I sit down to write, I do not write to my cisgender colleagues. I just don’t. That is a very intentional practice. A few years ago, I asked myself, “How many more times do I have to say, ‘By transgender, I mean blah blah blah.’” I finally learned to give myself permission to release that and then go to spar with the reviewers and editors.
I’ve really cultivated my voice to talk directly to editors when I’m able to. I still get reviews that say, “Well, I need you to hold my hand through this.” I’m not going to do that. I’m not gonna slow down the conversation for the sake of making sure the canon is whole as we keep moving forward. I don’t have time for that. Not in my lifetime. When I think about the life expectancy of trans femmes, I feel that, at 41-years-old, I need to get as much done as I possibly can.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your work employs a variety of innovative, creative, and critical methodological approaches to engage with gender, race, and other forms of difference, from “collaged relational autoethnography” and poetic “relational meditations” to “critical erotica.” Could you discuss some of these creative approaches to scholarship, perhaps touching on what you see as their salient commonalities or differences, and what they help capture that more traditional academic writing cannot? Has making space for this type of writing in academia required labor on your part or been met with institutional resistance, or do you see these methods as part of a critical tradition that has recently found more acceptance within areas of the academy?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] I really love this question because I don’t often pause and reflect on these methods or these approaches. I don’t know what to call them myself, which is part of the problem and part of the point. I would say that, touching back upon our prior conversation on queer relationalities, each of these methods enables me to tune into, with greater specificity, that experience of relational connection.
I co-authored the collaged relational autoethnography piece with a number of students, some graduate and one undergraduate, who were all very smart, trans-identified, and had each struggled to find trans-affirming support from faculty members. I am someone who always has resources ready to go. My door is often open. I have books, and I read poetry. This is part of everyday life with trans students.
Typical autoethnographic writing and relational autoethnographic forms are often binary-informed, which is to say there is a dialogic back and forth woven into the form itself. Collage, in Amy Kilgard’s framing, performs a form of chaos. Thinking of it from a chaotic point of view, what we were really trying to do is challenge the dialectic presumption of relational dialogue and communication and find peace with collaging things that don’t fit. We didn’t want to try to figure out the space between them. We wanted to just let them be what they are. This was certainly one of the struggles with the reviewers. My collaborators would grapple in the space between, “This is interesting. We’re here for it,” and, “Do we have to account for the relationship between these things?”
In contrast to collage, which theorizes the relational intricacies themselves, critical erotica allows me to teeter between the fictional and nonfictional of trans being-becoming. Autoethnographers talk about how the personal is political. As a queer feminist, I argue frankly that so is sex. I work with and have close relationships with lots of comrades who are proud “sluts.” I navigate “slut space.” When it comes down to it, there is a whole area of queer life that is absolutely unaccounted for in the discipline.
I was honored to be approached to edit a forum called Felt Sex: Erotic Affects and a Case for Critical Erotic/A by the editor of Departures in Critical Qualitative Research at the time, Devika Chawla. I was thinking a lot about this at the time, and I pitched it to her and she was convinced! She was also working in political coalition with me. As example, you cannot download individual essays from that forum. It can only be downloaded as a single PDF with my name at the top, precisely to protect the names of those that are published in the forum.
Part of the erotic as a method is that sex writing that moves between fiction and nonfiction is helpful for finding ourselves. When I’m in a sex scene with other trans people, the point is not simply depicting sex. It’s about navigating crucial questions. What am I going to call your body part? Where can I touch your body? What feels comfortable or not comfortable? What words are off the table?
These are things often presumed in a more normative sexual encounter, while those of us who live on the outside have to learn to cultivate these communicative tools. I think critical erotica allows for that, while confronting some of the shame trans people are made to experience. Overall, then, when it comes to these methods, what I’m really trying to do is figure out new ways to communicate human experiences.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You recently published an essay entitled “Suicidal,” which argues for a critical approach to suicidality that moves beyond typical, stigmatizing discourses in an effort to understand the structural problematics that lead to suicide. Could you discuss the reframing of suicide you advocate for in this article, and how it should lead us to rethink dominant approaches to suicide prevention?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] This is a hard one. It’s a hard one to share with my graduate students who reach out sometimes and ask about this piece. I always have the same thing to say, which is, “Read it with time. Read it with care. Connect with me after you read it, just to say I read it.” At the same time, as a mandated reporter in my institution, and given the reality that many graduate students experience intense mental health struggles, should one of my graduate students or a student in the constellation around me die by suicide, the threat of potential repercussions are embedded in this piece.
If I can offer anything, I’m going to put my name on a piece like this. In my own department we are dealing with a profound lack of communication about a political comrade of mine, a person and a professor, who passed by suicide, and its impact on the community, including the graduate students that I advise. When it comes to the function of putting it out there, for one, I had to get it out there. This is just how I process my feelings, whether it’s published or not. I had the opportunity to publish the piece and Bryant Keith Alexander, the editor, responded to it, and was very helpful during the review process, and honored the work as well.
