"Loving trans people is a revolutionary act."
So, recently I started seeing someone. Germane to this particular blog series, this someone is a nontrans woman, and we are two time zones away from each other. Coupled with the fact that I am a Taurus and have a strong dislike for small talk, her and I have spent a lot of time getting to know each other on a deep level, oftentimes grappling with important, difficult questions.
One of the first questions she and I talked about was what it meant for her as a nontrans person to be interested in me as a trans person. Through these discussions of how we would intentionally navigate gender in our growing relationship, we began exploring how gender has shown up in previous relationships. See, I am the first trans person she has dated, and while we were both interested in each other, I have too many bad experiences with dating as a trans person to not ask this question. From being used so people could claim they have “been with people of all genders,” to being someone’s dirty little secret, to being made to wonder how my gender may have mediated people no longer talking to me, let’s just say I have grown, in the words of a dear trans friend, a little cispicious.
One day she texted me and said she was looking for content online about trans-nontrans relationships, but wasn’t finding much beyond blogs that tell nontrans people to check their transphobia. While this is an incredibly important point, it wasn’t really providing guidance or feedback on how to think about loving across gender identities in an ongoing and intentional fashion.
Enter this blog series…
My hope is this series can help stem the gap of commentary and voice about the experiences of living and loving across gender identities. I envision this not as the end of the conversation, but an opening up, and a inviting into an ongoing conversation about the complexities of gender and how gender mediates friendship, companionship, and love (both amorous and otherwise).
For this blog series, I am inviting guest contributors to submit posts to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Posts should:
Once I receive posts, I will work with the author(s) until the posts are ready for publication.
While everyone is welcome to submit potential blogposts, trans people of all genders, trans people of color, trans people with disabilities, and trans people with multiply marginalized identities and experiences are highly encouraged to submit.
I’m looking forward to reading these blogposts, as well as sharing them with you.
Z and Lauren
“When legislators and judges are in disagreement over whether the quasi-suspect category ‘sex’ includes ‘sexual orientation’ or even ‘gender identity,’ better understanding about how categories are named, regulated, and respected are necessary. These may seem like questions about equity, representation, and civics, but they are also central to educational research. If researchers are interested in engaging issues, they need to be cognizant of the varieties of ways in which people define themselves, how they are impacted by policies, and how their subjectivities, terminologies, and even communities will shift over time.” (Mayo, 2017, p. 536)
“Race is a figuration, a fake, made-up thing with material, crushingly real consequences. As Chinua Achebe taught, everything is a fiction. The question is if it is a beneficent or malignant fiction.” (Patel, 2015, para. 12)
“I find myself increasingly insisting on the importance of history, not because things were better (or worse) in an earlier time but because, as cocreators of collective memory, we’re all doing it one way and another, and it matters how we tell the story.” (Enke, 2018, p. 10)
There are moments when I read things expecting to be rocked a bit, and then there are times that, no matter how much I expect to be moved, the ground seems to open up beneath me and swallow me whole. There are some pieces that are just all consuming, and shake me to my very core, challenging me to rethink a lot of ideas and notions that had begun to solidify in my consciousness. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I find it necessary to pause, take stock, and do the rethinking the piece is calling on me (and, I may argue, us all) to do.
And when it happens that I (re)read three such pieces in the span of a week, well, that’s cause for a blogpost…
Recently, I read Cris Mayo’s Educational Researcher piece, Queer and Trans Youth, Relational Subjectivity, and Uncertain Possibilities: Challenging Research in Complicated Contexts. Mayo’s work has immediately become one of those monumental pieces, an anchor for my continued (re)thinking of my work. In fact, as I read Mayo’s work, I was reminded of a blogpost from Leigh Patel that I consistently return to, as well. Specifically, these pieces—and a recent piece in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly by Finn Enke that I will fold into the discussion later—have helped me think more carefully about citational practice, as well as why it matters for scholars and practitioners alike.
In setting the stage, it’s important to note just what I mean when I discuss citational practice. In her latest book, Ahmed (2017) discussed her policy against citing white men. She did this as a way to live her feminist ethic, and lift up the voices of womxn, especially womxn of color. Similarly, in my book, I revise earlier work of mine to center the conceptual work of trans people rather than on cisgender people. My point for doing this was about highlighting and circulating the work of those already on the margins rather than continuing to lift up those voices for people who are usually centered (at best) and/or are co-opting marginalized voices and concepts (at worst).
