ProfTalk: Ryan Murphy


Murphy in front of Old Main. Photo: Will Matsuda

Murphy in front of Old Main. Photo: Will Matsuda
Murphy in front of Old Main. Photo: Will Matsuda

A shortened version appeared in the February 15, 2013 print edition of The Mac Weekly; below is the complete article.

Talk about your background.

I went to Macalester, graduated in 1998, and I’m from Minnesota. But I’m back at Macalester now after living in San Francisco for a lot of years. During that time I was a flight attendant. Basically, when I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was 1998, the economy was super good, and I had always loved the airline industry. So without any other plan—I knew I didn’t want to go to grad school, I knew I didn’t want to have a traditional business job—I interviewed with both American and United and got the job. But I was also interested in community organizing and union organizing and political mobilization. So I decided that I would run for union office. My local [chapter] had had a long history of being an activist node, both in the queer movement and in the women’s movement, so once I got there, I got to build on that history. And that’s, in some ways, what set me on the path to the kind of teaching that I’m doing now.

What did you study at Macalester?

I was a history major. So I worked with Peter Rachleff, because labor was one of my areas of concentration. I did a lot of urban, globalization, some African American studies in the department of history. And Duchess [Harris] was new at the time. Duchess had started in the mid-1990s right when I started, so I was history, but then did a lot of courses in what would eventually become American Studies with Duchess.

Did anything in particular in your academic background lead you to being a flight attendant?

Yes. I had studied labor and I had studied economic transformation in the mid-20th century. I was really interested in the creation of so many not-living-wage job economic models after the 1970s: low-wage, service jobs, feminized labor that is not well compensated, and that uses existing tensions along lines of gender, sexuality and race to hurt people and pay them less. The airline industry was really unique in that this had really obviously been happening in that the stewardess had been marketed as a sex object in the early 70s, but yet it had been a place where there had been so much organizing and pushback against that kind of really intense exploitation. So I think I wanted to be in a world that wasn’t the classroom, but I also had thought so much about ways that we could find a way to work that isn’t as exploitive as the labor that we see in places like big box retail. So actually doing the work and launching my life from that place seemed to make sense to me.

What prompted you to go back to school and enter academia?

I think I’m someone who never is really good at planning. Things kind of just happen. And after Sept. 11, I kept flying for awhile, but the airline industry went into the worst crisis it’s ever had. Because Sept. 11 that provided an opportunity for banks and for the airlines to convert jobs that had previously been living-wage jobs into non-living-wage jobs. We went through that struggle, but at the end of the day the job was converted into one that was much less liveable. I decided that, in late 2003, that it was an opportune moment to try to do something else. I thought that all of the airlines were so unstable—I mean, it was the pit of the Bush years, the war was just started—and I was worried that the airlines were going to go out of business. And I was like, I have the skills to do academic work, and academia feels relatively stable, and I might as well do this to cover myself, in addition to the fact that I’m interested in it. Whether or not that was a good decision was a different story. But that’s the way the decision was made at the time.

What led you to the WGSS department?

It’s funny. I didn’t really study sexuality. I mean, of course, every professor I had would bring up issues of gender and sexuality in class, but WGSS was just coming together as a department when I was here. Sonita [Sarker] was hired in the middle of my time at Macalester. So there were very few specific WGSS classes. I happened to go to grad school at a place that was a hotbed of the field that we now call sexuality studies. So, two things. My experience in the union made it so that sexuality was such a central conversation. A pilot was quoted as saying once during one of our disputes, “The flight attendants are just the angry chicks and fags in the back of the airplane.” And that was sort of what we organized around. So that workplace was so rife with discussion about sexuality. And I purposely went to grad school in a program where I could study both economics and sexuality. And that just put me on a path. I think that women’s, gender and sexuality studies has really been a place where the study of economic change has been particularly vibrant in the last 10 years. I mean, obviously, because ideas about family and sexuality and the household are so key to the way the economy is structured. But therefore, my cultural interest in economics felt really at home in WGSS.

Where did you go to grad school?

I went to the University of Minnesota. I have a PhD in American Studies. So that’s how I ended up back in Minnesota.

What led you back to Macalester?

The stars, honestly, are how I ended up back here. The job market for humanities PhDs has been horrible for as long as we can all remember, but it’s been the worst it’s ever been since 2008. So I finished graduate school in 2010 and haven’t had a permanent academic job. So I’ve had to surf this sort of industry to figure out where I could land. There was just this random force, where Corie Hammers, who also does sexuality and global economy, happened to go on sabbatical. The position happened to post, I needed a job. And I obviously knew the program really well. Or maybe it’s that I just can’t get out of Minnesota. But I’m glad I’m here.

