Kaplan Cheats Veterans and Uses Veterans to Cheat the Government, Part 1

The reason I started blogging about the Purdue-Kaplan deal is that it’s so confusing. When I first learned about it, it’s like my brain just said, “Huh? . . . Better think about something else now.” So when I took the time to understand the contradictions that had initially fogged my brain—public but not state? for-profit but not? what?—I wanted to help other people who share my interests and values understand what makes this deal such a massive blunder.

Along the way, I made mistakes—hey, I said it was confusing. I initially believed that Graham Holdings, the parent company of Kaplan University, wanted to unload an unprofitable part of their business. And though I corrected that error in the blog, it is immortalized here in a newspaper column based on the blog. But no. The online university that peddles worthless degrees is highly profitable: a U.S. Senate investigation determined that Kaplan allocated 13.5 percent of its total revenue ($212.1 million) to profit. If the merger goes through, the remaining for-profit entity that will retain the name “Kaplan” will receive 12.5 percent of revenue after costs, a much smaller amount of money, because it will be calculated after subtracting costs. The remaining profit (because that’s the correct English language word for the money that remains from revenue after costs have been subtracted, despite Mitch Daniels’s efforts to create entirely new meanings for words) will go to “New University” and its parent, Purdue University. This is the “very substantial revenue stream” that Daniels has been talking about.

So when I learned that Kaplan is actually highly profitable, I found out more about the regulatory mechanisms in place for for-profit universities that do not apply to non-profit institutions, and here I made another mistake. The 90/10 rule for for-profit institutions caps at 90 percent the amount of federal money from Title IV aid that such a school can receive. The remaining 10 percent must come from other sources. So I looked at the data and wrote:

If we look specifically at the percentage of revenue that Kaplan receives from federal sources, they were within the 90/10 rule for the most recent year for which data are available (81% of revenues from federal sources).

But I was wrong there, too. For that year (2014-2015), Kaplan received 81 percent of its revenues from Title IV aid. But because of the “90-10 loophole,” a significant proportion of the remaining 19 percent of revenues also came from federal sources in the form of GI Bill benefits.  In brief, because veterans’ benefits such as the GI Bill are not specifically mentioned in the 90-10 law, for-profit universities classify that money as “other” and count it in the 10 percent of non–Title IV funds. What this means, in the words of Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, is that “for every dollar of GI Bill they pull in, they can pull in $9 more dollars of Title IV funds from the Education Dept.”

So they target veterans aggressively, using “pain-based” recruiting techniques  and dogged persistence. Veteran Daniel Elkins told NPR that he registered with a veterans’ education site and was deluged by recruiters: “Within three to four days, I got in the excess of 70 phone calls and … well over 300 emails.”

How do they do this? Well, they pay for it. The U.S. Senate investigation found that Kaplan University

  • Allocated . . . 23.7% ($372.7 million) [of its revenue] to marketing and recruiting in 2009
  • Spent more per student on recruiting ($2,144) than on instruction ($1,550) in 2009 and $1,220 per student on profit; spending on instruction was less than half the maximum expenditure ($3,969) of the publicly-traded companies examined

They don’t stop calling until the veteran signs up.

So OK, if only 81 percent of their revenues comes from Title IV federal funds, how much of the rest also comes from the federal government in the form of GI Bill benefits? Mother Jones reported in 2011 that Kaplan’s military revenues were $48.9 million in 2010. This means, according to that same Senate report, that 87.9 percent of revenues ($1.5 billion) in 2010 came from the federal government in the form of federal student aid plus military/veterans benefits. Federal dollars are taxpayer dollars; Mitch Daniels knows this, and he also knows that saying that the New University will be supported by “tuition and fundraising,” not state funds, obfuscates the fact that Kaplan fleeced the federal government of $1.5 billion in 2010 and a similar proportion of its revenues up to the present.

So here I am, a person with a PhD whose livelihood depends upon reading and analyzing stories and texts, teaching others to do the same, and having a stellar grasp of the English language. I wanted to write about how damned confusing this thing has been for me to make the point that something this confusing is actually designed to deceive. Mitch Daniels has said a lot of pretty things about expanding educational access and the land-grant mission of Purdue University, but this is about money.

Rachel E. Hile

Up next: more details on veteran suffering caused by Kaplan University, with the hope that pro-military Hoosiers will care.