The reframing of suicide gets back to that deep relationality I mentioned before. I’ve been married for over 12 years to my comrade-spouse-person — that’s what I call her. We’re not together, but we’re best friends and ride-or-die buddies. She has been on-and-off suicidal, just as I have been. She’s the one whom I’m writing a lot about in the essay as well. She’s in care out-of-state as we speak right now. This is our ongoing reality.
What does this mean for me and how does this get back to the different approach to these issues? As a chronically depressed trans person who’s married to a chronically depressed trans person, and who has lost too many trans friends to suicide, I know that most facilities cannot–or will not–support transgender bodies. This has resulted in political pacts with community members in which we do not call for medical intervention. It is a hard and painful communal practice of what I call “sitting in the ick.”
This is how I discuss this issue with my students. No fixing, no fixing. This is very much contrary to the white savior impulse embedded in our culture, even the academy. It’s about learning how to sit with someone’s really scary thoughts and recognizing that the reason most of us don’t want to sit in it is because one person’s radical agency acting in complete defiance of hegemonic relations [culturally established norms and structures of power] actually scares us.
I’m committed to being there for that: when a person is truly riding the edge, when they’re having this experience that must be truly terrifying for them. I’m happy to sit in the ick when I’m in a space that allows for that, or on days where I’m replenished. On other days, I might call for someone else in my little community and say, “I need you to step in for this. This person just needs watch and care for this timeframe.”
[MastersinCommunications.com] This essay, like much of your writing, communicates from a space of openness and vulnerability. What has been your experience publishing scholarship that is so deeply personal? What do you perceive as the risks and rewards of scholarship that requires such vulnerability on the part of the author?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] I don’t feel like I have much to lose, honestly. Tenure is not my biggest monster. The academy has never been my biggest monster. Many of my colleagues have a very different understanding of the academy and a very different relationship to it. I have an antagonistic relationship with the academy. It is a space where I get my paycheck. It is a space where I can amplify and circulate the work I’m doing.
At the end of the day, when it comes down to questions of disclosure, I don’t care about respectability politics. I have never had an investment in liberal inclusionary politics. Not by choice but because my body has just never fit in. Even if I go back to 1995, when I first came out of the closet, I didn’t really come out of the closet. I was just outed by people who refused to accept me as anything other than a [anti-LGBTQ slur]. If that’s what they were going to call me, then so be it, I wasn’t going to change myself. I at least had the confidence in myself to continue to show up. This is, perhaps, where I got my attitude to keep showing up despite being told I’m not supposed to be here.
Ultimately, when it comes down to the repercussions, I think that it’s important for us to be very honest with ourselves about who we are and where our passions lie. Should I be, for instance, terminated because of my radical politics, then so be it.
Let me go back to advising my own graduate students. When the question of disclosure comes up, I’m very straightforward. This is due in part to my training from Ron Pelias, Elyse Pineau, and Tami Spry in performance studies, in which the performer does not disclose stories they are unprepared to share. For the “Suicidal” piece, I had to really ask myself: “Am I ready for this?” because it was also very painful to write. I recognized that in writing it, I was finally releasing this thing and it was ready to come out. There are multiple stories about my experience that are not in that piece, which is to say these are the ones I’m willing to share. These are not the worst of them, in terms of lived experience, but they are rich in terms of where I’m trying to take the conversation intellectually.
I think of lived experience as data in this regard. This comes from my training as an autoethnographer. The stories I choose to tell and the way that I tell those stories are indicative of my capacity as a storyteller, but it’s also important to remind readers that when we get lost in the details of my specific story, we’re forgetting the impact of the piece and where it’s trying to go. We tend to focus too much on the individual. I often do a lot of work to reroute from the intense and intimate moments described in the work and say, “What’s the takeaway? We’re getting locked in a liberal politics of passive audiencing rather than of agentic action. So, what do we glean from this?” I hope, with my work, I might push us to turn inward to begin transformation.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have also made valuable contributions to rethinking communication education by connecting your research to the classroom, arguing for the importance of trans pedagogy and critical approaches to gender in the academy. I was wondering if you might highlight some of the key insights from this pedagogical work. Are there salient institutional and cultural barriers to cultivating a trans pedagogy, as reflected in your research or experience?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] Let’s turn back to the question of risks and rewards. Thinking about Communication Education as the staple pedagogy journal in our field, the way that our colleagues — people with Ph.D.s in communication studies who are publishing in that journal — talk about the potential risk of this outside, conservative, oppressive force partly resonates with me. I would be remiss if I didn’t start this off with recognizing the calls for the execution of trans teachers and teachers who are supportive of trans people by extreme right members of the GOP in the US.
At the same time, as a trans person who has come through graduate communication training, I haven’t experienced that force. Instead, it’s the liberal, well-intending professors who make my body into the pariah of the academic space. What I encountered was not this oppressive force out there, but a professor who would say things like, “But have you had the surgery?,” in moments when gender transition has nothing to do with a conversation being had. Or, I would have professors misgender me, then tell me, “I get a little too confused.” I just have no interest in honoring that lack of capacity.