Flash forward to a couple months ago, I began working on an CFP submission for a special issue journal on resisting binary notions of gender. In my imagining of my manuscript, I immediately got the idea of writing a piece in which I only cited trans people. I have often dreamed out loud about being able to do this, and find it to be a provocative idea, as it would reinforce the ways in which we as trans people have generated our own knowledges. In a sense, doing so lines up in some ways with what I have written about a trans epistemology in that it would confront readers with our ongoing existence despite/in response to our ongoing erasure.
And then I read Mayo’s piece…and remembered Patel’s piece…and read Enke’s piece…and began to think differently.
In Mayo’s piece, readers are reminded of the ways in which categorical understandings of gender and sexuality continue to be rollicked by individuals as we come to (re)know ourselves. Mayo also does a masterful job tethering our various and ongoing constructions of self not just to an independent project of navel-gazing, but to exposing the hegemonic ways in which population management, surveillance, and the nation-state operate. Mayo also is careful to remind readers these long-reaching connections have consequences for how researchers and practitioners do our work. For if we do not know what it is we are talking about (e.g., sexuality, gender), then we are perhaps furthering dangerous policies, rhetorics, studies, and discourses.
In Patel’s piece, readers are reminded of how, despite its fictitious base, race continues to have material effects on one’s life chances. In this sense, then, one is racialized—thereby producing effects—rather than “having” a concretized race that is itself a “natural” fact. And while race and gender are not the same, the ways in which these subjectivities are both deeply held personal realities and relational processes underscore the ways that “pinning down” or proposing to “know” some sort of ontological reality about populations on the basis of such fictions is a shifty—and perhaps quite muddy—process, as it suggests we can affix a stable, monolithic set of realities to something that is anything but.
In Enke’s piece, readers are reminded that the history we thought we knew may in fact be “all mixed up.” Through a rereading of moments from 1970s feminist movements, Enke shows how transfeminism was always already present throughout, disavowing the easy slide toward this era equaling a time in which transphobia was an all-consuming discourse. Enke picks up on the work of Sandy Stone, who advocated for sticking with being “all mixed up” as a way of creating space for those of us who have always been positioned as “all mixed up.” And if transphobia both was and wasn’t present, then perhaps we can realize the ways in which norms have (not) constrained us and keep pulling on threads that tear at these mixed up seams.
So now back to this idea of an all trans cited/referenced piece. In short, I have decided not to do this. My reasons for doing this are multiple, and are in direct connection to these three pieces.
From Mayo’s piece, I wonder how my desire is rooted in the false belief that all trans people are invested in liberatory notions of gender. I also wonder how I would be investing in the same strategies of population management and surveillance to “make sure” all those cited/referenced were trans.
From Patel’s piece, I wonder what standards I would use regarding making determinations of who to cite. There are many people who both allude categorization, or their genders shift across time and place or for whom historical and geopolitical understandings of gender just cannot do justice. How could my concretizing something fictitious further the “crushingly real consequences” of that fiction, transforming it from beneficial to malignant?
From Enke’s piece, I wonder how my desire was for a non-“mixed up” past/present/future, and how that non-“mixed up” past/present/future could be erroneously used to suggest that we have “arrived” in problematic ways.
I have written about a number of these same ideas before, and yet…there was—and still is, if I am being honest—a desire to have an “exclusively trans” manuscript…whatever that even means/if that is truly even possible. As Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton point out, these desires can be trap doors in that they may lead to peril and/or possibility. So while I have been a bit shocked at my desire, and how it rubs against my deeply held episteme, I do want to follow it through this trap door to see what it could reveal.
As I move through the trap door of the elusive “exclusively trans” manuscript, I find a way to embrace a trickle up citational practice that is an act of epistemological solidarity. Mirroring Dean Spade’s notion of trickle up activism, this would be a citational practice focused on the knowledges constructed by those most on the margins, and would work across populations as a way to proliferate possibilities for what and who we come to know, as well as how we come to know. As we focus on epistemological solidarity, there are spillages into the way we come to know our research as scholars, as well as the way we come to do our work. We focus on various, previously-hidden-from-view ways of being in the world as researchers and practitioners, and frame our work beyond the normal, institutionalized code of standards. We begin to live, work, think, research, and act with and alongside those most on the margins, and in so doing, increase life chances through striving toward our shared liberation.
