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!
“Jamais deux sans trois.”
The above French idiom, which translates to “never twice without a third [time],” means that what happens twice will usually happen again. In other words, one may use the idiom to point toward the development of a pattern of events or behavior based on previous similar happenings.
It is here that I want to start this blogpost, because I am starting to notice a pattern of events that can be summed up thusly: You wouldn’t like me if you worked here.
Okay, so at this point, you may be wondering how I got from a French idiom to people not liking me, but bear with me…it will all make sense by the end of the post. Moreover, I hope I can help elucidate something worth the time and effort it will take you, Dear Reader, to get through the post.
The first step, it would seem, is to discuss the two events from which the “third” would come, à la the French idiom…
Event #1: A friend and I are texting, and he asks me if my Gender & Higher Education class has filled up yet. I say no, and that it likely will not fill. That it didn’t last summer, and I don’t expect it to fill this summer. He seems surprised and says, “If I was a student of someone who wrote the book you did, I would jump to take your class.” I thank him, and remind him of an old adage I was told when I was working as a student affairs educator: The nearest expert is always 10 miles away.
Event #2: I run for a leadership position in a presidential commission for gender and sexuality on campus. I am quite ambivalent about this position, mainly due to the trans* antagonism I have experienced by other members during the year, but decide to give it a go in the hopes of reclaiming the organization as a queer space. However, I know I will likely not get the position, largely because I have called out the violence I have experienced in the organization, and I know that cisgender and/or heterosexual people—who make up the majority of the membership of the organization—don’t like that. They don’t like being called out on their investments in transphobia…especially cishet folks who like to consider themselves “good liberals.” I lose the election, as does my other queer colleague who ran for a leadership position. Instead, two cisgender and heterosexual people are voted into the two positions for which my colleague and I ran.
Juxtaposed with these two events is the reality that I am being invited to speak at various different institutions and conferences this coming fall. While I am incredibly humbled by these invitations, especially given my relative youth in my profession, I have been a bit confused as to what seems to be contradictory experiences. In one sense, I am being welcomed to various other campuses and events to share my expertise, whilst in another sense, my expertise is being disregarded and/or actively dismissed.
And then, as usually happens for me, I come home to the writing of Sara Ahmed. Specifically, I am reminded of her blogpost where she wrote, “When you expose a problem you pose a problem” (para. 1).
I expose problems, and therefore, I pose problems.
“But I do this everywhere,” I think. “Why, then, would I be welcomed off-campus, and disavowed on-campus?”
And then it hits me: people off-campus don’t need to deal with me on a regular basis. They get to choose when, where, and how to engage with me. They set the terms by which I visit, and those who come hear me speak get to opt into listening, whereas the people at NIU do not have that same choice.
At NIU, my host institution, people have to deal with me. In fact, this past year, I have been putting myself in people’s ways more and more. I have embraced what it means to be a trans* killjoy even more than I had previously, and I have been calling out instances, ideologies, and enactments of trans* oppression with confident regularity.
Cisgender people don’t like this.
Heterosexual people don’t like this.
Cishet people don’t like this.
And when it comes to cishet folks at NIU, they cannot opt out of my killjoying (yeah, that’s right, I just wrote that. Let’s make it a thing, yeah?). For example, for the folks on the presidential commission I mentioned in my second story, I have a captive audience of perhaps unwilling participants. Sure, they could make choices on whether to open the email I wrote to the entire membership about the trans* antagonism I experienced, and my reticence to be involved in the organization until said antagonism was confronted, addressed, and corrected. However, they didn’t get a say in if I emailed them…and if they had, my guess is many would have asked me to not write and send it…
…because #CisHetFragility is so, so real.
And this is why you probably wouldn’t like me if you worked here. Because not only do I have no chill, but I think chill is entirely overrated. Because I will not slow down, but will only speed up, get louder, and call out more the trans* oppressive illogics that show up on my campus (and beyond). And for folks at my host institution, who don’t have a choice of if, when, where, or how to engage with me, this means that I pose a problem. It means that I am posed as a troublemaker, and am made into an unruly subject, one who is never satisfied, a complainer, a person with whom to be dealt, irrespective of my expertise.
I will likely continue to experience a cool (and sometimes hot) disregard for my work and expertise at my host institution. And this disregard will always be unsteadily situated alongside my being invited and welcomed to other campuses, conferences, and events to share my killjoying (again, I am trying to make this a thing).
But so what? Why does this matter? How does this apply to the work we do in higher education?
