Design a site like this with
Get started

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.

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.


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.


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*).


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?


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.


Illustrations by William Marchant and deseoutshy

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? I’m still trying to figure this out.

This Fucking Blog

I think about this fucking blog every goddamn day. Every day I think about this blog. I don’t want to write. I want to keep my thoughts in my head. Thoughts in my head don’t need to be organized or eloquent, and they don’t need to have a point. Thoughts in my head are also not subject to praise or criticism: no one else has any opinions about what’s on my mind at any moment, and I like it that way.

And yet I made a commitment to write, so I think about the blog every day.

My daughter is off school today, so I took the morning off work and took her out for donuts and then a trip to Barnes and Noble to spend a gift card she had received. I think one reason I get books from libraries instead of bookstores is because I can’t enter a bookstore without thinking about the business of books. When I see these bright commodities, many of them so perfectly marketed to interpellate me and fill me with desire to touch and hold and read, it disgusts me a little. For one thing, there are so many, and more every day, that it’s clear that the world doesn’t need another . . . and yet there will be another, and another, and another, because there is a market for it, and what exists in America exists because there is a market for it.

There is a binary—things that sell for money are important, and things that don’t are not. By this binary, the book I actually did write, a work of literary scholarship, is not important, because it will sell a small number of copies primarily to university libraries. But there is a competing binary—things that don’t sell for money are important, and things that do are not. According to this binary, I could preen over the fact that only the few would ever want to read my book in the first place: exclusivity replaces popularity, esotericism replaces accessibility.

Binaries are such lazy lies, though.

I’m reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? It’s a very different book than Fun Home, her first memoir—obsessive about interiority, dreams, psychoanalysis, and how all of that connects with relationships, especially her relationship with her mother, but also relationships with therapists and with lovers, and she weaves all of this together using the recurring plot device of her own writer’s block. Importantly, she wasn’t able to successfully write memoir as a young woman—eventually, the process of memoir-writing, therapy, and obsessive reading of psychoanalytic theories together transform her sufficiently to make it possible to write about her life with genuineness. She includes the rejection letter she received in her early 20s from none other than Adrienne Rich, when she sent a short memoir-based piece to a prominent literary journal. Rich wrote that her work had dealt with the material “at a rather superficial level. Even for yourself, I think it would be useful to go back and ask yourself some real questions as to the meaning of each incident, and its context. I hope this is helpful. Don’t be put off, or discouraged. Writing is a very long, demanding training, more hard work than luck. Strength to you. In sisterhood, Adrienne Rich.” It’s not just developing a voice, developing skill, Bechdel implies—it’s also learning to be the True Self instead of the False Self (in Donald Winnicott’s terms), and that is a painful process that takes years.

But the voice, the being willing to speak, is also important. I often tell my students, most recently my Milton students this past Tuesday, about how I didn’t talk in class as an undergraduate, but I forced myself to start talking in class in my first year of graduate school. It’s an anecdote, mostly, a way of saying “I understand how you might feel about my desire that you speak in class.” But the details are instructive. In that first year of graduate school, in the first semester, I continued my instinctual loathing of my classmates who were confident enough to speak up all the time in class. I felt similarly toward my vocal classmates as I feel now toward the authors of the books in the bookstore: They’re speaking, so I don’t have to. They’re speaking, and that’s because they think they’re so smart. They’re speaking because they want attention. They’re speaking, and so whatever I have to say is unnecessary and superfluous.

When I forced myself to become one of the students who spoke up every day, it was agony. My heart would pound, my breathing becoming shallower and faster—classic anxiety symptoms for someone shy enough to have once tried, at the age of four or so, to hide underneath my mother’s skirt when she wanted to introduce me to a roomful of strangers. It was a discipline, and I succeeded sufficiently that eventually, I was on the other side of the same binary. There was a beautiful, smart woman in one of my classes, and she hardly ever spoke up. When she did, though, it was top-notch, insightful stuff. Nothing she ever said was less than brilliant . . . but I hated her a little bit for how infrequently she shared her lapidary brilliance with us. Here the rest of us are, hustling to keep the conversational ball moving about this really damned difficult literary theory, and You. Are. Not. Pulling. Your. Weight. I imagined that she was looking down on me, because although my numerator of brilliance in the course may have rivaled her output, my denominator was much, much larger, diminishing my Brilliance Quotient.


