This week, I have the pleasure of reviewing another fantastic book. Like some of my other selections, I have been waiting to read this one for a few months, especially after hearing such wonderful things about it. It’s also about a sector of education that I know embarrassingly little about: for-profit education, or what the author terms “Lower Ed.” But more on that later – let’s start the review!
Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy
Tressie McMillan Cottom
The New Press © 2017
Okay, so first things first: this book definitely lives up to the hype. It’s an amazingly thorough and readable book, and McMillan Cottom has an ability for story telling that is oftentimes hard to find in education literature. Furthermore, as someone who does ethnographic work, I truly appreciated McMillan Cottom’s sociological perspective, as well as her drawing from her personal experiences with for-profit education, empirical research, and her own exhaustive study. McMillan Cottom’s main argument is a cogent elucidation of the stratification of educational opportunities between higher education and what she terms “lower ed,” or a for-profit educational sector that is, in many ways, a dangerous proposition for the students who enroll.
Lower Ed does not demonize the students for any perceived “lack of success,” however, which is another strength of the text. Instead of positioning students as failures for leaving for-profit institutions with ballooning loan payments, no degrees, and/or a lack of employment opportunities, McMillan Cottom reminds readers of the context in which for-profit education becomes the best choice amongst poor options. In doing so, McMillan Cottom traces the landscape for many students at for-profit colleges in the new economy, or the current sociopolitical moment in which more jobs are requiring advanced/technical skills. Moreover, these jobs are requiring such training and skills immediately, and are not paying to support their long-term staff to go back to school. This creates a press in which long-term employees are deemed underprepared, and they must get a degree/credential as expediently as possible. Throughout the book, McMillan Cottom depicts the new economy in stark, albeit highly accurate, terms: it is profit-centered, and is built on the myth that individual persistence will lead to a better life. If not, then that is the fault of the individual, not the system. Additionally, the new economy is positioned as a fast-paced environment in which those who are not nimble will not succeed.
With time mattering more, and the ratcheting up of educational degrees and credentialing programs as a prized possession in an increasingly-technical workforce, McMillan Cottom shows how for-profit colleges carved a niche for themselves. Furthermore, through collusion from the federal government in the form of being able to gain access to financial aid monies, for-profit education has been created—and stands to continue in the current political administration—as a further extension of the new economy: an uncaring institution that benefits from students’ financial investments, but has no real incentive to worry about their success. In fact, the recent announcement that the current Secretary of Education will reconsider the gainful-employment rule and the defense-to-repayment regulation are a reminder of just how little for-profit colleges and the current political administration care about the success of their largely marginalized student populations. And again, this lack of care is all couched within a rhetoric of individualism, “hard-work-will-lead-to-your-own-success,” and a “students-first” smokescreen. Remember, it is the current Secretary of Education who continues to claim that her “first priority is to protect students” (Harris, 2017, para. 4).
Lower Ed is a telling text that gives an inside look into a for-profit educational complex that largely operates behind closed doors…and does so on purpose. Surely, the numbers (e.g., dropout rates, loans amassed and defaulted upon, time to graduation) speak for themselves in many senses. However, Lower Ed does a superlative job discussing why students continue to enroll in for-profit colleges, despite the high costs. Again, McMillan Cottom’s sociological perspective is drastically important here: were the new economy not what it is, perhaps for-profit education would not be as alluring as it is; however, it is…and so it seems to be…and students—many of whom are single parents, people of color, and/or in lower socioeconomic class brackets—continue to enroll, seeking a way to “move up.”
Perhaps the first thing educators can begin to unlearn by reading this book is our own academic elitism. Particularly for those of us without any experience or knowledge of lower ed, such as myself, we tend to buy into the normalized conceptualization of four-year not-for-profit higher education is the very pinnacle of the educational pyramid. Even though many of us talk a good game about education as a public good, we—as a field—are not wholly committed to recreating educational systems. Especially in times of scarcity, such as now, the first thing on many of our minds is—you guessed it—our own hides/jobs/resources/budgets.