Whilst this all is a bit strange, and I don’t really like it much, I think there are some things we can all learn from these personal, individual happenings. The most important takeaway for me is that killjoys will always be a bit of a stranger at their own institutions…and this is okay. This doesn’t mean we as killjoys need to stop killjoying (third time’s the charm!). However, it does mean that we need to cultivate communities of support that extend beyond our host institutions. In my book, Trans* In College, participants and I discuss the importance of cultivating and maintaining virtual kinship networks as a strategy to navigate the often trans* oppressive illogics on campus. Similarly, I am finding that I need to create virtual kinship networks as a way to be resilient in the face of not being welcomed in some (but certainly not all) spaces at my own institution.
Moreover, I think it is important to remember that if we have too many friends, we may not be doing our jobs as killjoys as best we can. In other words, if everyone is cheering, clapping, and screaming “YASSSSS!!!,” maybe we need to take a note from This Is Spinal Tap! and turn the volume up to 11. Killjoying doesn’t always win people over…as Ahmed pointed out, those who call out problems are often posed as problems. I have learned this happens especially for those people at our own institutions who do not get a choice of when, if, how, or why they will experiencing our killjoying. So that being said, we can gauge our efforts partially on how we are being received.
Finally, I find it incredibly important to remind my fellow killjoys that we were never meant to be loved and embraced at our host institutions. Yes, there will be people who will love us – indeed, this is why we have our jobs. However, we will never experience the broad-based appeal, support, and welcoming that non-killjoys do…and this is literally by design. Rather than feel like crap, or internalize this reality, it is dreadfully important to remember that this is what privileged resistance looks, sounds, and feels like. In fact, I had to remind myself of much of this after my colleague and I were not elected into leadership positions to the presidential commission on gender and sexuality on campus. I have taken screenshots of some of these reminders and copied them below, so if you, my Fellow Killjoys, ever need a reminder of this important lesson, bookmark this page and return to it as frequently as you need.
The resistance we face is wholly predictable, a signal we are doing our jobs, and not worth capitulating to. Instead, let’s (re)unite virtually, big each other up, and remember that while others may not like us if they worked with us daily, the work we daily do is not for them, but in the service of justice, equity, and realizing education as a “practice of freedom” (hooks, 1994).
Keep on killjoying, friends…our worth need not be measured in likes, but in the trans*formation of our campuses, conferences, and worlds that we—and those alongside whom we work—desire and deserve.
Dear Radical Mentors and Role Models,
For someone who literally writes for a living, words sometimes are difficult for me to find. Ironic, isn’t it? I practice writing, I grade writing, and I read writing. A lot. And yet, sometimes I find writing to be one of the hardest things to do. Who am I kidding – it is often the hardest thing, and I know you feel me on this point, right?
I share this to say…this letter has been a long time in the making. And even still, I worry it will come off as trite, silly, or just the midnight musings of a quasi-sappy trans* femme in her feelings because it is the end of term. While part of that is true (I am a quasi-sappy trans* femme), the reality is, quite simply, I wouldn’t be here without you.
Let me repeat that: I wouldn’t be here without you.
All of my success, I owe to you. Every word, every manuscript acceptance, every pedagogical innovation, every positive conversation I have with a student, and every bit of publicly engaged scholarship I do. It is all because of you.
This year has been good for me in many ways. My first book dropped, I just signed a contract for another one, and in many ways, I feel better about the work I am doing in the classroom and on campus. I also feel healthier than I did 12 months ago, and I mean that in a variety of ways. In January, I made a commitment to center my health and wellbeing. I scheduled meetings with all sorts of doctors, met with financial advisors, bought a house, and gave my everything in my counseling meetings (which I started this past fall) to divest from the toxic people, relationships, and dispositions that have been holding me back for far too long. For months, I felt like all I did was schedule and attend appointments. Oftentimes, I wanted to cancel these appointments, but I remembered my commitment and kept them all.
Much of this meant sifting through pain. The pain caused by people no longer in my life, and remembering that I am better off without them; the pain of trans* oppression, which has made me so intensely fearful of attending doctors; the pain of my working to confront and overcome my own internalized ish around issues of lack of self-worth; the pain of feeling like I was working through all this stuff in secret, because all other folks saw was a supposedly charmed life (i.e., refer back to the previous paragraph).
As I have been working through this pain, however, I have noticed I feel far freer than I ever have felt in my life. I have been using my voice more and more to speak truth to power, have pushed students hard in the classroom to dig deeper and think more critically, and am trying to stretch myself on my own learning edges. I have reworked syllabi, done deep self-reflection on my own pedagogical style, and have stayed true to my values of centering all my efforts alongside my kin who are the most vulnerable, and who have continued to put their bodies on the line because, in the end, there is not any other choice but to do so.