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 2

The title feels a bit disingenuous, because I’m going to write about the other two entities that will have to sign off on the Purdue-Kaplan deal, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE) and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), and neither of these is likely to be part of stopping this deal from going forward. Here’s why:

Three parts of ICHE’s extensive charge to oversee higher education in Indiana give them a say in the decision:

  • Define the educational missions of public colleges and universities;
  • Plan and to coordinate Indiana’s state-supported system of post-high school education, taking into account the plans and interests of independent colleges and universities;
  • Approve or disapprove for public institutions the establishment of any new branches, campuses, extension centers, colleges or schools;

This deal is definitely their bailiwick, but remember how I mentioned that it was Mitch Daniels’s appointees on the Purdue Board of Trustees who appointed him, despite lack of academic experience, to be president of Purdue? Well, guess who appoints the members of ICHE. The governor. And the governor of Indiana has been Republican since January 10, 2005, when Daniels was inaugurated. Of the twelve members of the commission (there are currently two vacant seats), only two were appointed by Democratic governors. I seriously doubt that Daniels moved forward with this deal without a fair amount of certainty that the ICHE commissioners have his back.

And Daniels also has a few friends in high places, such that he might have an even stronger belief than I do (and my belief is very, very strong) that Trump’s DOE under Betsy DeVos will not stand in the way of the deal in the way that Obama’s DOE did for previous deals. DeVos is all about giving public money to for-profit companies in the name of school choice (and also to further “God’s Kingdom”). Essentially, the Purdue-Kaplan “New University” will meet the definition of a charter school—public money used to pay for a privately run school (I have not heard anything defining New University’s “publicness” in a way that jibes with my understanding of the concept, and the profits being funneled to Kaplan for 30 years makes me reject the idea that this will be a “public” university, because it will benefit a for-profit company)—and DeVos will likely be eager to extend the charter school model to higher education.

For those who argue that this won’t really be like a charter school, the claim that “tuition and fundraising” will pay all the costs of New University is deceptive, because it implies that taxpayer dollars won’t be supporting the school. This is entirely false. Indeed, the whole reason that so many for-profit universities want to convert to non-profit schools is not because they have decided they don’t want money anymore. It’s because they no longer want to be bound by the regulations that, among other things, restrict for-profit universities to receiving no more than 90% of their revenue from federal grant, loan, and work-study programs. Non-profit universities are not regulated so closely, largely because they do not have the same incentive to screw people over for their money.

If we look specifically at the percentage of revenue that Kaplan receives from federal sources, they were within the 90/10 rule for the most recent year for which data are available (81% of revenues from federal sources). Importantly, though, the numbers help to give a sense of the scale of this deal (and why Mitch Daniels wants it, and why Kaplan might think that 12.5% of profits will be plenty of money to skim off the top. In the 2014-2015 academic year, Kaplan University received $585,678,387 from Title IV (i.e., federal taxpayer-funded) sources, out of a total revenue stream of $720,264,155. In the same year, Purdue University’s overall revenue was $1,471,803,000 (see p. 14 here). There’s money to be made here.

So basically, if the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) doesn’t stop this deal, I don’t think we can hope that ICHE or the DOE will. Probably the best hope now, when outrage and concern are high, and long before the HLC’s deadline of April 2018, is to focus on calling this deal what it is—a use of public money to support a for-profit business, a move that will lead to decreased standards for higher education in Indiana and lower educational attainment for our students. Maybe the bad PR and noisy public shaming of Mitch Daniels can drown out the sweet siren song of All. That. Money.

Rachel E. Hile

Also see The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Everyone (Spoiler: It’s Not Bad for Absolutely Everyone!)

The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Indiana

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 1

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 1

Well, kids, it looks like another #resistance moment is upon us, and since no one is exhausted yet from all the other #resistance moments we’ve encountered in the past 102 days, and since we’re dealing with rational people with good and loving hearts instead of narcissists and ideologues, this should be a piece of cake, right?

Haha, I jest.

But for what it’s worth, the deal is not a done deal; from the SEC filing:

Consummation of the transactions contemplated by the Transfer Agreement, if entered into, would be subject to various closing conditions, including, among others, regulatory approvals from the U.S. Department of Education, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and HLC, which is the regional accreditor of both Purdue and Kaplan University, and certain other state educational agencies and accreditors of programs.  Kaplan is unable to predict with certainty when and if such approvals will be obtained; however, it expects that all approvals will not be received until the fourth quarter of 2017.  If the transaction is not consummated by April 30, 2018, either party may terminate the Transfer Agreement.

You can learn more about ways the deal can be terminated in section 9 of the Contribution and Transfer Agreement (CTA), but basically, in terms of where to #resist, the people in charge of education have to agree. I will devote a blog post to each of these three entities that must support the Purdue-Kaplan deal, starting today with the Higher Learning Commission.

HLC, the Higher Learning Commission: This is the accrediting body for both Purdue and the current Kaplan University, which might make it seem unlikely that HLC would interfere with the deal, but just last year, this body blocked Grand Canyon University’s bid to convert from a for-profit to a non-profit university. HLC said that part of their rationale for blocking the GCU deal was that their requirements “do not allow for an institution to outsource all or the majority of its basic functions related to academic and student support services and curriculum development, even where the contract between the parties indicates that the accredited institution provides oversight of those services.” My reading of the Purdue-Kaplan deal documentation suggests that they are attempting to do something similar to what HLC has already objected to:

From the CTA: “NewU to acquire the accredited, Title IV-participating, post-secondary ED Institution known as “Kaplan University” and its institutional assets and operations for the purpose of delivering a broad range of educational offerings in support of the efforts of Purdue.”