I get that…and yet…we must lift while we climb. If we are truly invested in education as a practice of freedom (hooks, 1994), or the idea of education as a form of democratizing society, then we must be thoughtful, aware, and knowledgeable about how lower ed works (and how the way lower ed currently works is reinforced/reinforces the way higher education works). This means we need to be resisting the rubbish policies the current administration is advocating regarding for-profit colleges…which requires that we know what they mean…which means that we must invest in understanding for-profit education. As I tell the students I learn with, we cannot resist what we don’t know, so it’s best we get to knowing the lower ed landscape, as well as its many dis/connections to/from higher education.
The next thing educators can learn from McMillan Cottom’s book is how to speak in convincing-yet-highly-approachable ways for a general audience about the work we do as educators. Although not by intentional design, a number of the books I have read recently have helped me rethink how I write for a broader (read: non-educational) audience. And if ever there was a time when that was dreadfully important for those of us in education, it is now. Shoot, it is past now based on who our current Secretary of Education is, and how she continues to demonize public education and the notion of education as a public good. Lower Ed, Living a Feminist Life (which I reviewed previously), and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price (which I will review next week) are all case studies in how to articulate highly nuanced empirical studies and critically important theoretical positions to broader publics beyond those who are already on board. Heck, these three books speak even to people who may not even care to be on board in the first place. This is rare, in my estimation, and is a real gift that McMillan Cottom has provided us as her readers.
Lower Ed is a highly engaging, concise, and clear analysis of a sector of education that continues to vex many. I would strongly recommend you take a weekend to read this book, even if you never plan to work in for-profit education. Because, at the end of the day, lower ed and higher ed are far more linked than perhaps we (in higher ed) know or want to believe. And, at the end of the day, we must be invested in reclaiming all of education as a practice of freedom; not just some colleges, or some sectors, or some types of institutions.
Another week means another book review – this one from one of my very favorite authors and thinkers, the original #killjoy herself, Sara Ahmed. On to the review!
Living a Feminist Life
Duke University Press © 2017
As I mentioned above, I have been a long-time admirer of Sara Ahmed’s work. In fact, I think there is just one book of hers that I have yet to read (something I am planning on rectifying soon, no doubt), and her books and blogs show up on my course syllabi quite frequently. I also firmly believe her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life should be required reading for all higher education administrators. So, it should come as no surprise that I was eagerly anticipating Living a Feminist Life.
If you have never read anything by Ahmed (no judgments!), Living a Feminist Life serves as a beautiful omnibus of her work. One of the main strengths of the text is Ahmed’s ability to (re)work much of her previous scholarship, tying concepts and experiences together to create a cohesive sense of her complete oeuvre. However, lest you get the sense that she is rehashing old work, it should be stated that Ahmed does a lovely job extending her thinking and developing new thinking. For example, while she has previously used the metaphor of the brick wall in On Being Included, she does some new work with the metaphor in Chapter 6 of Living a Feminist Life. She also writes beautifully on questions, specifically what it means to be made into a question, to have one’s existence questioned, and, as a result, to question one’s own existence (Chapter 5); details the importance of the oft-dismissed positionality of lesbian feminism—a positionality she rightly reclaims as being trans*-affirming (Chapter 9)—and begins the book in Chapter 1 with an extended, visceral description of feminism as embodied, felt, and, to use her word, “sensational.” So yes, there is a lot of newness here, and much of it is a result of Ahmed’s revisiting and working through previous thinking. In this sense, I read her book as very connected to Sharpe’s In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (which I reviewed last week) in that “past” thinking would be better understood as “the past that is not yet past” thinking, and that such thinking is always already with us, spurring us to redevelop new ideas and craft deeper understandings.
One of the most noticeable things about Living a Feminist Life, however, is that it is quite a different style of read than Ahmed’s previous work. Her previous books have traded quite heavily in theory and theoretical analysis. This is not a critique at all; in fact, this is one of the reasons I have come to love reading Ahmed. She requires her readers to work, and I, for one, like to dig into that kind of work. Living a Feminist Life, however, is a bit different. In her Introduction, Ahmed discusses the notion of bringing feminist theory home, and of understanding how feminism is embedded in our everyday lives. Thus, she signals a shift from writing a theory-laden text to writing an embodied text, one that is laden with the experiences and fragility of her life/our lives as (a) feminist(s).