I feel as though the past year has been a bit of a rebirth for me. I have been able to honor the work I have been doing for years, realize I have different spheres of influence now, and am trying to think about how to leverage those spaces to continue the fight for justice.
And I have you to thank.
You have been there for me when I couldn’t be there for myself, and you’ve been there for me when I refused to be there for myself.
You have been patient with me, and have kicked my ass in gear when I have needed it.
You have reminded me that good work is not easy, and that framing my work through radical justice lenses, whilst necessary, will be—in the words of Angela Davis—a constant struggle.
You have never let me go. In fact, you have only gripped on tighter, all while managing the intense commitments you have at your home institution, with your family, with your own life.
You have reminded me I am beautiful and worthy of love when I least believed it.
You never gave up on me, even though at times I may have made it easy to contemplate that.
You reminded me that I matter, and that I am who I say I am, despite living in a world that continues to deny my existence.
You never tokenized me, despite living in a world where people continue to fetishize and objectify my existence, my knowledge, my body, and my abilities.
You were real with me, you gave your time to me, and you let me into your life in various ways.
You gave me a sanctuary in which we could be free and unbothered together.
You reminded me what liberation sounds, feels, smells, tastes, and looks like.
You have let me crumple in a heap of tears, and have picked me so gently after.
You have cheered me on from the sidelines, opened doors for me, and reminded me I am powerful and strong.
Because of you, I am.
Because of us, I can keep going on.
Thank you, my mentors and role models. I promise I will never take you for granted, and I promise I will pay forward all you have given me. I promise to be alongside others as you continue to be alongside me. Because in the end, we are all we have, right? And I am only free when we are all free. And my liberation is wrapped up in yours is wrapped up in all ours.
So I promise to keep lifting while I climb, to be bold and fearless, to scream at the top of my lungs for the justice this world needs and craves, and to find new ways to be in-but-not-of the institution. I promise to divest from the negative messaging I have feasted on for so long about not being enough, and to remind you how meaningful you are in my life, both personally and professionally. I promise to reflect the beauty, fierceness, and brilliance you shine out onto this world.
Words are failing me. I am fighting back tears as I write this, because who you are, and what you have done for me, and the chances you have taken for and alongside me are so awe-inspiring. You took a chance on me very early on, and I don’t know what sparked you to do so, but I am so thankful you did.
Words are failing me, and these two seem not to be enough to portray all you mean to me, but thank you. A million times over thank you.
About a year ago, I was talking with one of my friends about some really difficult dating experiences I had. “You should blog about this stuff,” she told me.
“You think? Like, do you think anyone would really want to hear about my dating life?”
“Yeah. I do. And I think it may help you process through some of this stuff,” she mentioned.
We moved on from the conversation, and after an initial spark of curiosity, the idea got lost under a sea of syllabi, papers, and, if I am going to be honest, some of my own internalized shame. You see, I have been trying to work through what it means to date while trans*, and a large part of this “working through” means confronting head on ways I have invested in cis-normative scripts about my own worth and deservingness as a trans* femme. As I have written about previously, this self-work is tough as hell, but massively important, not only for the QT* communities I love, but for myself as a queer and trans* femme person.
So after not thinking about writing about dating, I was reminded of the topic when I had the pleasure of meeting Taz Ahmed a couple weeks back. For folks who may not know, Taz is one half (with Zahra Noorbakhsh) of the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. She also is an incredible writer and activists. When we met, I shared with Taz that the first time I bumped into her work was when a mutual acquaintance posted her piece, "Why I Don't Date White Men," on Facebook. That night, after driving home from dinner with Taz, Zahra, and some friends, I revisited that post, and found myself having a bit of awakening about my own dating choices.
See, I date femme folks. This doesn’t mean I just date cis women, but that I am attracted to and date feminine people of all genders. I am also not attracted to some mythical, essentialized notion of femininity, as if there even is such a thing, or such a thing is what we should be striving for (because it doesn’t, and we shouldn’t). Instead, I find various forms, embodiments, and expressions of femme identity completely delightful. Whether painted in bright lippy, maintaining a cool pose, framed by an athletic build, or unabashedly screaming the lines to show tunes, I have found myself taken by so many forms of femininity through the years.
As someone who was assigned male at birth (AMAB), I have wondered if my desire for femmes and femininity is itself a manifestation of heteronormative socialization. I have also worried that what others may see when I am on a date with a femme/feminine person may not match my/own queerness. However, I have been realizing more and more that these erroneous beliefs are rooted in some devastatingly crap assumptions.