SEC filing: “Under the TOSA, Kaplan will provide operations support activities to New University including, but not limited to, technology support, help-desk functions, human resources support for transferred faculty and employees, admissions support, financial aid administration, marketing and advertising, back-office business functions, international student recruiting and certain test preparation services.”

This is confusing, because of the fact that “Kaplan” and “Kaplan University” are distinct entities. “Kaplan” is the continuing for-profit business that will continue to run the Kaplan test-prep services and the Kaplan University School of Professional and Continuing Education (KU-PACE), an educational arm of the business that is still profitable and thus isn’t part of the deal with Purdue. “Kaplan University” is the seven schools and colleges that now comprise Kaplan University (not including KU-PACE) that will become New University.

So the “Kaplan” that will “provide operations support activities” is the continuing for-profit business, not New U, which will become, in the words of the HLC’s objection to the GCU deal, “the accredited institution [that] provides oversight of those services.” And just having the accredited, non-profit institution overseeing the support work of a for-profit company wasn’t good enough for the HLC a year ago. I’m sure that the lawyers for Purdue and Kaplan are very sympathetic with Grand Canyon’s take on the HLC decision; certainly they have tried to distinguish their deal from the GCU case, but the fundamental problem that HLC objected to is still part of the Purdue-Kaplan deal.

 

Rachel E. Hile

Also see The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Everyone (Spoiler: It’s Not Bad for Absolutely Everyone!)

The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Indiana

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 2

The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Indiana

Yesterday’s post aimed to convince readers that everyone in the United States (nay, in the English-speaking world!) should be concerned about Purdue’s recent deal with Kaplan University. In today’s post, I will get into some of the nitty-gritty of Indiana’s higher education goals and policies in order to convince Hoosier readers that the Purdue-Kaplan deal is a bad choice for reaching Indiana’s stated higher ed goals.

The Big Goal: Indiana has set the goal that by 2025, 60 percent of the state’s adult population will have a two- or four-year college degree. In 2010, only 38.3 percent of working-age adults had attained these credentials. A Lumina Foundation report on Indiana noted in 2012 that “If the current rate of degree production continues, about 41 percent of Indiana’s adult population—1.3 million people—will hold a college degree by 2025. To reach 60 percent, Indiana will need to add nearly 633,000 degrees to that total.”

The state has made a number of decisions aimed at increasing the number of college graduates in the state:

Core Transfer Library: In 2005, the General Assembly created the “Indiana Core Transfer Library” to make it easier for students to receive full credit for previous college work when they transfer to a new institution in the state. This program creates a list of courses in 88 categories at public institutions in Indiana; links courses with the same content and learning outcomes so that it’s easy to see what are essentially the same courses, despite different course names and numbers; and obligates other institutions to transfer in the courses that correspond to their own courses in the transfer library.

Dual credit for high school students: Indiana law requires high schools to offer a minimum of two dual-credit courses, that is, courses for which high school students receive both credit toward their high school diploma and college credit. The statute governing the dual-credit system in the state (see IC 21-43-5-7) clarifies that courses may be offered by “(1) onsite instruction; (2) telecommunication; or (3) a combination of methods described in subdivisions (1) and (2).”

Statewide General Education Transfer: In 2012, the Indiana legislature passed a law to create a statewide General Education core, such that “After May 15, 2013, a student who satisfactorily completes the requirements of the Statewide General Education Core in an Indiana state educational institution and then subsequently transfers to another Indiana state educational institution will not be required to complete the Statewide Transfer General Education Core requirements at the institution to which the student transfers.”

Now let’s think about these Indiana policies with reference to the Purdue-Kaplan deal:

  1. Since this will be a “public” Indiana institution (whatever that means, given that state funds will not be appropriated to pay for the costs of New University), its courses will be included in the Indiana Core Transfer Library.
  2. Students who complete the General Education core online through the New University can transfer those credits to any Indiana university to complete their education (and possibly receive a diploma with a name other than “Purdue” on it).
  3. High schools in rural areas that are required by law to offer at least two dual-credit courses will find a fully online program that offers credits with the still-valuable-for-now name of “Purdue” to be much easier than the current system, which involves teacher certification and oversight from university faculty, who often have to drive significant distances to provide this supervision. Homeschoolers and charter schools, which have no particular stake in supporting truly public education, will also likely flock to New University offerings as a way of getting a head start on college.

