Friday, May 18, 2007

More On Credit Card Nation: Perspective from A Student Who Is Now One Of "Us"

I often get great comments, but if you don't go back to older posts to see who has checked in, look at comment number eight on my last blog entry. It is from a former Zenith student, who I am happy to say, has finished graduate school and has a job. It offers a thoughtful perspective on all of the issues my post, and the comments, raised about student debt. It also discusses the ways faculty can assist students in need without stigmatizing any individual who is underfunded. I particularly like the part where she uses the teaching of economic history to help students think about the ethical dimensions of being in a debt relationship, and her mentoring of students trying to become more powerful and knowledgeable in relationship to debt. But as she also points out, faculty need to take an ethical stance in the debt situation as well, and we can make choices in our teaching, without compromising high-quality pedagogy, that support students who are trying to keep to a budget. We can also be alert to how student services of various kinds are, or are not, actually meeting the needs of underfunded students and, in the spirit of a queerer analysis, not presume that the "normal" student is able to meet the financial obligations of an education without formal and informal help.

And the part about not having enough food is something that I had honestly never thought about. If that is true -- and I have no doubt it is -- then I would add that another thing department chairs like myself can do is make sure that when we have receptions, make sure the food is good quality, so that students in need are not living on potato chips, soda, cookies and pizza. Always make sure students are invited to take extra food home with them after events. And be very aware that it is at the end of term, when students need their energy most, that the money for food may be running out.

One of the issues this comment also raises implicitly, which I did not talk about in the earlier post, is that students can be very focused on the present, and have very little concept about what it means to repay a debt that is larger than a mortgage, perhaps larger than the income their parents see for three or four years running. They are, in other words, sitting ducks for predatory lenders.

Very smart, and a very highly developed ethical sensibility. And if I am not mistaken as to who this former student (now colleague) is, you should have your own blog, Girl. The Radical glows with reflected joy at your obvious accomplishments as an intellectual at this stage of your career.


anthony grafton said...

Ime's post was amazing. In my AHA capacity I have been pleading with departments to be as candid as possible with those applying to do graduate work about what the outcomes are likely to be--personal, professional, economic. People have to know what may await them before they decide to join this weird profession. But we also need hope--and ime's ability to work constructively with her own situation and use it to do better by her students is a source of hope as well as an occasion for deep respect.

At our place, where grad students are well funded for several years, there are still problems, sometimes severe, for those who need more time. One tiny way we try to help is by holding as many meetings as we can at noon and providing many more free, solid sandwiches than the faculty need. It's very little--but it's something.

Anonymous said...

thank you and thank you for the generation debt link (yes she did write a book) I am passing it along.

Anonymous said...

I too found Ime's post to be extraoridnarily thoughtful and helpful, although I do want to offer a few thoughts on her comments about course books. In my experience, there are a number of factors that complicate this process. One is that junior faculty are often struggling to develop courses and choose readings while they are themselves stretched way too thin. Indeed, they are often encouraged not to let course planning interfere with research by older colleagues, even at insitutions very much like Zenith. My first few years on the job there was little more stressful than ordering books for courses that I had never taught before, all while not being very adept at the various systems of reserve, packet-making and photo-copying. There is also the fact that when we never order monographs for purchase we constibute, surely but steadily, to the obsolescence of the very sector of publishing upon which our careers depend. This consideration is not enough to justify burdening studetns with expensive books that they can't afford, but it does make me feel trapped in classic catch-22 of capitalism. Finally, when reading enough of a book, the only sensible thing to do is order it (while providing as many reserve copies as possible). In my experience, while one student may hate "That Noble Dream," another may return to it again and again. Just because your intellectual trajectory renders one book less useful doesn't mean it was illegitimate for the professor to order it.

But of course, on the whole, most of what Ime says strikes me as right on.

Anonymous said...

Actually my point was a simple one, books have a cost, many much higher than most on financial aid and/or attending financially strapped institutions can afford. When you order books that cost $35-$110 per copy its legitimacy is no longer the issue for those who are on a debt cycle that forces them to weigh current need with future financial stability. I chose _That Noble Dream_ precisely because that text cost quite a bit at the time it was assigned to me, we read less than three chapters out of it, and the bookstore was only willing to buy it back for a few dollars. This is a common story I now hear from my students and regularly appears in our school paper with accompanying appeals to faculty and the bookstore to make a change. When That Noble Dream was selected as a core text for the historiography course, no one had any way of knowing which students would find it relevant and which would not; it is no different than any other book in that regard. However, given that we cannot predict what books will be most salient to most people, shouldn't we try to pick books that convey important information with the idea of ensuring the most marginalized students among us has as equal an access as possible?