Because of this, when I think about what trans pedagogy is, I do so from a place of deep anger and disappointment at how terribly this discipline has treated trans bodies. I lead my trans pedagogical work with anger precisely because nothing else seems to rupture the liberal indifference that organizes pedagogical work in communication.
My recent trans pedagogy work has gone back to the late 19th century, when the US took over the Philippines and began to colonize places external to the US continental metropole. Why is that significant? Because the Thomas–a ship that brought educators from the US to the Philippines–transported teachers charged with teaching communication via US English. This is to say that the discipline has always been, not just complicit, but also an active agent in the colonization or Americanization of the Global South. The same colonizing logics continue to organize contemporary communication pedagogies that work to reify the status quo.
I perceive trans pedagogy, then, as only partially about how I make space more trans-inclusive. It’s also a question of how my approach to the classroom might inadvertently reify antitransness, which is grounded in white supremacy. From this perspective, trans pedagogies prompt us to think through anti-blackness as it intersects with Indigenous erasure as the constitutive ground animating contemporary pedagogical practice. In this context, teaching public speaking can inadvertently reify the oppressive material history of the discipline by sidestepping it.
This is what I’m trying to bridge right now; it is not a question of how can I be more inclusive, but how is it that that question is not able to advance the classroom learning experience in the way it perhaps intends to? I see sometimes on social media that my book with Dr. Johnson will get talked about from time to time. Often what I hear from people who are identifying themselves as cisgender, heterosexual and white and working in so-called conservative spaces is that our book is “too much.” That “too much” performs a deep violence: the problem of a teacher being absolutely terrified to engage with real difference.
To me, as someone who now teaches teachers in our discipline, in a so-called conservative context, I see this response as a structural problem. Generally speaking, communication programs are not preparing our teachers to feel empowered when interrogating white nationalism. As educators, we have to learn to be able to work through a hard conversation in the classroom–to not just say, “That’s transphobic, get out,” but, “Let’s talk about the environment that I enabled and my complicity in creating a situation in which you would be able to say something transphobic.” We have to ask, “How am I, as the teacher, part of this?” instead of adopting a good guy / bad guy mentality that predominates the communication discipline as I see it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Is there advice you would give to students who are interested in performance studies and the critical approaches to studying identity and difference we have discussed here who might be considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication studies?
[Dr. Lore/tta LeMaster] I’m speaking from a place of privilege as a tenure track professor at an R1 [Research One] institution. When it comes to advice, I feel like I can certainly play like I have things to offer, but what I really have are things to offer against. For example, you have to recognize that the Ph.D. cannot be your only concern. If this is your biggest worry, you’ve minimized what life is in late stage capitalism and your priorities are wildly off. The result might include moving through a graduate program disembodied and disassociated. That’s absolutely a performance question.
To be a performance scholar who wants to move into the academy at this political moment means really doing deep embodied work in that process. Something I’m doing with my graduate students is leading with emotionality and with connection — calling us to name our pain in real-time. We don’t have time to suppress our feelings about the world nor do we have the capacity to keep the professionalization business model churning as usual.
Now, I’m not naïve. I also know a lot of spaces don’t have faculty like me who can at least open some space for that sort of processing. So, this brings me to my second point. Another thing I encourage my graduate students to do — if not require, because I don’t require anything, really — is within the first year they must cultivate a working community relationship with a person that is not in the institution. They must meet a person who does not care much about what they’re doing in the academy and ideally someone who can say, “Shut up, let’s just drink, or eat, or whatever.” This is to say, cultivate relationships outside of the academy in graduate school and continue to do that afterward.
I think the third bit of advice, which I give across all spaces, is to organize. If you’ve never organized, learn how to organize, read about organizing. I’m not just saying study organizational communication. If you are in organizational communication, engage with critical organizational communication research. We need to think about organizing people to challenge and transform power in all different sorts of ways. Getting a graduate degree means performing the canon, but performing academia is not the end goal of your Ph.D. If you can imagine beyond that, then the Ph.D. is a tool to change the world.
I got my Ph.D., not for a professorship, but to sign character forms and character letters for judges on behalf of friends and community who were forced to go see judges. That’s why I got my Ph.D. I got my Ph.D. to sign grant forms for my friends who are leading various community organizations. The year I got my Research One job was the last year I thought I was going to be in the academy. I thought, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” Now I’m going through tenure, but my goals aren’t located in academe. My goal is to keep trans people alive. That’s my goal. And I can do that here and elsewhere.
It’s important for folks not to see a professorship as a goal that all of us get to pursue. That’s what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.” It moves us into some really toxic spaces. I think we, as a discipline, need to do better to teach our students that our degrees don’t have to be about academic jobs at all. They’re about rapidly enriching your understanding of the world around you and making you see the world very differently so that we might engage in more enriched activism and transformation.
Thank you, Dr. LeMaster, for your insight into critical thought on cultural difference, performative scholarship, navigating being transgender in the academy, and much more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.