Indiana universities can thus expect the arrival on their campuses of a large number of students who have already completed their General Education core through New University and think that they are ready for upper-level college work. Guess what! They won’t be ready, because Kaplan’s courses are currently taught (and will continue to be taught under New University) by an army of underpaid, untenured, sometimes inadequately credentialed instructors with high workloads and no job security. This is not an education model that will teach students how to think, question, and explore ideas, which is what they should be getting from their General Education experience. With these students, professors in upper-level classes will have to either (1) dumb down the material to be what they previously would have taught as freshman or sophomore-level material or (2) flunk lots and lots of students, which gives the university a black eye, leads to students leaving college with significant debt and no degree, and can lead to loss of funding because of the performance-based funding metrics instituted in Indiana in 2012. The Purdue-Kaplan deal is bad for Indiana.

To bring it back to readers in other states, pay attention! Just as Kansas shows us the worst path possible for “tax reform,” Indiana has been the crucible for the development and implementation of neoliberal education policies for a decade. With Betsy DeVos in the White House, expect other states to follow Indiana’s lead in dumbing down higher education by deals such as the Purdue-Kaplan merger in order to be able to brag about the percentage of citizens with college credentials.

Rachel E. Hile

Also see The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Everyone (Spoiler: It’s Not Bad for Absolutely Everyone!)

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 1

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 2

The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Everyone (Spoiler: It’s Not Bad for Absolutely Everyone!)

In case you haven’t heard, last Thursday Purdue President Mitch Daniels entered Purdue, an Indiana public land-grant university with a great reputation, into a merger deal with Kaplan University, a for-profit online university  that was on the edge of disaster. It’s not a sale but a complicated 30-year contract that turns the “academic assets” of the unsuccessful part of Kaplan University (its parent company, Graham Holdings Co., is keeping the successful test-preparation and professional education arms of the business) into a new university (called “New University” as a placeholder designation in the SEC filing), and both Purdue and Kaplan have certain obligations to and expected benefits from New University. The tripartite structure of the deal leads me to my first point . . .

The Purdue-Kaplan deal is bad for users of the English language, because it contributes to the alternate-reality world our Republican politicians are attempting to create in which words don’t actually have stable meanings. Many have noted the strangeness of calling New University a “public university,” when Daniels says that no state funds will be used to support the university. But the meaning of the word “nonprofit” is the real loser in this game. The SEC filing states that the institutional assets of Kaplan University will become “a new, nonprofit, public-benefit corporation.” But the devil is in the details. No, really, Satan himself is actually in the details, because although New University presumably will meet the legal definition of a nonprofit entity (despite receiving a $10 million “priority payment” for each of the first five years out of revenues after costs [known to most of us as “profits”]), Kaplan, the party making the deal with Purdue, is still very much a for-profit company, and after New University meets its costs and pays itself the $10 million “priority payment” (plus perhaps a 20% “efficiency payment” if they can save money from their budgeted costs, which has the whiff of Mitch Daniels’s pheromones all over it), New University will pay Kaplan “a fee equal to 12.5 percent of New University’s revenue.” Kaplan, a for-profit company, will receive regular payments from New University, a nonprofit company, and Kaplan will continue to provide support for New University (and receive a percentage of revenue) until such time as the agreement terminates on its own after 30 years or until New University buys out Kaplan’s part of the contract (presumably under direction from Purdue). So the new entity will legally be nonprofit, but there will be profits, and they will flow to a currently existing for-profit company.

The Purdue-Kaplan deal is bad for America! And of course those profits—a significant proportion of which comes from tuition paid by federal financial aid—flowing gently to Kaplan for up to 30 years are money that is not flowing to nonprofit institutions that focus on the core activities of discovering and transmitting knowledge. Whatever the stated mission of Kaplan might be, and whatever nice things Mitch Daniels says about increasing access to higher education in Indiana, the activities of Kaplan up to now, along with the activities of other online for-profit universities, suggest an actual mission of providing credentials at the lowest cost to themselves they can get away with while maintaining accreditation for their programs. Daniels diverts attention from this flow of federal tax dollars to a for-profit company by protesting that no Indiana state money will go to support New University. So OK, Indiana is not the sucker, the federal government is (and we can safely assume that Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education will be breathless with excitement to bless this deal).

But isn’t this already happening? you ask. Aren’t federal dollars already going to for-profit online degree mills as financial aid? Yes, this is happening already, but this leads to the reason why the Purdue-Kaplan deal is bad for Purdue. Kaplan University does not offer high-quality degrees, and everyone knows it—state attorneys-general in Illinois, Delaware, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Texas have launched investigations into the credentialing of Kaplan’s instructors and allegations of misleading statements about job placement rates, and Kaplan has settled with two of the states.

But I assume that “New University” will end up offering degrees that have the name “Purdue” on them, as happens currently at branch campuses of Purdue like my own, and thus the Purdue name and reputation will be shoring up and legitimizing what will remain a cost-cutting for-profit educational enterprise that has a history of deceiving students. The effect will be to inflate the value of what New University offers and to deflate the value of Purdue degrees.