So this is where I am at right now. I may never write an “exclusively trans” manuscript, but to be honest, these three pieces have helped me understand why doing so may never have really been necessary in the first place, as well as how the desire for me to do so was about something I previously had not had the capacity to imagine. Moreover, I have been able to think, yet again, about how the process by which we come to know—and the trap doors that are exposed/that we head through—have deep implications for all of us invested in hooks’ (1994) notion of education as a practice of freedom.
Recently, my friend and colleague Ruth Pearce wrote a beautiful blogpost on her experiences with co-authorship. In her post, Pearce recounts how writing can be a radical site for coming together with each other, as well as how we can do the work of coming together across temporalities and methods. She writes about the process of co-authorship as full of feeling, and in doing so, invites her readers to feel alongside her. In some senses, then, she is inviting her readers into a co-authoring experience that perhaps even traverses what was done in the past (e.g., scholarly pieces were written), and to think about how we can touch one another to form new ideas, lines of inquiry, and critical reflections (e.g., that which has yet, but could one day, be written). And it is here where I want to begin this blogpost, taking as a starting point Pearce’s reflections on her writing process (could this then mean Pearce and I are co-authoring this post?).
Over the past several months, I have begun working on my materials for my 3rd year review portfolio. For folks unfamiliar with the tenure process in the United States, academics undergo a mid-point check-in of sorts, usually in the third year of their tenure-track appointments. This serves as a way to see if one is making the progress needed for a successful bid for tenure in three years time. The process is a bit harrowing for a variety of reasons, but that is not really the point of this post. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect of putting together these materials that has peaked my own curiosities: scholarly collaboration.
Two elements of my portfolio include consolidating all of my scholarly publications (including that which is out for review and in press) along with updating my CV. I have also been tasked with writing a statement about my scholarship, which should be a narrative that weaves a coherent tapestry regarding my research agenda. As I have been doing all of this, I have been struck by one thing, and that is the importance of writing with and alongside my people.
This became so present for me, in fact, that I even addressed it in my scholarly narrative. I wrote,
Finally, collaboration has been a particularly important value to me throughout the development of my research agenda. As a scholar, I have a commitment to working with and alongside transgender communities, and as such, it would be antithetical—and I may argue unethical—to only do this work in a vacuum. Not only is my collaborative approach to research and scholarship a reflection of my paradigmatic orientation, but it also recognizes that equity and justice-based work—which I consider my work to be—is best done in concert with others, both within and across identities and experiences, as well as at all educational levels. Maintaining my value of community as central to my research agenda, I have been intentional to research and publish alongside students at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels. I have also researched and published with a variety of early, mid-, and senior scholars, including several colleagues at Northern Illinois University. I have also been intentional to work alongside other queer and transgender students and scholars, as well as students and scholars of color, students and scholars with disabilities, and students and scholars with multiple marginalized identities. Far from being a form of “tick box diversity” (Ahmed, 2012), my choices reflect a desire to live what Spade (2015) called “trickle up activism,” or the belief that we must work alongside those who are the most vulnerable in order to realize transformative justice. In other words, I find it imperative, as a scholar with multiple marginalized identities, to research and write alongside fellow marginalized students and scholars as a way to build the types of connections that help us as people with marginalized identities thrive in postsecondary education.
Now, this isn’t a “how to” blogpost where I elucidate 5 Strategies to do Collaborative Scholarship Effectively. This sort of post has its value, but mine isn’t that sort of post. Instead, what I am keenly interested in, and what Pearce’s post reminded me of, is thinking about scholarly collaboration as an ethic. In other words, I have become increasingly preoccupied with what it means to engage in collaborative work, even if one is writing a “solo-authored publication.” Yeah, that’s right, I just wrote that – I want to think about collaboration, even in regards to solo-authored publications.
But what all does this mean? Let’s try an example or two, yeah?