For starters, the first assumption is rooted in a socialization-as-destiny discourse that positions my own trans*ness as false. In other words, when I worry about my own investments in heteronormativity based on my sex assigned at birth, I foreground my sex designation, and corresponding socialization, at the cost of my own trans* identity. In this sense, I am positioning my own trans*ness as somehow false or “not enough.” Moreover, this line of thinking is sexist, as it demonstrates an essentialized notion of femininity and womanhood. The second assumption also foregrounds the cis/het gaze, and invests in others’ determinations of my own trans* femininity. It also suggests my femininity must be consistent and constant without taking into account the ways in which systemic sexism, cissexism, and transmisogyny operate to regulate trans* women and femme’s lives.
So, you see, I am still working through my own body shame and stigma. Add this to the various ways my trans* femininity has not been seen in dating situations, and it all coheres into a bit of a perfect storm. Not only have I been fetishized and had my femininity disavowed by people, but I have also been deemed undateable, and been told that perhaps “people just aren’t that into you,” as if my personal experiences could in no way be a manifestation of systemic issues facing many trans* people.
Look, I get it; I am not everyone’s cup of tea. Trust me, I get that. However, what I am recognizing is a pattern of behavior across people and experiences, with which my experiences slot in. This is not a personal sob story, nor is it a cry for help. Instead, this is about thinking through how we all—myself included—must divest from the normative regulation of who has a claim to femininity and womanhood, as well as what forms of femininity are deemed “enough” or inherently beautiful.
So as I have been working through my stigma and shame, I have realized that my choice to court femininity is both political and a deeply embedded preference. That is to say that while I also find masculinity attractive (here’s lookin’ at you, #bigguytwitter), I want to surround myself in femininity when it comes to my romantic life.
In other words, in a world that diminishes, disavows, and violently threatens and erases femininity in various forms, I choose to love, affirm, and amplify femininity in my life. I have taken steps to do this in my writing, speaking, and kinship networks…and now I am choosing to do this intentionally in my dating life. Yes, this is a political choice, but then again, whose dating choices are not in some way political choices? Even those people who have never questioned their choices (i.e., many, but not all, cis/het people) are investing in political choices. One’s awareness is not a prerequisite to making political decisions. Every choice we make is invested in our own politics; I am just choosing to be open about my politics, and am letting my politics intentionally guide me.
This doesn’t mean I don’t find masculinity intoxicating (see above for: heeeyyyyyy boooooyssssss), nor does it mean I will never date masculine people. I am not instantiating a binary, and if that is how you are reading this, let me be clear: my preference for femininity is not hard and fast, but it is both personal and political, and is a choice in which I am deeply invested. And through this choice, and recognizing the various ways in which femininity attaches to bodies, attitudes, subjectivities, and positionalities, the more I invest in myself and my femme communities.
Because we are terribly beautiful, we femmes and feminine folks. And we are worth wanting.
As a final note, I would like to express my eternal gratitude to two people for this post…
First, I am deeply thankful for the cajoling of my dear friend who first suggested I write about dating. While I did not add her name to the piece, I am so glad she saw what I could not at the time: that writing this piece was not only healing, but a reclamation of the beauty that is femininity.
I also want to express my thanks to Taz Ahmed, whose original piece linked in my blogpost had me thinking not only about femininity, but how my various different identities have mediated my dating history, including my working to unlearn how oppression and dominance has circulated through my engagements with dating and partnership.
Not all of my thinking has made it into this piece…which means there may be further dating-related posts…but the thinking has been ongoing, and I am glad to have my thinking spurred by such wonderful people.
A question I have been receiving a lot lately is about the contested use of the asterisk in the word trans(*). Some people use it, some people don’t, and a lot of people have feelings about it, even if those feelings are confusion about how to feel. When people contact me, they usually write one of two things:
Now, I will say that whilst most people who are asking me about the (non-)use of the asterisk are cisgender, they are—almost all of them—doing their own research. They often send me webpages like this and this, which discuss the asterisk and its contestations in detail. Whilst I will not go into the disputed history of the term—indeed, I already have written about this in my book—I will lay out why I choose to use the asterisk more often than not. I will also discuss the cultural contexts in which I am making my choices to use the asterisk (more often than not), and how context has a great influence on the overall decisions I make regarding this symbol and its incorporation into my work.
First, it is important to note, as the webpages and my book linked above point out, that the incorporation of the asterisk was originally intended to be inclusive, and was created and used outside of academic circles. The asterisk was meant to push beyond the trope that all trans(*) people transition and/or are transsexual. In this sense, it moved beyond normative tropes of visibility and any potential hierarchies of who was “trans(*) enough.”