This is not to say the text is “theory light,” or that it is “atheoretical.” Quite to the contrary, Living a Feminist Life still has a strong backbone of theory, particularly theory written by women of color. However, the theoretical and conceptual lifting that Ahmed required her readers to do in previous texts was backgrounded a bit, and instead, lives, experiences, and discussions of how feminism manifested in her/our everyday realities was foregrounded. In this way, Ahmed expanded her reach for who could read, understand, and interact with her text. As an academic who has been consumed lately with worries of how to bring my research into more public venues, Ahmed’s book serves as a delightful example of just that (as does Sara Goldrick-Rab’s book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream – but I’ll save that for a later book review).
The embodied nature of Ahmed’s book struck me throughout the book. Right from the beginning, Ahmed discussed her desire to have this text be closer to her and her experiences. However, she also was transparent in saying that she found ways to get in her own way. For example, she used the word “you” when describing some painful experiences of being a feminist killjoy rather than “I” or “me.” She discussed this choice as she wrote, creating a sense of intimacy and connection for me as a reader. I could both understand these experiences as hers and as mine in some senses. For, although she was talking about her own life, there were moments at which I kept thinking, “Yes, I too have had this happen.” There were moments when I was moved to tears, when I was undone by her story-telling, and when I was reminded of the importance of continuing, despite the potential costs of doing so. This book, as I think it was intended to do, got me in the gut, and reminded me of my own fragility as a trans* killjoy.
I was also very pleased to read both of Ahmed’s conclusions in Living a Feminist Life. That’s right – she wrote two conclusions; one a killjoy survival kit and the other a killjoy manifesto. Immediately, I put her killjoy manifesto on my syllabus for my summer Gender & Higher Education course, as I found it to be a wonderful example of how we must commit to our values in public.
So what can educators take from Living a Feminist Life? There are many answers to this question, but I will try to pare down my comments so this post doesn’t go too long. Here’s a bit of a list:
Overall, I would certainly agree that Living a Feminist Life is quite an important book. Even if you have read Ahmed’s previous work, or have read her blogposts or heard her talk, Living a Feminist Life still has a sense of newness and clarity of voice that is remarkable. As bell hooks is quoted saying on the cover of Living a Feminist Life, “Everyone should read this book.”
Another week means another book review…and this one is a good one. Like, a really good one. A colleague I admire and respect a lot turned me onto this book, and she didn’t steer me wrong. Now on to the book review!
In The Wake: On Blackness and Being
Duke University Press © 2016
Today, I learned that Philando Castile’s killer, Jeronimo Yanez, was found not guilty of his crime. This result is yet another in an ongoing series of officers being found either not guilty or not even indicted for the continued killing of Black and Brown people; people who have done nothing wrong, but whose killing has been the violent manifestation of systemic racism. And this is the very moment that Sharpe begins her book. Not with Castile’s death, per se, but with the ongoing realities of Black death, particularly those deaths that are a result of nefarious state intervention, such as the transatlantic slave trade.
In talking about the slave trade, Sharpe introduces three different ways of thinking about the wake as a theoretical and analytical construct:
Not only are we in the wake of these ships—metaphorical, historical, and literal—but we must continue to hold wakes for the ongoing killing of Black and Brown peoples in the United States. In Chapter 3, titled “The Hold,” Sharpe reminds the reader of the ongoing killing of people of color, both present and past (leading Sharpe to discuss “the past that is not yet past”). The chapter—and really the entire book—becomes performative in the sense that the reader is overwhelmed by the necropolitical past that is not yet past Sharpe details. Sharpe also gives detailed accounts of those people who have been killed, suggesting that the act of reading these stories serves as a wake in and of itself. Furthermore, by reading this book, perhaps the reader who didn’t know about these ongoing atrocities would become more awake; here, the triad of wakefulness comes full circle.