Folks familiar with this blog are likely already familiar with the fact that a book with my name as the “solo author” was recently published. However, people who are familiar with my work, have seen me speak about this book, and/or follow me on Twitter also know I am reticent to call this “my book.” In fact, I often discuss this as a book that the participants and I wrote. This is far from a cute ploy or simple choice in wording. Instead, it is a recognition that I did not write this book on my own. Yes, I get that I was the only one who typed the words that were printed on the pages of the book. However, the content (e.g., the data, the analysis, the people and experiences and implications) was all done with the participants. Moreover, my noting of the book as collaborative is a reminder that we as scholars and academicians who do human subjects research can never do anything without the investment (even in minimal ways) of those alongside whom we research, analyze, and write. As I have said over and over again, the book would have never happened were it not for the participants, and to suggest this is “my book” would smack of hubris.
For another example, I want to think about this very blogpost. I am currently typing away at my dining room table. Later, I may move to my office at Northern Illinois University, where I may finish up the post. However, there is no one here typing with me, nor will there be. In this sense, I am not talking about the sort of collaboration Pearce wrote about in her blog, where multiple people write together, sometimes taking turns at a single document, or perhaps even writing together in a shared virtual platform. This is, indeed, important, is something I have done, and is something I will continue doing in my career. But it’s not really what I am talking about in this blogpost.
Instead, what I am writing about is that these words I am typing now are not purely “my own.” What I am writing about is how this post was influenced by years of working, thinking, and being with other people, work, and thinking. What I am writing about is how this post grew not just from Pearce’s post, but also from the years of thinking I have done with and alongside other scholars. Whether we met through books, in person, or both, we have been thinking together, and that thinking has always already influenced “my” writing of this post. In fact, I could even stretch this concept to think about how I have been collaborating with my former selves across times and spaces. So, in a sense, I am indebted not only to Julia Serano and Susan Stryker, who I remember reading while smoking cigarettes on my small patio in Tucson, Arizona as I came into my own trans becoming, but also to the me who picked up those texts, thought through those texts, and continues to engage in the process of my own trans becoming. In a sense, I am thinking about collaboration as an ongoing, genealogical practice. In a sense, I am queering notions of collaboration such that it may not always matter whose name is first…or even on the page.
Now, there are some caveats here that must be written. I completely understand the implications of our current neoliberal moment and its effects on knowledge production. I get that the commodification of what is “my” scholarship (or “yours,” for that matter) is used as a symbol of our “productivity,” which is used to determine our ability to remain in our posts. I also understand quite palpably the implications of plagiarism. As someone who has had to confront the taking of my ideas without proper citation, I understand this viscerally, and need to state quite clearly that I am not arguing for people taking work because, “Well, Z said this thinking is mine, too, so I don’t need to cite it.” Nope, this is most certainly not what I am saying, and if that is what you are coming away from this post thinking, I would encourage you to invest some time processing through how whiteness and coloniality permeates your misconceptions.
Instead, what I am suggesting is that to collaborate can be material and affective (as Pearce wrote about in her post), and it can also be an ethic, or an ongoing moral practice that one engenders (a pun for the crowd) in epistemological and genealogical ways. What I am suggesting is that recognizing collaboration as an ethic reminds us from whence we came, and to whom we have always already been with, should we decide to recognize such. What I am suggesting is that understanding collaboration as ethic makes visible all of the invisible lines of thought that get us where we are…and where we may go. It is not that one’s thinking is mine for the taking, but that what is “mine” has always already been influenced by others, and that to suggest otherwise is, for me, incongruent with who we have been as a community, and how we must continue to be if we truly believe in the liberatory potential of the work we do.
And while the names of the participants with whom I wrote don’t show up on the front cover of “my” book, I make them present through all of the public scholarship and talks I do.
And while the people who I have thought alongside and with don’t show up on the front cover of “my” book, I view literature reviews through a citational practice where I elucidate who my community has always been (a practice I have learned from Sara Ahmed, who wrote about not citing white men in her latest book, Living a Feminist Life).
And while the people who I continue to come into my trans existence with don’t show up on the front cover of “my” book, I use the acknowledgements and dedication spaces to bring to the fore those people—past, present, and future—for whom “my” work exists, and without whom “my” work would not be (again, this is very similar to the way Ahmed has dedicated Living a Feminist Life and On Being Included to the communities with whom she researches and lives).
And yes, as I have written about alongside others, the choices we make about epistemologies and methodologies, and the affective aspects of our work all have implications regarding how we (don’t) embody collaboration.