But here we come full circle, because the way this becomes not especially bad for Purdue is if this is only the first step in a massive privatization of public higher education—as other failing for-profit institutions, seeing this deal succeed under the new leniency of Trump’s Department of Education, will seek their own angels in public universities run, like Purdue, by Republican politicians who want to starve public institutions of the resources they need to succeed. At that point we are back to bad for America . . .

. . . but remember, I said it wasn’t bad for everyone. Former Indiana Governor Mitchel Daniels, whose appointees on the Purdue Board of Trustees created a soft landing place for him after he ended his work as governor, surely isn’t done with politics. He stayed out of the fray in 2016 and thus wasn’t tainted by the stench of Trump. When he is ready to seek the Republican presidential nomination, it will be with several years of gravitas added by virtue of having served as a president of a major university. So if he can single-handedly claim to bring DeVosification to higher education, sucking more and more federal financial aid dollars from nonprofit educational institutions that aim to discover and transmit new knowledge, he’ll be a shoo-in. So yeah, this deal is good for someone.

Rachel E. Hile

Also see The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Indiana

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 1

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 2

Still a Girl: The Disney Princess I Needed

My father grew up poor in rural Kansas City, Kansas, in the 1940s. At the same time, my mother’s cousins were growing up middle class in a more central Kansas City suburb. One year in the 1990s, after Thanksgiving dinner at my great-aunt and -uncle’s house, my great-uncle C.B. set up the screen to show us some home movies from when my mom’s cousins were little. Later, my dad told us how surprised he was, upon seeing the cousins’ delight at opening the same toys he had coveted from the Sears catalog and never received, to feel a stab of envy as keen as though he were still that little boy.

I’m not the sort of person who regularly mentions my “inner child,” but how else can I explain how moved I was by Moana, Disney’s most recent “princess movie”?

“Which was your favorite Disney princess when you were a little girl?” my daughter asked me shortly after we watched Moana.

Pause. “Well, it was the seventies. Disney princesses weren’t really A Thing for girls in the seventies.” Humans make sense of our lives through stories and metaphors and heroes, and I had no stories to help me know what to do with my ambition—certainly no Disney princess who existed in the 1970s could have helped me with any idea beyond finding a prince. There were two narratives in my mind to contain future possibilities: Childless Career Woman and Selfless Mother. Mostly, as a teenager, I gravitated toward the CCW model, because, until I was eighteen and some sort of biological switch got flicked within me, I wasn’t that interested in having children.

But once I had decided that yes, I wanted to have children, ambition became a problem, and although I didn’t think of it at the time, this conflict likely had a lot to do with my renunciation of ambition a little over a year later. I was in one of the study carrels hidden in the stacks of the enormous library at the University of Kansas, writing a sort of journal entry on lined paper. I don’t remember my words, but the conclusion I reached that day was that everyone thinks they’re special, and therefore the fact that I thought I was special and could do great things was in fact proof of my utter and complete ordinariness. For the next fifteen years, despite the fact that I spent ten of those years diligently furthering my education, I gave no quarter in my mind to ambition. “I’m doing the work because I like the work,” was how I explained my pursuit of a PhD.

And I didn’t call the thing I was avoiding “ambition.” I called it “the yearning,” because it was bigger and wider and stronger than what I would have called “ambition” (a word “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”). Sometimes music would trigger it, sometimes nature, sometimes art, often fiction. In the three years I was out of graduate school, renouncing academia forever, I thought, I avoided reading literary fiction, because I didn’t want to yearn to go back to grad school.

So when I took my daughter to see Moana, I recognized a story that the girl that I was needed then and didn’t have. Moana is daughter of the village chief on the island Motunui, and the ocean calls to her. She yearns to go beyond the reef and to sail on the open ocean, and she doesn’t understand why. All she knows is that it is forbidden for anyone to go beyond the reef and that her people need her. But the ocean keeps calling her—she wants to know what is beyond the horizon, she wants to experience the hugeness and endlessness of the ocean instead of the boundedness of her island life.

 

Simple stories are the best stories for guiding humans—I can’t think of another story that captures so well for me “the yearning.” She wants what she wants just because, and she can’t stop wanting it just because no one around her wants her to want that. In the end, of course, because it’s a Disney story for children, she gets what she wants, and it helps, not harms, her family.

I learned this past week that my promotion dossier has been approved at all levels, and so I will be promoted to full professor as of July 1. To be honest, though, it doesn’t even feel like an island rest place, because of the turmoil at my university. The split between Indiana University and Purdue University in Fort Wayne, which will make the part that I belong to fully a branch campus of Purdue, means a 100% change in our library access, which until now has been entirely through Indiana University. The uncertainty about everything this past academic year—Will we still be supported as researchers? Will we still have access to a research library’s materials? Will I quit academia altogether?—kept me from mentally committing to my book project on allegory.