Despite this original intent, it has become clear that some people have used the asterisk as a tool for excluding others and instantiating their own hierarchies within, between, and among transgender communities. Right when I began hearing questions about the asterisk, which was when I was collecting data for Trans* In College, I was told the symbol was used to ostracize transgender people of color and transgender women. I was also told the symbol was “no longer needed,” because the idea that transgender was not synonymous with transitioning was common knowledge, so to use the asterisk was redundant.
Now, as a trans* femme, I cannot even begin to tell you how intensely wrong the idea that we are “beyond” the transgender-as-transitioning trope is. For example, each time someone asks me how long I have been on T, or just assumes I am a trans(*) man when I say I am transgender, should be enough to remind folks that we are not beyond the policing of who is or isn’t trans(*) enough, be it in or out of the “LGBTQ community” (or even the QT* community). I know my individual experience is not isolated, and I also know many people who have been transitioning for years who also are made to feel “not trans(*) enough” because they are positioned as being “binary” for transitioning (a really messed up and violent positioning of transgender people that requires its own post). So no – I refuse to believe that the asterisk is redundant and no longer serves a purpose. As Sara Ahmed (2012) reminded us in On Being Included, speech acts are commitments, and to suggest a speech act (e.g., using the asterisk) is “no longer relevant” may reify the harmful and violent notion that one is no longer relevant. In other words, the use of the asterisk was originally intended to expand notions of trans*ness, and as such, to neglect this is still important is to neglect those of us on the margins of the trans(*) community who are saying it is still important.
Now, there are some who rightly point to how the asterisk has been used by some to hurt and harm our own. There are some who are rightly articulating that the asterisk, despite its original intent, is being used to further trans-antagonism and violence, epistemological and otherwise.
Quite simply: this shit sucks. There is no academic or tidy language I can use for this other than: this shit sucks. I hate that we are eating our own. I dislike that trans(*) oppression has become so embedded in our culture that we are internalizing that oppression and turning it toward ourselves and each other. Whilst this is a lesson that what was once liberatory is not always so, it hurts to recognize the effects of such a lesson.
So yeah, there are people who use the asterisk as a way of marginalizing other trans(*) people; however, I am not quite sure that it makes the most sense to throw the term out due to some people using it in exclusive, marginalizing, and violent ways. In fact, I think that in some places, and at some times, using the asterisk can further liberatory goals and processes by requiring readers to pause and reflect on just who is in their frame.
In elucidating this point, let me tell you a story.
In my book, I write about the participants alongside whom I worked. In doing so, I did not write physical descriptions, fearing this would gender them based on socialized markers and cues. Instead, I created—as best I could—complex and ethereal descriptions of participants, especially as many of them did not seek to be pegged into any particular identity, expression, or embodiment, regardless of their gender identity. When I was writing my dissertation, on which my book is based, several of my committee members said they struggled with my lack of description, but then realized that was the point of the text. The text, in this sense, was performative; I was engaging in the fluidity of gender at the very same time that I was writing about the participants.
A part of this performativity was—and is—the use of the asterisk. Especially in my field of education, which continues to be highly conservative (Pinar, 1998), I find it important to textually remind readers that who they think they are reading about (e.g., transgender-as-transsexual students) is not always the case. I find it important to remind readers that the use of symbols and prefixes as words must be given time and attention, and that one may need to slow down to understand fully who the people at the center of the narrative truly are. The asterisk is a textual disruption, and I use it as such in a performative turn. The asterisk, then, does the same work that trans(*) people do—we destabilize notions of “appropriate” gendered futurity.
And in a field like education, this disruption is incredibly important.
And especially when the field of education may want to claim going through its own “trans(*) moment,” it becomes imperative to interrogate what that “moment” means for us all (Nicolazzo, 2017).
So, more often than not, I use the asterisk. Particularly when I am writing in my field of education, I will gravitate toward using the asterisk. I often do this by discussing the tensions of its use, and by being up front about my reasons for using the asterisk. And whilst I know this term has been used by some to marginalize, I am up front about my choices and why I have chosen them.
Now I know this will not satisfy everyone, nor is it meant to do so. As I have shared with some of my colleagues who have asked, I want people to make the best choices for them when they are writing. I want people to think about their own positionalities and how their contexts may influence their choices in particular ways. And above all, I want people to be open and trans(*)parent—giggle—about their choices. Because although our final choices may be different, our thinking may well be aligned.
Do you agree? Disagree? Have lots of your own thoughts? I would love to hear from you – feel free to comment below and we can keep the dialogue going!
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.