And still, I find the need to explore how collaboration as ethic is a both/and that both recognizes these important dimensions of collaboration, and also invites us to think in new, interconnected, and communal ways.
As I wrap up this post, I would like to take a moment to publicly thank Ruth Pearce for her blogpost. Ruth, I miss you, and think fondly of the time we spent together in our workshop at Warwick a few summers ago often. Please know that despite the distance, I continue to find a home in the your writing, tweeting, and in our ongoing connection. I can’t wait to read your forthcoming book, too, as I know it will spur further thinking we will all do together.
In another few weeks, the fall term will be over for me, seeing me through half of my third year on the tenure track. The fall has been a bit busier than I think I understood it would be. I’ve had the good fortune to travel quite a bit, sharing the work the Trans* In College participants and I did, as well as to talk about the historic legacies of trans* women of color resistance, and what that means for our current moment. I have also been invited to talk about some of my (very new) reflections on the current sociopolitical moment in the United States, and what this may mean for trans* people in the near future. My travel has taught me an awful lot about myself, my limits, and my abilities. My travel has also reminded me that I am fortunate to hold an academic position that allows me the flexibility to be mobile in my work, as well as that I have students and colleagues with whom I learn and work who show me grace and patience.
However, as I have traveled here and there, one question has begun to prick my conscious with increasing regularity: what the heck am I trying to do?
Now, don’t get me wrong – I know what the thrust of my work is in the particular. I know what the purpose, findings, and implications of my book are, as well as the studies in which I have been engaged since Trans* In College. And yet, when a colleague invited me to think about how I frame my work as a whole, I was caught a bit off guard. Simply put, I haven’t come to a good understanding of the overall project in which I am invested when it comes to my research and scholarship. Moreover, I know my work traverses multiple fields of study, but I have not yet come to a concrete understanding of what new knowledge my body of work contributes to my fields in particular, nor have I decided what my overall contributions to knowledge production are.
After turning around this question quite a bit in my head, and workshopping a couple ideas with folks, the remainder of this blogpost will be me trying to put words to these ideas. All feedback is welcome, especially as I see my thoughts as a work in progress. Furthermore, I will frame my ideas by using several prompts from the Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship application, with which some folks will invariably be familiar.
Most scholars in the field now believe…
Most scholars in the field of higher education now believe transgender students are a real population to whom we must pay attention. Most scholars in the field of higher education also believe transgender students are not doing well in relation to their cisgender peers, and some—but not all—are beginning to recognize how gender as a binary discourse influences life chances for trans students. Most scholars in the field of higher education also believe there are some “best practices” that educators can implement to make college campuses more inclusive and affirming environments. Finally, most scholars understand trans students through the lens of research at four-year institutions.
Most scholars in the field of transgender studies have a deep and abiding commitment to the complexities of gender and sexuality. Most scholars in the field of transgender studies are well aware of the ways in which gender is intimately connected to race, sexuality, and disability, and have called for far more nuanced understandings of “best practices,” such as attempts to determine how many trans people there are in the United States. Most scholars in transgender studies have a systems-based approach to understanding how biopolitics and necropolitics shape life chances for trans people, and are invested in interrogating the colonial nature of the burgeoning field itself. Most scholars in the field of transgender studies have strong theoretical and conceptual analyses, but few are connecting their theoretical and conceptual work to college-going trans youth.
As a result of my body of work…
As a result of my body of work, I endeavor to do three things: (1) provide a new language for understanding how gender mediates college campus spaces and student lives; (2) articulate the importance of trans world-making as an ongoing project of liberation; and (3) emphasize a trans epistemology that serves as a foundation for our resistance, resilience, and kinship-building as trans peoples.
As a critical ethnographer, I seek to exemplify how gender as a discourse permeates all collegiate spaces, and mediates the lives of all students, faculty, and staff, with asymmetrical effects on trans people. Simply put, gender leaks into every aspect of the (co-)curriculum. As a result, gender has the potential to be both a robust influencer of social (re)production, as well as a way of disrupting such (re)production in the name of gender-expansive liberatory practice. In this sense, then, gender may be both reinforced via binary understandings of lives and livelihoods, as well as a way to unearthing such restrictive binary (il)logics. As a result of my body of work, I seek to provide a new language through which people involved in the practice of education (i.e., educators, administrators, parents/family members/guardians, policy makers) can recognize the multiple influences of gender as a discourse on educational futures. Furthermore, I strive to show how gender as a discourse influences the extent to which all involved can promote education as a practice of freedom (hooks, 1994).