But over the past month I have steeled myself to commit to the next book, to continue to work on my research even though really no one except me actually cares that much . . . and though it feels pretty dumb and childish to say it, Moana has been my heroine for the past month. In the song where she makes her final commitment to her vocation, her final decision not to give up but to keep trying, she sings, “the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me.” I wish I had had this story when I was a little girl; it’s good that I have it now, because I still clearly need someone to tell me that “the yearning” itself isn’t foolish or ego-driven or worthless but is simply who I am.

Rachel E. Hile

The Slut-Shamer Within: Th1rteen R3asons Why and the Panopticon of Teen-Girls’ Sexuality

My daughter really-really-really-really wanted me to read Jay Asher’s Th1rteen R3asons Why. The library copy is due today, and I started last night, so if I’m going to fulfill her wish that “we can discuss it, like a book club!,” I have to read fast.

I’m halfway through, and I hate it. I get what Asher is trying to do: convince his YA audience that bullying is bad, slut-shaming is bad, lies and rumors are bad, and suicide is bad (duh). But for all that Asher does to make Hannah Baker into someone who “never claimed to be a Goody Two-Shoes”—she has a beer at a party, she breaks her parents’ rules by going on a date with a boy while they’re out of town—instead of grappling with the difficult task of being a male writer trying to get adolescent female sexuality right, he dodges. It’s easier to make the reader feel something for a female victim who is “pure,” I suppose, and so Hannah is essentially sexless: Asher makes her keen yearning for her first kiss romantic, not sexual, and the boy Hannah saucily breaks the rules to go out with walks her to the door and then leaves. Apparently not even a handshake or a chaste hug, let alone a kiss good-night.

I’m sure plenty of others have written about what the novel (and now Netflix series) gets wrong about depression and suicide—the mere premise sounded wildly implausible to me from the beginning, more “Huck and Tom at their own funeral” than anything that rang true from my experience as a depressed teenager. But I want to write about sex, because can someone please write a book for our teenage girls about a mildly sex-obsessed teenage girl who is also interested in other things and doesn’t die at the end?! So far, we’ve got Tina Belcher, from the animated TV show Bob’s Burgers, who likes to gaze at boys’ butts and spends a lot of time thinking about kissing—is there another one I don’t know about? In the 1980s, I was a mildly sex-obsessed teenage girl who was also interested in other things, but full of self-loathing in part because I thought I was “slutty,” and in danger of dying before the end. And no Tina Belcher.

Tina.Belcher.Butt

Can we do better for today’s teen-girls?

The buzz about the book is that it’s anti-bullying, but while pointing the finger at bullying, it doesn’t (so far) interrogate the culture around female sexuality that animates the whole plot. It’s so unfair what’s happening to Hannah because she’s not really a slut!

But what if she were? We are probably still generations away from having a teenage pop-culture version of Samantha Jones, the sex-obsessed woman from Sex and the City who is also interested in other things and doesn’t die at the end. Even she, though, endured some social punishment for her slutty ways, as I recall—I have a memory of a single scene, where Samantha is with a group of women who are behaving very coldly to her. All I remember of the scene is her sudden realization of why they are snubbing her followed by an effort to keep her dignity, even though her feelings are hurt. Other than this one scene, Samantha lives as a sexual adventurer in a world that no actual woman really inhabits—in other words, she is a caricature. But still, for the year or two after my divorce, when everyone in my world was judging me, hard, for not having good enough reasons to leave my marriage (I left because I wanted to), the unreal freedom that the character enjoyed inspired me . . . as fictional characters who live in unreal worlds sometimes do (Princess Leia, I’m lookin’ at *you*).

Samantha.Jones

Can we please, please, please stop treating teenage girls’ sexuality as either non-existent or as A Problem? Can we stop measuring their shorts and requiring them to get advance permission to wear prom dresses? Can we stop promising them princes if they promise purity to their fathers? Can we stop teaching them (and the boys, too!) lies in sex ed class, stop trying to scare them out of their desires? And can someone please serve up a fictional teen-girl character whose sexuality is a non-problematic but vital part of an awesome life with some other fictional problem to move the plot?

Rachel E. Hile

Catching in the Rye

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.” – J. D. Salinger

How bruised my spirit is. Not depressed, just . . .bruised.

I wrote a while ago about losing faith in political institutions and how I was thinking and reading about anarchism with more interest than I had ever had before. I have always been enough of an idealist that my response to deeply flawed institutions tends to be quitting: quitting the Catholic Church (and then returning and quitting again), quitting academia (and then returning and then quitting and then returning again), as just two examples. The institution I work at now is deeply flawed, and I did my level best this academic year to find another job so that I could quit my current institution . . . and failed. The local Democratic Party, mirroring the national party, seems still to be animated by the divisions that can be expressed in short form as “Clinton/Sanders.” Another flawed institution that, especially at the national level, is clearly ill equipped to save us from our woes.