Of course it was all about me. Isn’t everything?

But the fact of it was that I made the decision to speak up in class for myself, not for anyone else, and that was a good decision. I got over my shyness, and my life has been very different than it would have been if I hadn’t managed that feat.

I think that now, with this blog, I am in the same place that I was twenty years ago with speaking. No one else needs to read my opinions. There are enough opinions out there, enough brilliant writing—truly, no one needs me to try. But my life changed for the better when I learned to speak in a group. I don’t know what will happen if I go the next step and write down what’s in my mind.


Dangerous Ideas and Where to Find Them


From the age of thirteen I considered myself to be bisexual, and, although I spent my senior year of high school pissed off at all the boys and thought I was therefore a lesbian, “bisexual” (“pansexual” wasn’t a thing then) was really the best fit. But then when I converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-four, I had to come up with a new narrative, and the story I made myself believe was that I had “chosen” to “indulge” feelings that I should have instead worked to contain. The pseudo-progressive Christian line was that the feelings weren’t sinful, just ever-ever-ever acting on them. OK, fine, so that was my story for the first several years of my Catholic phase.

One day, in maybe 2002 or 2003, I was wandering the stacks of my university library, and this book caught my eye:


Standing in the stacks, it took me a while to decide to check out the book and read it. To be a good Catholic, I had put boxes around so many ideas in my mind. The ideas were in the boxes, and the edges didn’t touch, and I didn’t allow other thoughts to get in there and argue with the boxed-up ideas. I knew that if I read this book, it was going to mess up the boxes. Standing there, I recognized that the cost of continued obedience involved closing my mind to ideas that would challenge the Catholic dogma I had adopted. The twenty-four years of freethinking I had enjoyed before putting my mind into those boxes reared up, and I knew I would be ashamed to become a person afraid of other ideas. I checked out the book. I chose freedom of thought. I left the Catholic Church in 2004.

I see this struggle in my students. The students whose relationships became more complicated because of the ideas they encountered in the women’s studies course I taught about work-life balance. The advisee who was worried about taking a history course named “Witchcraft and Witch Hunts,” because she wondered if what she might learn in that class would conflict with what her religion teaches her. The students whose course evaluations criticized my courses on Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser for mentioning sexual and scatological themes demonstrably present in their work.

Even more so than the classroom, though, art is the home of dangerous ideas . . . and what is even more threatening is how art frames those ideas in ways that foster empathy and imaginative identification.

But people have to make the choice to receive the ideas. Yesterday, I drove to Detroit with my daughter to see Fun Home, the musical based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. I couldn’t get tickets when I was in New York City in June 2015, and I will be teaching the book in the Spring 2017 semester, so I had to make a special pilgrimage to see it.


Who knows when this award-winning play, the first Broadway play to feature a lesbian protagonist, will make it to Fort Wayne, Indiana? There is a market here for touring companies of Broadway shows, but the shows that might challenge the area’s conservative morals either don’t come or arrive years and years later. Both Fun Home and Hedwig and the Angry Inch began national tours this fall, and neither will stop in Fort Wayne. One could argue that the city just isn’t big enough to be included in the first year of touring, and that is undoubtedly true, but still . . . the slightly edgy Avenue Q came to Fort Wayne seven years after it opened on Broadway and three years after it began touring. The Book of Mormon began touring  in 2012 and still hasn’t made it to Fort Wayne. It’s smart business in Fort Wayne, I’m sure, not to bring troubling ideas to town about sexuality, gender, and religion.

But I will stand behind the insight I had that day in the library many years ago: ideologies that can be sustained only by adherents’ studiously avoiding competing ideas are brittle, weak, doomed. The artists and teachers of the world keep threatening the status quo—here and in other states where the majority want to either stop time or else turn back the clock to the 1950s—with their dangerous, dangerous ideas.


Blue Teacher, Red State

In 2006, a few months after I began my job as an assistant professor at a regional state university in Indiana, one of my colleagues announced that she was quitting her job in order to move to Washington state. She told me that with the 2004 election she had reached her limit of living in a red state—she couldn’t stand it anymore, and so she left. Another colleague, a native of California, spoke of Indiana as though she were an exile. She returned to California in the summers and was eager to leave forever upon her retirement in 2014, but cancer took her just two months after she taught her last class. Sometimes life kicks you in the teeth that way.