Much of my work is invested in discussing the importance of trans world-making. Similar to notions of queer world-making (e.g., Blockett, 2017), there are two important aspects of trans world-making with which I have become quite taken. The first is virtual spaces as a space for world-making (Nicolazzo, 2016, 2017), and the next is how world-making as a practice of resilience traverses various projected educational/social boundaries and borders (Nicolazzo, 2016, 2017). That is to say, trans world-making doesn’t just happen on or off-college campuses, but bleeds across borders. In so doing, trans world-making as an ongoing practice sutures educational and social spheres together in ways that defy the assumed singularity of these environments. Moreover, our ongoing work of world-making—regardless of scale, duration, or space—is first and foremost a projection of liberation. For example, when CeCe McDonald, Kai M. Green, and Treva C. Ellison came together to create the #TransMultitudes platform via The Feminist Wire, their week-long project in virtual trans world-making forwarded new visions of liberation for trans people. It is in this tradition that I aim to direct my work, always with the ongoing liberation of trans peoples and communities at the forefront of my/our work.
Finally, I seek to explore a trans epistemology that roots our ongoing resistance, resilience, and kinship-building. In essence, I assert there is a particular way in which we as trans people come to know ourselves and our worlds. Moreover, there is a particular way in which we as trans people come to know ourselves through our worlds. This is a philosophical claim, not a biological one. In other words, I assert there are ethical, epistemic, existential, and ontological ways we as trans people come to know, and that these ways in which we come to know must be held central to any and all understandings of us as trans peoples/communities. Put another way, the way we as trans people come to knowledge is unique, particular, and full of gender-expansive potential that extends beyond our bodies, lives, and self-understandings. While I have begun exploring a trans epistemology, I recognize the ongoing and unfolding nature of this work. I also understand that a trans epistemology is not only concerned with knowledge after it is created, but also knowledge as it is being created. Thus, I have become deeply invested not only in doing trans methodological conceptualizing, but also to curating work across educational contexts that traverses methodological, conceptual, and practical claims as a method to further our expanding epistemological groundings. I have also worked to curate these works in public formats as an attempt to reflect my commitment to transdisciplinary work.
So there it is. This is what the heck I am doing when I teach, think, write, curate, mentor, and fly/drive all over the country to speak. At least this is where my thinking is currently. More to come on this front, so as Rachel Maddow says, watch this space. But for now, this seems to fit.
Another week means yet another book review, and this one is about yet another incredible read. Not all of them will positive, I swear – the next review will be for a book I found so bad, and so invested in faulty logic, I couldn’t even finish it (and I’m not one to not finish a book). But more on that next week – for now, on to the good book review!
Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream
The University of Chicago Press © 2016
Chances are, similar to the last book I reviewed (Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy), that if you haven’t read Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s book yet, you have likely heard of it. Both her and Dr. McMillan Cottom (author of Lower Ed) were guests on The Late Show with Trevor Noah this past year, signaling an important call for scholars to continue writing critical texts in publicly accessible ways. Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s book does everything educators want widely read texts to do: it is data rich, full of compelling individual narratives, and provides clear vision for what needs to happen on federal, state, and local levels in order to make postsecondary education accessible for all.
Of the many impressive aspects of Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s book is the six-year undertaking of the study it details. The longitudinal mixed methods study was incredibly comprehensive, and the sheer volume of data Dr. Goldrick-Rab and her research team generated was powerful, to say the least. Unlike some texts that are chock full of data, however, Dr. Goldrick-Rab has a penchant for story telling, especially through the narratives of the six student participants she highlighted throughout the book. These students’ stories were studded amongst tables, charts, critiques of federal policy, and the ongoing realities of the difference between the cost and price of college going.