As one can see, this book is theoretically rich (as most Duke University Press books are). The book was also, for me, both painful and cathartic. Reading the names and stories of the sheer number of people who have continued to be killed at the hands of the state, as well as the global slave trade, hurts. However, at the same time, the depth of feeling in the writing, the stories of (trans*) women of color in the text, and the way the book centers blackness throughout (citationally and otherwise) is beautiful, and provides a space of release. Indeed, I read the book in one day—something that I rarely, if ever, do (this coming from a kitten who reads quite a bit, too).
So what could postsecondary educators get from this text? The first thing is the importance of history and the past. Indeed, Sharpe suggests the past isn’t even past; it is “the past that is not yet past.” This means that the past is always already present. In other words, the past continues to show up in all we do in the present. So the need to know marginalized histories, and how these histories (re)shape our present environments, is massively important. For example, knowing the history of slavery is incredibly important to the ongoing work for university-based reparations (something Ta-Nehisi Coates has most recently talked about at a Harvard University conference this past March). The same could be said for the ongoing need to focus on current articulations of colonization and trans* oppression on college campuses. The past is not really past, but is present with us and shapes how we come to know and experience our environments as (un)just.
Second, Sharpe reminds us that details matter. We should not just stick a hashtag on a name, but should learn details about those people who are memorialized. We should not just write a hashtag and then move on, but should rest with and honor the dead at the very same time that we fight for the living. We must be specific and know what and who we are talking about as a way to stay awake to the ongoing violence of the state. Educators would do well to heed this caution, as we are often all too quick to move through (neoliberal university) life.
Lastly, In The Wake is a call to not worry about being nice, and instead, to call attention to oppression and its myriad manifestations. I will write more about this in my next book review of Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, but Sharpe invites us to be the killjoys who remind others that the past is not the past; that the ways in which our present is shaped is not an aberration or a set of isolated incidents. We must be awake, must be killjoys, must hold each other as we think deeply about how the hold of transatlantic slave ships continue to mediate the current ethos of antiblackness in the U.S. (and beyond).
This book will likely be a tough read for some, for a number of reasons. However, it is a tough read worth sticking with, and worth resting with once done. I read it a few weeks ago and I am still thinking about it. This, to me, is the sign of a good read: one that stays with you long after the back cover is closed.
The second book in my summer book review series is another one from Duke University Press: Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection. After reading Clare’s revised Exile and Pride last year (which I strongly recommend), I was eagerly anticipating tucking into this book. The good news is, it didn’t disappoint. Now on to the book review!
Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure
Duke University Press © 2017
There are few authors who write more beautifully than Eli Clare, and Brilliant Imperfection is a perfect example of such beauty. In fact, one of my favorite things about Clare is that he eschews easy categorization. He writes poetry, prose, and academic pieces; mixes empirical evidence with personal reflection with story-telling; and he is a writer whose analytical focus blends between and among various interlocking systems of oppression. In this latest book, Clare brings these profuse perspectives, writing styles, and approaches together to interrogate various competing notions of cure.
Duke University Press classifies Clare’s text as fitting into disability studies, disability activism, and queer studies. However, readers will quickly come to understand that Clare’s accounting of cure takes into account environmental justice, colonization, racism and racialization, and fat studies. Through these various analytical lenses, Clare also takes on the medical industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industry, and his own ongoing socialization regarding cure in ways that are both personally moving and helpful for thinking about how to dismantle systemic oppressions.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is its performative nature. Clare doesn’t give easy answers or a sense of settledness regarding his interpretation of cure. In fact, he suggests in the text that if one is to be honest, one cannot ever have a unified understanding of cure due to its mercurial nature as a concept and ideology (to say nothing about the multiple ways it is taken up with both violent and liberatory aims/results). As a reader, I felt bumped and jostled throughout the text. I felt pulled between writing styles, across perspectives on cure, and, as a result, found myself shifting my own views and investments on cure as I read. As someone who is crip and trans* myself, and has recently had several experiences that have made me (re)think my own investments in medical-based body normativity, this book was a gut check. Clare’s vulnerability pulled at my own vulnerability, and Clare wrote the book in such a way that I felt I was sitting with a friend late at night, sharing our complicated and complex secrets by candlelight.