I couldn’t fully understand that drive to live somewhere more politically liberal, because I have always lived in conservative, Republican-dominated states: first Kansas, and now Indiana. You get used to it. To the extent possible, you surround yourself with like-minded people (additionally, if you’re me, you spend eight years in your twenties as a conservative Catholic trying to agree with the Republican party, as you’re told by your priest to do). You don’t expect your side to win in elections at the local and state level, so the national political game takes on outsized importance—a Democratic president is the main way that progressive change happens in red states, so that becomes the thing you hope for. As a white, middle-class person, my privilege has shielded me from the worst there is to suffer in red states. So I was used to it, and after the election, when I read a bunch of headlines with variations on “don’t move to Canada, move to a red state!” I recognized that as, logically speaking, a pretty good idea.

But it’s dispiriting to be a liberal in a red state, and not simply the bummer of being the fan of a team that always loses, but something that makes you wonder about humanity and compassion and love and hope, because the stakes are so often life and death. For me in recent years, more and more, my red-state suffering comes from my identity as an educator. Sure, Republican politicians regularly demonstrate their contempt for women, poor people, minorities, but in addition, their contempt for teachers is just breathtaking. They hate us. For years, people in Indiana have been saying that the Republican legislators’ work to hurt public K-12 education was just the first step, and they would turn their attention to public postsecondary education soon enough. That moment has now come, and it sucks.

To try to boil down the current Republican ideology about public education:

  • Your kid is not my problem. I shouldn’t have to pay for her education. Education should focus on job training. Education that doesn’t lead to higher lifetime wages for the learner and higher productivity for his or her employer is a waste of time and money. (Rich people can study medieval French literature or anthropology or whatever. We don’t know why any of them would want to, but it’s OK if they do.)
  • The only things worth considering in decision making are things that can be measured and counted. Bonus points if the things being measured and counted are dollars, but test scores are good, too.
  • Uniformity of instruction will lead to uniformity of outcomes, and uniformity is good. Happy corollary: in a world where uniformity of instruction is the goal, we can stop thinking of teachers as professionals with expertise and instead treat them as expendable and unimportant (because another Republican axiom is that workers are not as important or worthy of respect as bosses are).

In Indiana, the Republican assault on K-12 education has attacked both school districts and teachers themselves:

  1. Decrease public school funding by (1) bleeding money out of school districts through a generous voucher program, initiated in 2011 under then-Governor Mitch Daniels and expanded in 2013 under Governor Mike Pence, and (2) creating strict property tax caps in 2008 that guarantee that school districts in areas with lower property values will have lower funding for schools.
  2. Deprofessionalize teachers: (1) make it easier to get certified to teach, and (2) make it clear that teachers’ experience and education don’t matter by ending the practice of giving teachers pay raises for earning a master’s degree. Teachers with master’s degrees don’t produce students with higher standardized test scores than teachers with bachelor’s degrees do, and therefore it’s a waste of state money to pay them more for a worthless credential (remember, the only things that matter are things that can be measured).

I could go on and on. Really, I could, and I could include a bunch of hyperlinks to stories about everything the Republicans have done to fuck over public K-12 education in Indiana in the past decade, but that’s not the point of this blog post.

The point is that I finally understand what drove my colleague to want to leave this red state, because all of that contempt for educators is now making its way to my world of postsecondary public education in Indiana, and it’s maddening. When a politician’s ideology trumps my experience and expertise, it’s insulting. When I can shout as loud as I want to and carry signs and write letters and actually have my opinion be considered less important than those of the average taxpayer, because I’m a liberal college professor and therefore my ideas about education and teaching are wrong-headed, it makes me wish to be part of a different system, one where my ideas about education were not so completely at odds with those of the people with the power to decide.

The two states I know best, Kansas and Indiana, are both experiencing teacher shortages at the K-12 level. I’m not surprised—it’s demoralizing to work, and to work hard and to work well, and nevertheless to be treated with contempt at every turn. It’s dispiriting to have ideals about education as a public good, about the right of every citizen to a good education and the benefits that will flow to everyone from providing that education, and not to have those ideals inform education policy at any level in the entire state. It’s a shame, but the small daily battles we educators in red states face, the fighting and fighting and fighting to have our expertise in any small way affect policy, will continue until these folks are voted out, and if November 8 was any indication, that’s going to be a long time coming to Indiana.