As Goldrick-Rab discussed in her book, college costs more than the sticker price. Beyond tuition, living expenses, and the thresholds at which working part-time or full-time jobs forecloses opportunities for low-income students to tap into the necessary aid to cover all of these costs makes going to/completing college incredibly difficult. For example, Goldrick-Rab discusses how employment shifts one’s Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) on the annual FAFSA forms students need to submit to be eligible for federal student aid. Thus, while working is necessary to cover living expenses, it may actually make college all the more expensive, and thus, make gaining a college degree all the more difficult.
Another important aspect of Goldrick-Rab’s book is her connecting the inverse relationship between the cost of college and the realization of college as a public good. In essence, Goldrick-Rab uses the data she and her research team collected to discuss financial aid and the rising cost of college as an indicator of just how far we are from the rhetoric of postsecondary education as a societal good. When read alongside Dr. McMillan Cottom’s book, then, one gets a 360-degree view of how the notion of postsecondary education is heavily steeped in the concept of rugged individualism that marks the neoliberal logic on which the new economy is based. Even though policymakers discuss college as a way to “level the playing field,” Goldrick-Rab’s book provides a powerful compendium of data and story telling that reinforce quite the opposite. In fact, Goldrick-Rab’s book suggests that far from leveling the playing field, the way postsecondary education is framed in the United States, and the way college costs continue to get transferred to students themselves, actually means that college is increasing the wealth disparities present in U.S. society.
Although Goldrick-Rab’s book is a page-turner (literally, there were multiple nights when I was reading and just didn’t want to stop), the chapter where she focuses in on the city of Milwaukee (Chapter 8: City of Broken Dreams) is possibly the most illustrative of all she discusses throughout the text. The chapter becomes all the more powerful when one realizes there are many Milwaukees throughout the country…and their stories in relation to the cost of college may very well mirror what is happening there, as well.
In a word, Goldrick-Rab’s book is complete. She moves between food insecurity, poverty, the pulls and presses of family expectation, the reality of increasing tuition, how focusing on tuition masks the ways fees and living expenses hamper low-income students’ desires to go to and complete college, and the student narratives she highlights throughout the book. Hers is more than a book of tables and charts, however, and tells an incredibly compelling story of what need to change for us to live our espoused philosophical values of education as a public good.
There is a lot to gain from this book, most notably a deeper understanding of financial aid and the costs of college. This is no small feat, especially as much of this information, and these processes, are vague. For educators who believe in college accessibility, Goldrick-Rab’s text elucidates the complexity of the desire for universal education. However, rather than just telling of the difficulty of realizing this goal, her book provides a clarion call for educators. Goldrick-Rab details ways educators can be active in creating the postsecondary education system we want and need in the United States. Her solution-focused approach is refreshing, and in so doing, she establishes a base of critical hope upon which we as educators must continue to build our practice.
Additionally, Goldrick-Rab’s book has taught me the importance of patience. It took Goldrick-Rab and her research team six years to collect and analyze data for this study. This doesn’t even take into account the amount of time and labor it took to write her book, or produce the various papers and presentations that come from the research data. In a field that pushes for us to do more better faster, Goldrick-Rab’s book reminds me of the power that can come from slowing down, being patient, and investing in a project. More importantly, it reminds me what good can come from investing in the people who make up the project. As someone who has done long-term ethnographic work, I understand this on an intellectual level…and yet, as someone who has found it hard to find the time to keep doing the long-term ethnographic work I want to do, this text was a critical reminder of the absolute need for this work. The importance of slow research, of patient approaches, and of dedicating ourselves to being alongside those with whom we are researching is massively important. If more educators did this—practitioners and researchers alike—it may take us a bit more time to get to our results, but oh how much more powerful and provocative they could be.
Now, I need to provide a caveat here, because I don’t want people to read this last paragraph as setting up a false binary between slow research being “good” and fast research being “bad.” Indeed, there is a place for both. However, in the race for tenure, and the need for many to focus on doing more in shorter amounts of time (both researchers and practitioners), it becomes clear that the scales have tipped too far toward fast research and incomplete studies/analyses. Scholars like Drs. Goldrick-Rab, McMillan Cottom, Patel (whose book Youth Held at the Border is a long-term ethnographic study that I love and admire), Stewart (whose book Black Collegians’ Experiences in U.S. Northern Private Colleges is a beautifully written historical text), and Magolda (who has written two books based on long-term ethnographic engagement) serve as impressive resisters in educational research; resisters I find myself compelled to follow.
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.