The anarchists focus on individual action, not relying on institutions as saviors.  And that makes a lot of sense to me, but—and this is probably because I am middle aged and therefore deeply pragmatic—I don’t want to quit these flawed institutions. It would be so easy to quit participating in the local Democratic Party—I only became involved in November . . . disappearing would be easy. It would be harder in many ways to quit academia again, but I was certainly seriously considering it throughout the second half of 2016.

I don’t have the faith in these institutions that I once had, and I feel more strongly than ever the sense of personal obligation (Simon Critchley calls the anarchist ethos of personal obligation to meet the needs of others Infinitely Demanding), but it makes more sense to me to act on this sense of obligation within the flawed institutions. Somehow this year I have gravitated at work to roles where I can try to be the catcher in the rye, the one who saves the children before they go over the cliff. I’ve been working this year as my department’s lead advisor, trying to help with untangling the snarls that can lead to confusion or delays in students’ progress. I joined a committee that provides emergency grants for students in immediate financial trouble, another committee that hears financial aid appeals for students in danger of losing their aid, and today I went to an all-day training session to learn how to do equity investigations in cases of harassment or Title IX discrimination. After several years of trying to gain institutional power, with the idea that more power would equal more ability to do good, I have given up on power, but not on doing good. But being a catcher in the rye, in my institution or, probably, any, could provide full-time, endless hours of work. I won’t catch them all, but my chances of catching some are better if I’m part of the group effort of the institution.

This all makes sense, marks a clear trajectory, in my work life: from service to an attempt to gain power and back to service again. What can I apply to my very beginning participation in the Democratic Party, so that I don’t have to learn these lessons all over again in a new institutional context? I have entirely too many strikes against me to ever run for office—I’m an atheist intellectual bisexual in a polyamorous marriage. This would never, ever fly in Indiana, so I can cross “attempt to gain (political) power” off my list. But what about service? I need to have patience there and follow others. I am with regard to politics where I was with regard to academic governance structures ten years ago, when I served on committees where I spent most of each meeting listening, because I had no idea how things got done—the nitty-gritty of committee work, policy documents, faculty governance—and could learn only by showing up and paying attention. So I continue to show up and pay attention to the Democratic Party meetings.

Rachel E. Hile

the_catcher_in_the_rye_by_deseoutshy-d3j1ltx

Illustrations by William Marchant and deseoutshy

Trump’s “Shock and Awe” Campaign against Liberals

Remember “Shock and Awe”?

iraq-shock-and-awe

The phrase became common parlance during the Second Gulf War, when, along with “Mission Accomplished,” it became one of the two phrases associated with George W. Bush and the Gulf War. But he didn’t coin the phrase. In 1996, Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade Jr. published Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies), in which they describe a post–Cold War military strategy that “draws on the strategic uses of force as envisaged by Sun Tzu and [Carl von] Clausewitz to overpower or affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary for strategic aims and military objectives” (92). They note that Clausewitz characterized war as including “substantial elements of ‘fog, friction, and fear’” (19), and for them, manipulating and enhancing the fog, friction, and fear that are natural concomitants of war becomes the strategy: “Our focus is on the Clausewitzian principle of affecting the adversary’s will to resist as the first order of business, quickly if not nearly instantaneously” (8).

To achieve rapid dominance, aka “shock and awe,” Ullman and Wade suggest that military strategists plan actions characterized by:

  • Complete knowledge of self, adversary, and the environment;
  • Rapidity;
  • Brilliance of execution; and
  • Control of the environment. (67; elaboration on these bullet points 67–87)

I’m not the first to notice that Donald Trump postures more aggressively against domestic than international enemies.  More than any other stereotype, the schoolyard bully seems a natural fit with his personality. It makes sense, then, that launching a shock and awe campaign against the hated liberals for the first week of his presidency would appeal to Donald deeply.

And how is he doing? Judging from Facebook and Twitter, pretty well.

Complete knowledge of self, adversary, and the environment? I would never give him credit for self-knowledge, but he and his minions have a pretty good handle on the things that we snowflakes care about, and he is systematically and symbolically hammering at all of them. Defund every organization that furthers the arts and humanities. Threaten to send federal troops into Chicago. Continue alienation of Mexico about the wall. Create policies that de facto discriminate against Muslims. Muzzle government agencies from communicating about science and facts. Perhaps most appallingly, flip-flop again on torture, saying “Torture works.” This on top of Republican president standbys such as reinstating the global abortion gag rule and rattling his saber at Planned Parenthood.

Rapidity? Check. While he was too bored to attend briefings and and went to shore up the crumbling edges of his fragile ego with adoring crowds at his “thank you” rallies, some folks were actually doing the work to enable him to hit us hard in the gut every day of the first week of his presidency.

Brilliance of execution? Maybe. Certainly organized and deriving from competent strategic thought.

