some of us are brave

Make it Plain: Research, Dissertations, and Blogging in Plain Talk

I have never viewed my public writing and engagement as a distraction from research. I have never even seen them as separate endeavors. Like my position on teaching as part of the research process, I don’t know how to think without thinking across all contexts.

A lot of those connections are invisible to other people. As I wind up (down?) on writing The Thing, I thought it a good intellectual exercise to consider how this is all one big ball of wax. What follows is the research that has dominated my life for the better part of 3 or 4 years now. If you follow the links, you see how all these disparate pieces in blog entries, essays, conversations and talks have informed my thinking about the work.

You gotta know by now what I do, right? Proprietary, market-based “for-profit” colleges are an institutional axis for the reproduction of intersectional inequalities. That is my Case, capital “C”.

To make that Case, I first have to make several other cases. First, I have to make the case that profit status constitutes a sector-specific context inclusive of all for-profit colleges and somehow different from not-for-profit colleges. That is an easier case to make if I compare the University of Phoenix with Harvard University. It is a more complicated case to make as I move down the Great Chain of Institutional Beings and begin comparing the University of Phoenix with the University of the District of Columbia (public, open access, 5 percent six year graduation rate in 2012) or City College of San Francisco (public, community college, regional accreditation almost suspended in 2014). Is sector differentiation a meaningful level of analysis for stratification?

Of course, I think Richard Arum, Adam Gamoran and Yossi Shavit and others have made this case. I get into that. But, I said I didn’t just want to talk about sectorial differentiation as stratification mechanism but of a specific kind of intersectional stratification. This brings in the idea that status groups – ascriptive and affiliate – matter. I certainly think so. You probably think so, too. Others get the idea that race, class, and gender matter to for-profit college enrollment. There is debate about whether this matters to the detriment of students (predatory schools) or to the benefit of students (expanded access).Slide04

But, whether it is implicitly or explicitly stated, there’s a notion that race/class/gender (RCG) matter to for-profit college enrollment, sector differentiation and sector expansion. I have to make that case explicitly. I drag the genesis of for-profit college expansion out of the neo-institutional literature a bit here and put it squarely in the context of single-sex colleges, historically black colleges, and (hello, intersectionality and institutions!) single sex historically black colleges. My point is, race, class, and gender have defined sector differentiation throughout the entire history of U.S. higher education. If for-profit colleges weren’t in that intersectional tradition it would be unusual.


So, if I get you this far in my case-making I still have to show you why this matters. Here, I do a bit of a strange thing. Rather than focus exclusively on contributions to social policy or literature gaps, I take up the analytical power of rational choice methods in higher education research.

This is absolutely in the tradition of intersectionality scholars who argue that “rational” and “choice” and unmarked categories like “worker” and “student” reproduce power relations through routinized organizational forms. It’s as if Hothschild’s white unfettered male worker went to college. Of course, “he” DOES go to college! He is Ideal Student Man! Higher education organizational forms live for this dudeThe Roaming Autodidact is just this Ideal Student’s cooler, hipster cousin who was raised by flower power parents in Silicon Valley. Almost no group is going to college like black women, at all costs and against incredible odds. But, demographic changes in student aspiration and attainment have not changed the institutional norms of Ideal Student Man.

If anything, these demographic changes have exploited the conditions for high status students to extract qualitatively different educational returns from objectively similar levels of education (effectively maintaining inequality or EMI for the win). Of course, that’s all just aided and abetted by technological solutionism and cultural logics of “data”, “media”, “platforms” and what have you.

Higher education choice assumes all the external objectivity of prestige, aspirational socialization and attendant values derived from the ideal student type. For-profit students are, in contrast, marked deviant. And when over 60 percent of those students are women and of those women a disproportionate share are brown and working class and mothers, the deviance becomes taken-for-granted, reproduced and institutionalized in our analyses.

So what do I do about that? First, I take Choo and Marx Ferree’s challenge of intersectional practice seriously. I take it very seriously. I center students’ voice theoretically and analytically. I talk to students.

But that isn’t enough, is it? I have to do more. I have to center their actions and sensemaking and put the assumed norm  up for the same kind of interrogation to which I subject for-profit students. I have to focus on process and institutions. Everybody’s “rationality” is debatable up in through here. I do that through mixed methods and comparative case design. I do that through sensemaking theories and analytical frameworks. I do that through narrative and digital ethnographies as event history analysis. I do that by constantly checking myself.

Once I get you there, I have to tell you why I have researched these specific women in these programs over time, in “real life” and online, in informal and formal learning spaces.

I have to tell you why I focus on women at the top of credentialism, and not the bottom. When you are getting a PhD at Capella you’re literally living vertical and horizontal stratification, credentialism, and differentiation. You’re also resistant to the dismissive “low information” analysis that, again, marks students as deviant and minimizes their agency.

But, I don’t want to gloss over the reality of the real constraints on that action. We can talk organizations and situations into meaning but we cannot individually or collectively talk our way past racist, sexist capitalism or gendered occupational fields or segmented labor markets or controlling images. Those things are still there and my research participants are in the thick of it.

I’ve tried to be there with them. That’s the work and it’s really all one big ball of wax.


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This entry was posted on August 23, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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