Similar to my first book review of the summer, Brilliant Imperfection is decidedly outside of the field of higher education and student affairs. However, there are several things I was able to take from the book that are highly relevant to educators’ work. The first takeaway for me was the need to think about the ideology of cure from a student affairs perspective. While we rarely use this word, I have a sneaking suspicion that much of the work we draw from in our field works to promote cures. Most notably, I have been thinking about how student development theory may be used as a way to cure students of their less complex, earlier developmental stages/processes/statuses. In other words, I wonder how we may think of using student development theory as an anecdote to what we see as “less healthy” ways of thinking and being in the world, and by implementing student development theories in practice, we can then cure such developmental ills.
This perspective is, quite simply, dangerous and paternalistic. To think that we, as educators, know the “right way” for people to think and be, and that we have the cure(s) for what we have defined—via student development theories—as students’ shortcomings. Thinking with Clare’s text, then, the ideology of student-development-theory-as-cure promotes violence at the very same time that it may well encourage individual growth and wellbeing (because not all development is negative, bad, or unwanted by students). Clare reminds us that cure is complex, but we should never overlook the potential violent foundations and implications of cure, alongside its potential/hopeful positive effects.
Another component of the book I find helpful for educators is Clare’s questioning of normalcy, as well as who defines such a paradigm (because I agree with Clare that normalcy is much more than a term/concept). Questioning normalcy has long been a staple of disability studies literature, but Clare’s picking up on various interlocking systems of oppression reminds educators that the paradigm of normalcy is deeply entrenched in colonialism, racism, fat-phobia, heteronormativity and queer shame, and staid notions of what body-minds (a term Clare introduces in Brilliant Imperfection) should be able to do. Clare also reminds us that normalcy is also framed by temporality, as body-minds that cannot do certain things within certain timeframes are created as abject, deviant, and wrong.
In a field that still discusses “traditional” and “non-traditional” students, frames college as a 4-6 year endeavor, and continues to have a love affair with the notion of allyship as a status one can hold up as a sign of their being progressive, educators would do well to follow Clare’s lead and interrogate normalcy from all angles. Who is normal? Who says so? Why are we enamored with normalcy? How is this helpful? What if we strove for abnormality instead? How, in desiring normality, are we neglecting our own body-minds? What generational violence are we passing down by not questioning normativity as an ideology that frames much of what we do as educators?
The final element of Clare’s book that I find quite beautiful—and very scary—is his intimate openness. Clare shares of himself in a way that is not self-indulgent or without purpose, but in a way that challenges me. In particular, Clare’s poetry/prose challenged me to have a good, long think about how/why/when/if I am sharing of myself, and if that (not) sharing is itself rooted in violent notions of desiring cure.
To be honest, I am not sure where I am at with this element of Clare’s book. I have continued to think about this as I have read Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, as she also discusses this (and her reticence about self-disclosure). More on that in a future book review, though. For now, let’s just say that I am wondering how openness may be used by educators—myself included—as a way to not be open. In a sense, then, I wonder how our sharing—and decisions around when/how/if/with whom/in what contexts we share—acts as a non-performative, or a way that we put up brick walls around not sharing…despite our suggesting the opposite. For example, I have recently begun talking a bit more publicly about my having a think about the pronouns I would like people to use in relation to me. However, I have not gone much further than that in public. And while I know there are many good reasons for this, I also need to have a real think about what it means to be open, and what that openness might (not) do. I also need to think about why I haven’t shared much more about pronouns, including if my not sharing is linked to my own complicity with oppressive illogics.
Clare’s book is as impressive as it is painfully necessary. For those who invest the time and space for Clare’s work, the book challenges the very core of who we are, what we think, and how what we think (re)produces the very worlds we may (not) want. And in the end, isn’t that all we could ever ask from a book: to be pushed, pulled, cajoled, and invited to thinking about the complex tapestry of life as brilliant imperfection? I, for one, would like to think so.
It’s that glorious time of year again: the summer! And for academics like myself, the summer means a concentrated time to catch up with those piles of books we have created throughout the year. Y’all know who you are – I have been seeing the stacks fill my Instagram feed for the past couple weeks, and there is some great reading ahead for the lot of us!
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.