Control of the environment? He has an eager army of Republican legislators without consciences who are happy to use the fact of a Republican in the White House to further their own ends. He has legions of happy followers who live in echo chambers devoted to his voice and ideas. The first are happy to repeat and the second to believe the new “alternative facts.” The only thing standing between him and complete control of the environment is us and the journalists.

I’m a professor of English Renaissance literature, and one of the things that comes up often in the works I teach is the distinction between a king and a tyrant. From Xenophon to John Milton, the tyrant is a ruler who wars against his [sic] own subjects. So if we have a new president who wants to spend the first week of his term waging psychological warfare against his political opponents to demoralize us through fog, friction, and fear . . . well, mission accomplished, as they say. But it tells us who we are dealing with: a tyrant, not a king.

And centuries of political theory make it clear: to a tyrant, you don’t owe deference. To a tyrant, there is no need to “respect the office.” It is just to obstruct the will of a tyrant: citizens marching on the Mall in Washington four times a year, journalists speaking the truth in print, politicians and vocal citizens blocking his policies and nominations, and everyone’s acts of civil disobedience both quiet and loud.

Rachel E. Hile

W(h)ither Party Politics? Part 1

 

In an early blog post, I mentioned Robert Putnam’s discussion in Bowling Alone of declining participation in political parties. My thought then was that the best way forward was for me and millions of others to become more engaged in the Democratic Party. Since then, I’ve been to meetings of the Allen Country Democratic Party and of the Allen Country Democratic Party Women’s Club, and somehow it feels . . . like the past. This is not going to be a post with a clear thesis, because I’m reaching for something here, trying to understand why these meetings feel like the past to me, whether it matters, and what would feel more contemporary to me.

My life was very different in 2000, when Bowling Alone came out. At around the same time, I also read some other sociological research demonstrating how much happier people were when they were affiliated with multiple groups, and I remember rather smugly counting up how many groups I was a part of: my church, a women’s prayer group, the attachment parenting group, two book groups, La Leche League. The specific groups might have changed when I left religion and as my children grew older, but what happened instead was that after I went back to work full-time in 2005, the number of groups dropped to zero and then one, the community orchestra I’ve played in since moving to Indiana in 2006.

My (limited) efforts to connect with other groups in Fort Wayne haven’t been all that successful. Several years ago, I took my kids to an “interfaith prayer service” for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Afterward, there were cookies and coffee in the church basement, and I noticed how the apparent unity in the chapel turned into groups from various churches sitting at tables together. We knew no one there, because, as I joked to my children, we were the only actual INTERfaith people there, as in “between faiths” the way one might be “between jobs.” Some time later, I queried a religion-based homeless shelter about volunteering and mentioned my lack of church affiliation. I never heard back. In some ways, then, my lack of religious affiliation likely diminishes my ability to connect with groups in this very religious small city.

And that is undoubtedly at least part of why attending Democratic Party meetings doesn’t feel like a good fit for me. Not just because the Democratic Party members seem, by and large, to be more religious than I am, but also because it feels like the past, like meetings and church dinners at the United Methodist Church I went to as a child.

I’ve tried and tried to understand what I mean by saying “it feels like the past,” and I think Robert Putnam’s book may be the best way of explaining it. In his book, Putnam is describing (and also valorizing, perhaps undeservedly) civic and group membership for the sake of connectedness, and maybe we could lump together all of those activities that he studies—party membership, church membership, Elks’ Lodge, bowling leagues, and so on—as having meetings where the purpose is in large part strengthening the group.

The problem with Putnam’s vision of good-old-the-way-things-used-to-be is that the benefits are concentrated, not dispersed. If I am a member of six or seven groups, and I get cancer, I will have many people bringing me casseroles. If I am not a member of six or seven groups—perhaps because I am single parent of two children with a full-time job, as I personally was for many years after my divorce, or if it’s because I am working two jobs, or am mentally ill, or have English as my second or third language, or feel unwelcome in a group I try to join because of my race or ethnicity, or any of a thousand other reasons why I might not be able to participate in many groups—no one is going to bring me a casserole when I’m sick.

The civic, social, and religious connectedness of the 1950s and 1960s worked for the in group, for in-group people in groups. Can’t we do better now? Robert Putnam can’t undo what the Internet and other technologies have done to make it possible for individuals to curate their social experience—we can seek out like-minded people, online discussion groups for niche interests—but the present social landscape becomes every bit as insular as a 1950s lodge meeting when we work to create a virtual echo chamber to shelter us from difference.

And that’s the thing, the reason I think there is something I like about the Allen County Democratic Party—it is the most diverse group I have ever been part of (however tenuously and tangentially I am a part at the moment). But I want to go to meetings and not have them feel like the past. How? What do I mean? What do I want party politics to look like? More on that in Part 2 of this topic.

Rachel E. Hile