Have you enjoyed being back at your alma mater?

I’ve loved working with the students. It has been a fantastic year. You know, I think there’s a kind of weird—maybe it’s like the Dead Poets Society thing, that there’s a worshipping of that experience of having power in your former college workplace, and I think people really blow it up. Llike you ride home on some sort of float and you’ve finally arrived. When really, I mean, my colleagues have been really generous, but at the end of the day I’m a junior scholar in an industry that’s contracting. So the day-to-day anxiety over what comes next in my life has been a real challenge, and it’s not that Macalester makes that challenge, but rather that, like or not, this is a job, and the anxiety that people take from their jobs is anxiety that I carry to Macalester every day. And sometimes I honestly feel like, Where are my friends? That sounds depressing, but it’s really weird. I walk around campus and it’s like, I had so many good friends. It’s so hard to say this diplomatically, because I don’t want to have this boring story that life gets harder and it’s just less fun. But there’s a sort of solidarity that people have when their day-to-day is about the knowledge question, like it is for Macalester students. But for all of us in a world where we’re coping with austerity, a job is a place where there is anxiety. I think that’s the way it is. And that’s how it is for me.

Aside from the anxieties, or even part of the anxieties, what’s your favorite part of teaching after coming from a non-academic world and coming to the classroom?

Two things. In my non-academic world as a flight attendant, the workplace was actually really intellectual. So I think one piece of advice to students is that you will get intellectual nourishment in a lot of places. I would run union meetings, and I’ve never had students as engaged as flight attendants were at union meetings. There was never an awkward silence at those meetings. Even with really good students, some days the material just doesn’t translate so it’s kind of awkward in discussion and doesn’t go that well. But that never happened at the union, so that’s one thing. But what I like most about teaching here is I guess what’s obvious, that it is rewarded to do as edgy of teaching as possible. I’m not a literary scholar, but I taught a lot of art and a lot of literature this year because I know that I need to push myself because this is a really prestigious institution, and the students want me to push myself too. So the most rewarding part is when students are trying to master new material and I am mastering new material—there’s synergy there. So rather than make a syllabus that’s like, I know I need to teach the five books that people need to know in this field, I’ve actually written a lot of things on the syllabi that I’m like, this is a total stretch. Like today, I taught the Octavia Butler novel Kindred in my 1970s class. And I haven’t taught speculative fiction very often, and it went super well, but it was a total reach for me, and I was really rewarded.

Do you think the nature of a Macalester classroom has changed since you were a student?

I guess what is so striking to me that I think I didn’t notice at the time because this is where I went to college is how unique this kind of a place is. How a place that has this much privilege is not normal. I’ve taught at state schools, the Wisconsin state system and also the University of Minnesota, and the resources we have here at Macalester and also the engagement is totally striking. And I think it was like that in my day, too.

Has the overall culture of the students changed?

We live in a world with a rapidly increasing gap between the rich and poor. And that is much worse than it was in 1998, and it was a lot worse in 1998 than it was in 1970. And that is necessarily skewing the experience here. Not because that means that students are necessarily wealthier. In fact, this is the most needy first-year class ever this year. But I think that means that all cultural formations are somewhere in that playing field of the growing gap between rich and poor, and because Macalester is an elite cultural formation, it seems even more elite to me than it did in 1998. I want to be very clear. That doesn’t mean that we only admit wealthy students. But it means that we have to produce something that is even more fabulous than it was in 1998. The landscaping is way better than it was. The buildings are way fancier than they were. It reminds me of the Gilded Age, of the 1880s. There are not many in-betweens. There are literally buildings plastered with gold-leaf wallpaper and there are people living on the street in poverty. That’s the world that we’ve built for ourselves. There’s no way that Macalester can not take a position in that world, and I think that we’ve always been an elite institution, and it feels as elite as it’s ever felt. Structurally. Very little is it a reflection of Macalester itself. In fact, Macalester does a better job than almost anywhere around of allowing people to come who don’t have privilege because of the way they spend their money. But there’s no way to be outside of it.

Talk about your book.

