Teaching for Food

The moment of teaching for food is therefore often mistakenly taken to be a stage, as if eventually one should not teach for food. If the stage persists, there is a social pathology in the university. But if the teaching is successfully passed on, the stage is surpassed, and teaching is consigned to those who are known to remain in the stage, the sociopathological labor of the university. —Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons, 27.1

There are many things I could write here about the undertaking of a graduate degree. But these remarks of Harney and Moten swelled within my mind, stuck to my fingers, refusing to be ignored. Don’t stop teaching for food. This is a dictum that has driven me since my first semester in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Humanities at TWU.

This is not, however, to say that my drive has been without contradiction. While feverishly completing readings and assignments I battled for funding and the acceptance of my work, seeking the recognition of the academy I had so recently joined. Will you let me speak? Will you publish my paper? Will you let me pass beyond this stage? I was forced to accept this hunger as a necessary phase in my ‘hero’s journey,’2 so positioning myself within the privileged lineage of the academy.

This contradiction between the materiality of teaching and the ideality of succession and inheritance arises from what is referred to as the professionalization of academia. It means that graduate students are no longer students alone, but junior producers in the scholarly factory, workers on the informatic assembly line. Though we are workers, we are told we are beyond work, that we must struggle to get beyond work, that the beyond of work is the true site of the true work of the academy. And so, we must do the work, and while we are not working, we must work to go beyond our work, to cobble together a voice, an authority, from the leavings of our labour.

If this activity were not coerced, it would be what Michel de Certeau describes as la perruque, poaching, a transverse tactic of bricolage, an artistic trick, whereby a worker opens a space of “plurality and creativity” in the place of labour.3 But professionalization has co-opted such trickery, made it the vehicle of success in the academic industry. She who can assemble the pure edifice of an identity from the multitude that she is can maybe, maybe, hope for acceptance, hope to be made one, hope to be given a seat. Her poaching is no longer oriented toward the plural or the creative but toward production, toward the manufacture of a saleable good convertible into capital. She poaches from time, her own time (the little that it is), the stuff of her living, every scrap of existence sacrificed to the dream of the true. And because she hungers, she lets this state of affairs lead her to convert her “competence into authority,” as de Certeau phrases it, longing for satiety.4

This is why I am stuck on the dictum drawn from Harney and Moten: don’t stop teaching for food. To be a teacher, to be one who depends on teaching for survival, is to be arrested at “a stage” of “self-incurred minority” (a phrase Harney and Moten draw from Kant):

He [Kant] tries to contrast it with having the ‘determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another.’ ‘Have the courage to use your own intelligence.’ But what would it mean if teaching or rather what me might call the ‘beyond of teaching’ is precisely what one is asked to get beyond, to stop taking sustenance? And what of those minorities who refuse, the tribe of moles who will not come back from beyond (that which is beyond ‘the beyond of teaching’), as if they will not be subjects, as if they want to think as objects, as minority? Certainly, the perfect subjects of communication, those successfully beyond teaching, will see them as waste. But their collective labor will always call into question who truly is taking the orders of enlightenment. The waste lives for those moments beyond teaching when you give away the unexpected beautiful phrase—unexpected, no one has asked, beautiful, it will never come back.5

The only poaching left us is the poaching of our study, a mole-like sequestration of our learning that refuses to let our competencies be converted into intellectual capital, into power, a sequestration that doubles as an underground proliferation, a sharing in the dark, a fugitive education hidden from the sun.

I refuse to stop taking sustenance from teaching, from study—which is to say, I refuse to monologize my sources, to erase my citations, to present myself as something more than in progress, to pretend to be an authority. “What the beyond of teaching is really about is not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing; it’s about allowing subjectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others, a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood.”6

To not stop teaching for food is to refuse alienation, to refuse to be separated from the products of our hands, the echoes of our speech, the ink-stains of our pens. It is to remember what has always been going on, to welcome others into study, to allow ourselves to study, to let what is unexpected and beautiful be without hope of it giving us a name. It is to dwell with “refugees, fugitives, renegades, and castaways,” with all the rest who have been denied a place.7

To not stop teaching for food is to be “unprofessional,” to be “more than professional,” to “exceed the profession,” to “exceed and by exceeding escape.”8 To not stop teaching for food is for us to take back our lives.9


  1. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe, UK: Minor Compositions, 2013). 

  2. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004 [1949]). 

  3. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 30. 

  4. De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 7. 

  5. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 27. 

  6. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 28. 

  7. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 29. 

  8. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 30. 

  9. Originally published in the TWU English Department Newsletter 2017-2018, 2-3, PDF. The text is reprinted here in its final form with some minor changes and additions. 

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