The book is exemplary of a problem not with content but form. The form: the modern university classroom, or more specifically the syllabus for that classroom, in which required texts are based on an assumption of equal access to wealth that is not true. (As Tenured Radical notes, she had no idea I was fainting in showers to afford my books and I spent a considerable amount of time perusing her books and in her classes.) Reframe the question for a moment to reflect the desire we all hold in teaching, ie that everyone learns. If part of the way everyone learns is through doing assigned reading and then engaging in thoughtful discussion about said reading, do they not all need equal access to the reading? Put another way: If wealthy students can afford the books and keep them to refer to from class to class throughout their college years while working class and subsistence students share, photocopy, and/or return the books for less than nothing each year so that they neither have the same quality of read nor ability to check references/reference at all, doesn't the failure to mediate access wherever possible recreate a class system in which education is just one more way the working class remains mired in predatory debt? Is this not one place where we as faculty can easily make a change?

I am not suggesting that we stop ordering books based on price. Nor that we replace scholarly work with snippets from any secondary source available. I am simply advocating for mindfulness in every aspect of pedagogy. After all, a simple google or amazon search will get you a list of related books in a topic and provide their publishers, another will get you the publishers website and/or contact information. Women's Studies is at a better advantage than most disciplines precisely because of a feminist praxis that includes the publishing industry and consequently scholarly books for affordable prices. However, for those with other disciplines, there is always the course packet, the copying of new chapters in "new textbooks" and making sure to order books that are available at the campus library or the major online used bookstores. Aren't we all avid readers anyway? So how much harder would it be to include critical economic thinking in your regularly scheduled book trolling?

Though teaching a class for the first time can be daunting, there are a myriad of websites with syllabi for courses out there to get you started. My own site has most of my syllabi on it and for Women's Studies there is the WMST-L archive and I am fairly certain H-net has similar offerings to get you started. The same databases we use to do our own research can be used to do research for a new course. If you pick something that sucks, use it as a teachable moment about methods, writing style, sources, etc. I know most sleep (besides having deadlines, and research and grant proposals), but why not embrace the joy of reading again? I am never more giddy than when it is book order time. I haunt the main office waiting for my new books, I dance down the hall announcing to the grad students (who teach most of our classes) what has arrived and inviting them to come look at them, and I sit with a large pot of coffee and snacks and quick read the way you learn to when you have three majors at a place like Zenith. It is all the same skill set we have all been using since undergrad, the system is just designed to make you feel confused and ill prepared when you are the newbie. Have a little faith.

I empathize with the demands put on Junior scholars. In my first years out, I was Director of the Program and of Graduate Students before I had even taught all of the core courses or met all of our majors. I had service requirements in three programs plus the general demands made for service that are socially required. And like the freak I am, I successfully launched an e-journal and an annual research conference for undergrads at the same time. The only thing I refused to do was have office hours at night, on weekends, or online after midnight as many of my other colleagues did. And don't get me started about the year my office was in a specialty dorm with a piano above it and a classroom next to it with no sound proofing (I loved it, especially all the LACS folk poking their heads in, but you could not get "your own work" done there). So I know and I empathize with all of the things that we are told matter more than the classroom and inevitably do.