I can tell you about it, but it’s not like you have to write about it, because academic books only do so much. [Laughs] The book is about the history of flight attendant union actors over the last 40 years. That’s the story. But I actually am trying to tell a way bigger story, specifically because of the increasing degree to which ideas about family have been politicized. After 1970 with the rise of the new conservative social movements, there’s an increasing vigorous demand for ideas about traditional family. Just at the time that, because the economy is changing, because immigration patterns are changing, people are actually less and less likely to live in traditional families. Flight attendants, because of who they were, and because they were hired not only to travel all the time but also literally hired to be sexually available to passengers in the 70s, they could never comply with that definition of traditional family. So what I think is interesting is that flight attendants have always made the argument that alternative family must be the centerpiece of how we organize our workplace and the way we organize our unions. So the book is really a story of organizing for alternative families. And I think that’s something that’s been kind of suppressed by both the right and even by the traditional or same-sex-oriented part of the LGBT movement.

Are there any new topics you’d be interested in exploring in teaching or a future book?

I’m teaching this class called The Political Economy of Gender and Sexuality, so through the research for my book and for that class I’ve gotten way more interested in a more sharp picture of how the rise of the banking industry and finance in the 70s happened. You know, with the 2008 crisis, it’s like, “The banks got power starting in the 80s and they took over and screwed us all over!” But how is that possible? So what I want to think about is the way that the cultural processes that the big banks convinced everyone that it was in their interest to let the banks grow. And specifically to think about how ideas like the American dream, homeownership and suburbanization played into people’s need to be able to borrow money, to need to be able to buy a house because they need to be able to be normal. So to think about the cultural history of finance is what I want to teach and research more. Which I already do teach and research a lot about already, but that’s kind of an emerging area for me. I hope to keep being a bridge between WGSS and the study of finance and banking because I think those things are obviously connected but not connected enough.

What would dream world, alternate universe Ryan Murphy be doing with his life?

Oh, my God, that’s such a horrible question. I mean, I love that question. lt’s amazing that I have to pause. That should tell us something. I’ll go on a little circuitous route. I gave my students a paper assignment when I taught at Minnesota to design your fantasy economy. We’d started to get in a lot of policy debates about what the welfare state should really look like, or what should deregulation really look like, or what’s financialization. A lot of students had no ability to dream. They were like, “I think we should increase the education budget by 4 or 5 percent.” I was like, “That’s your fantasy?!” Right? It’s not “Free public education,” or “We should all get to go to Macalester and have interesting conversations.” No. “I think we need to raise the budget by 4 percent.” That sucks! So many people are still not going to get an education.

The 2008 crisis—I think I’m really a person who’s come out of that. It’s been hell, professionally. It’s so much the day-to-day of needing to get through tomorrow. I sit here and go, What would the fantasy Ryan Murphy really be doing? That is a good question. I think more than anything, the fantasy Ryan Murphy wouldn’t be defined by work. Because that’s the hard thing for Macalester students. You graduate from here and you have a lot of skills and you have a lot of ideas. In some ways this part of your life is supposed to be defined by education, and the next part of your life is supposed to be defined by work. Even though everyone has a critique of work. You won’t go to Wall Street and make a billion dollars and fire a bunch of people. But whatever the other thing—if not Wall Street, then what is you? In some ways, I feel like a world where my friends could really be the center of my life would be me. And I don’t really care what I would be doing. Of course I like teaching here. But I’ve had to live in a world where that may not continue. So getting to actually acknowledge how important my friends and my community have been is where I hope I go.

Anything you’d like to throw out to the Macalester world?

People work really hard here. People work crazy hard in school, and I give people a shit ton of reading and papers, so I’m not saying that I’m outside of this, but I think much more so even than when I was here, there is an intense culture of overwork. And I think that’s kind of what I meant when I said whatever I do next, I want it to be not defined by work. My biggest advice to Macalester students is to have a good time. Life is short and it is finite. If you have the ability to have friends here and have a good time, do it. That doesn’t mean don’t ever come to class again. That’s not what I’m saying. But life has to be about pleasure, and I think we’ve forgotten that. Maybe it goes back to the previous question about how we live in a world where there’s this division between wealth and poverty, but in some ways the Macalester narrative is like, You’re going to run the next great not-for-profit, or you’re going to be the next great NGO leader. That might be true, and I hope people are empowered to do such things. But I hope also people are empowered to, like, talk to their friends. And put your book down. At a certain time of day you’re not going to get any more out of this. You can read enough pages—go out and experience the world. I think that sounds like hokey advice, but I worry about how hard my students work sometimes. And some days I think that that hurts us in a world. So I think pleasure is the key word.