However, it is not hard to start a new job, first day on campus, asking some basic questions:
1. how does reserve work here? - how long does it take, are items electronic items stored for reuse or do they have to be resubmitted, can the hard copies be used as the reserve hard copy or do you need two copies one for e-reserve, one for hard copy? (Once you know the answers, reserve is easy and takes less time than copying the syllabus for all the late adds. It also helps to just get a copy of the reserve forms the first day, make a zillion copies, and keep them in your office so that you can put a reserve together whenever you want and just pass it across the desk while running between Committee meetings.)
2. Ask where the computer labs are on your campus visit and whether your department or program has a dedicated lab and printer. How much is the printing? I send my students to the Women's Center because it is next to us and it is cheaper than regular labs. Every school loves to show of their technology, why not ask about it while you are being ushered through? (I also ask this question because I like to assign class blog projects and web design work in my courses and it puts an unfair burden on working class and subsistence level students to assume they have access to computers and internet in their homes - they need it, but it does not mean they have it. Where I work at least 35% of my students don't own one and have phobias about them related to something Joanne Kadi outlines nicely in "Stupidity Deconstructed" about the link between systems of invisible class oppression in higher education and the sense of intellectual ability in working class students.)
3. If you have a feminist or alternative bookstore in your town, makes friends with the owner. They will keep you up to date on books in your field from independent presses for both your collection and your classes. They will even start ordering them for you before you even ask. AND if your bookstore has the kind of mark up mine does, they will help you cut out the mark up by selling books for your classes. (The one word of caution on that last one is that if your school's financial aid office hands over the money for books directly to your school's bookstore then you will actually be putting financial aid kids in a bind instead of helping. This system points to those "hidden classism" issues mentioned earlier, but it also provides an opportunity to hold the university accountable for the ways some have used financial practices for undue gain and influence change.)
4. Make friends with the publishers. Most are one or two people desperately trying to make sure that authors of color, LGBTQ authors white and poc, and international voices do not go out of print. They are grateful for your business and will work with you in a way large presses will not. Some times you will have problems with getting enough books, once I ended up placing an order 6 times and calling 4 different previous company homes before ending up on the phone with Exec VP of Planet Out, who personally assured me that I would have enough books within 2 days with no extra cost to my students. He made good on his word and followed up with an extra desk copy for the GLBTQ alliance lending library.

I also hear your concern about "contribut[ing], surely but steadily, to the obsolescence of the very sector of publishing upon which our careers depend." Publishing is big business these days. Some of the most reliable publishers in the industry have passed through the hands of oil barons and tire companies of late. The more this happens, the less emphasis the publishers put on diversity of knowledge and the more they put on economic gain. One way to look at it is to fear that our failure to contribute to that gain will mean the ultimate failure of our books to take off and ensure tenure and endowed chair appointments, etc. The fear is real. The zero sum game is not.

Ordering the majority or even half of your books from independents does not mean that you cannot also order from academic presses as well. More importantly, deciding, however passively, to not buy from independent publishers may have serious lasting consequences.

It is like "the piece of the pie": if you spend all of your time trying to get a piece of pie, you never ask why there are no cookies or why pie is more legitimate than a brownie. You settle for crumbs in the hopes of one day getting a slice instead of dismantling a system of false disparity. Why is the means of intellectual production concentrated in the hands of the few and producing an ever more limited range of ideas?

My fear is that books by women of color, GLBTQ people of all racial an ethnic backgrounds, and differently-abled and rural authors will simply dwindle and fade away. My fear is that while people are teaching Rosemary Garland-Thompson (who is amazing), Eli Clare's book will go out of print. Chrystos poems are no longer available. This Bridge Called My Back . . . out of print. What do these things have in common? They were all books or authors that tried to find mainstream academic presses and were shut out. They went with independent publishers that have since closed down because people were buying their books from those very same academic presses who thought them irrelevant. These books and authors, and those like them, met their demise before the current consolidation of publishing houses.

Recently, I sat down to put together the historical section of my race, class, feminism course and I wanted to use articles from a salient book that looks at white women and imperialism . . . Out of Print. I wanted to include a unit on the Great Awakening as a critical opening of space for early N. American white feminists . . . Out of Print. In a later unit, I wanted to pair Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete (independent publisher) with some articles from a Routledge reader on the subject . . . Unavailable then Out of Print. Hmmmm . . . there seems to be a trend.

In supporting students, you support radical presses, in supporting radical presses you support the diversity of ideas, theories, and methodologies, in supporting diversity of thought you are engaging in decolonized radical pedagogy. May not get you tenure . . . but it might change the world.

(sorry for taking up so much space on your blog Tenured Radical, won't happen again.)

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Ime: Many great points. Maybe committee work is warping my brain, but there's one I would add: Financial aid offices have to get a clue about what books cost these days. Where I teach, students are told--and financial aid offers assume--that books and supplies will cost about $800 per year. (Actually, they used to be told that; the revamped admissions website doesn't seem to mention those costs at all.) That's $80 per course.

I try to keep costs for survey courses well below that but it's not always possible for upper-level courses. I put all readings on reserve, use JSTOR and other online articles when I can, and distinguish between books that I want students to bring to class for close reading and books that they can read on reserve. I keep extra desk copies for students. In short, I do what I can personally.

But financial aid offices need to be more realistic about what books cost, and they also need to be more realistic about the fact that a lot of books can't be sold back to the bookstore, especially books for courses that aren't taught every semester. When I started college over 20 years ago I was told that books and supplies would cost $500-700 per year. That's not much less than what today's students are being told at many universities. But that copy of Victor Turner that I paid $10 for now costs $20. That inflation has to be factored into financial aid. Otherwise students end up bearing the cost personally.

Anonymous said...

OK, this is going to be a lit bit pissy but...Ime: condescension and one-upsmanship are not the same as empathy, whihc I wasn't looking for int he first place. I was trying to offer some thoughts on why, despite their commitment to social and economic justice, professors don't always implement their syllabi in the most equitable fashion possible. So while it is fantastic for you and your studetns that you are such a perfect and indefatigable scholar/teacher/colleague, not all of us are without limits to our energy 9to follow your rhetorical xample, don't even get me started on nursing an infant while comuting 2+ hours a day)

I also really resent your misreading my comment about academic publishing as a craven statement to only be trying to "get my slice of the pie." I think it was pretty obvious that I was pointing to a larger structural problem, basic to capitalism, in which people's economic interests are pitted against one another. Certainly there are ways to adress this, but I don't think ignoring it is one of them. And while many academic presses are owned by venure capitalists and repulsive corporations, some non-profit presses are strugglign to sell monographs so that they can justify commisioning them. The problem is not about to evaporate, at least not if the etenure standards at my institution are any indication. Lastly, I don't think there economic and social justice is only to be pursued for others. Perhaps you think ill of the tenure system (I know TR has her problems with it) but within the current system, achieiving it is the best way I know to ensure that my family can eat and be sheltered.

I confess that I am dreading provoking another endless screed--clearly you have the energy. But for all you genuinely wonderful, practical advice, a little less condescension and a little more intellectual generosity toward your interlocutors would be nice.

Anonymous said...

I certainly did not mean to offend nor condescend, though in rereading I can see how my tone my have seemed such. My suggestions and metaphors are ones I use regularly and that have been helpful in other venues so it did not occur to me that they would be out of step here; perception and language are such really sticky things.

In all honesty, I do empathize with Junior faculty and the demands placed on them. I pointed to my own struggles as a way to show solidarity not to demean the efforts of others. I'm still walking my mile in those shoes . . . and I think resources and simple idea sharing is important.

Clearly, my enthusiasm for thinking through class as a pedagogical strategy was a bit much for some (I am sure that you are not the only one.)

I spoke on this blog solely because Tenured Radical hit a very painful nerve for me as a debtor and as a person who teaches people from marginalized communities who see college as a way out even as they rack up the same debt that I now find myself drowning under. Since I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about it, I didn't think it was wrong to burst with enthusiasm at the chance to discuss the issue with some of the most gifted people I have had the privilege to know/learn from.

As I said, in my previous post, I realize I have been verbose and never meant to be, so as I promised "it won't happen again."

If we spirits have offended . . .

Anonymous said...

so....with just a little creativity, you can keep your student's book bill under ten bucks. For my intro class, I don't even bother ordering the book through the book stores and highly encourage the students to get the older edition. I personally can't tell the difference, and make a point to tell them that I still use the older edition myself. In fact, the page numbers in the syllabus are based off the older edition. On the first day of class I get on the web and show them some websites where the older edition of the book is available for about five bucks ( is the best site for this). Students' jaws drop when I do this and they see how much they've been getting ripped off at the bookstore. I am personally shocked that they aren't more net savvy in this regard. I also have supplemental readings which I just scan and post to the class website...its illegal copyright wise, but so far, no one has busted me.

Anonymous said...

I try to keep costs for survey courses well below that but it's not always possible for upper-level courses.

What field are you in? In all of the fields where I know people, it's the introductory books that cost $150-200, but the upper level books are well under $100. On the bright side, the same textbook is often used for a couple of semesters or even more for a class like calculus.

As for saving money, I point my students to online Indian stores like, where university textbooks sell for 5% to 10% of the price in the U.S. There are disadvantages: the texts are cheap paperbacks, shipping costs may double the price of the book, and it'll take a month to get to you, but the price difference is amazing.

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