Friday, March 28, 2008

Credit cards? Bah, humbug!

I hate credit card companies being on campus. I always have. Those stupid cards in the bottom of every bag I ever got from a campus bookstore...those tables on the quad, giving away stuffed animals, water bottles, Ipod shuffles, you name it...the poor students who work the tables to help pay off their own credit card bills... Yuck.

The gf tells a story about her first credit card as a new college student. First thing she did after it arrived? Took a whole large group of her dorm-mates out for dinner and drinks. After all, it was free money, right?

When I talk to students about activism, I often tell one of my favorite campus activism stories. It is about a group of students who wanted to take on the credit card companies on campus. They started a stealth campaign where they would plant a mark near one of those credit card tables on campus. When an unsuspecting student would come by to talk to the rep or look at the material on the tables, another advocate would come up to the mark and speak (loudly enough to be overheard) about the hidden costs of the credit cards. Another advocate "friend" would join them and talk about her high credit card bills and the way her percentage went up just because they judged that her credit was not as good anymore. Even though she had paid her bill on time, she would note! They would commiserate about friends they knew who had run up their credit cards and talk about how high the payments could get.

Often, this action had the desired result of both educating the students in the vicinity and depriving the company of one more debtor. In fact, this kind of "storytelling advocacy" was much more effective than handing out fact sheets with the same information.

Now, I'm not some absolutist freak who thinks that no one should have a credit card. I started graduate school without a credit card and actually made it through a couple of years with no credit, but it was difficult. Paying for books, conference registration, airfare, and hotels--really big expenses for a grad student on a very small stipend--was challenging! In fact, I may have had to borrow one of the gf's cards to get me by the first year I went to a national conference. I remember how relieved I was to get a credit card so I could pay for a hotel bill without being anxious. Credit cards do serve a purpose.

But the challenge is to keep spending on credit cards under control. The credit card companies don't make it easy, either. They offer limits that bear no relation to one's actual income--or lack thereof. They offer "points" and/or "frequent flier miles" that entice folks to use their credit cards for everyday bills. We do that, assuming we will pay them off at the end of the month, but then things come up and we let the balances grow.

I prefer the American Express kind of card--due at the end of the month--but I understand that it is nice to use credit cards for bigger items. That said, a lot of the bigger items (furniture, electronics, appliances) can be bought "same as cash" over a limited number of months. "Same as cash" is how we furnished our home.

But whenever I look at my credit card bills, I want to warn students about the troubles credit cards can bring. We don't teach students to balance checkbooks, to plan for their finances, or to think long-term about retirement. Isn't it too bad that they have to learn the hard way?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

How about just plain audacity?

Okay, I just need to write and say that Obama is amazing. His speech on race in Philadelphia is incredible. His thoughtfulness about this topic, and his hope that we can actually engage the issues of race and community, is one of the reasons I support him.

Please, if you do nothing else today, go read the speech at the New York Times website.

I talked to a friend the other day, a Hillary supporter, who actually told me that if Obama wins the nomination, she is not sure she can vote for him. I hope, after she reads this speech, she might reconsider.
He is definitely who I want answering the phone at 3am, making decisions for our country, and representing us abroad.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

No fighting?

Well, after two weeks at two different professional conferences in cities fairly far away from one another, I can honestly say that the Democratic primary has created a challenge for chillin' with my colleagues. Now, my discipline has people of various opinions, but mostly we are Democrats. This is especially true among my crowd, as I tend to hang out with the lesbians and gay men, both white and people of color, and black straight women. And this primary season, with its attendant nastiness, divisiveness, and intensity, has heightened tensions among people who tend to agree more often than we disagree.

The split for us falls along the lines laid out in recent polls: white older women (and some Latinas) tend to go for Hillary, other people of color (especially African Americans) and younger white folks (men and women under 45) are more likely to go with Barack. The line from most of my older, white, female friends (OWFFs) is usually about Barack's lack of experience. This is challenging for those of us who are Obama supporters, since Hillary's greater experience is mostly a product of her age and access as first lady. Oh, yeah, and she voted for the Iraq war.

Truthfully, when the campaigns began, I found both candidates quite impressive, but my support of Obama has grown as I have seen his campaign (and Hillary's) develop. I have also been so disgusted by commentary by the second generation feminists like Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro that it has made me start to resent Hillary. Bill's race-baiting in South Carolina was unforgiveable. Worse yet, in the last 16 years, I have grown to intensely dislike the crowd around Hillary, especially the Blue Dog Democrats (and Terry McAuliffe) that has sold us out for so long. (Anyone remember how Bill and the BDD worked against Howard Dean?) But enough of my argument against Hillary...

What has been interesting is how far my colleagues will go to avoid talking politics, especially my OWFFs. It is painful for all of us to have this wedge between academic compatriots who are working, in our careers and personal lives, to address the many intersecting issues of oppression and discrimination, including sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and racism. And it doesn't help when the media, and some of those old-time feminists I mentioned above, individualize, decontextualize, and pit oppressions against one another, trying to figure out which one is most important or most detrimental. And of course, both candidates are privileged in many ways--by education, access, role, gender or race, heterosexuality, religion, income, etc. We should never forget that.

But we also know, even as we acknowledge that identity doesn't determine our politics (see Margaret Thatcher), that our experiences influence our perspectives and insights. Barack's race and gender matter, as do Hillary's. And we have heard from their speeches and ads the many ways that these experiences do touch them and shape their approaches to policies. So, I get why we are often drawn to the candidate who resembles us most closely--even though that doesn't seem to gibe for me as a middle-aged white lesbian for Obama.

Looking back, I wish we had had more conversations about the Democratic primary race with one another. I think this would be a good time for all of us to think critically about race and gender, about politics, about coalitions and difference--to engage in the important political discussions that are swirling all around us. What better bar talk for engaged academics? Perhaps next year, I should go join the historians with Tenured Radical!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Student losses

I have several different kinds of entries fighting to be written about the recent deaths of young people, on junior high school and college campuses and in nearby communities, due to gun violence...

one political, about the need to fight the pro-gun advocates who want to force schools and colleges to allow guns on campus;

one lesbian feminist, engaging the ongoing and longlasting politics of violence against young women, gay men, and transgender teens, those who are in school and those who live and work outside the high school/college atmosphere; one emotional, sort of a "what the hell is happening to our young people when they can't even go to school without getting shot or shooting others?";

and another activist, wanting to encourage the state to support better mental health and criminal justice interventions.

I could argue about all of these positions simultaneously, because I believe that this rash of killings of junior high, high school, and college students involve so many factors.

But mostly what I feel is sad. We have lost so much, so many young people of great promise. Even the killer in the NIU murders had gifts and talents that were lost as a result of mental illness that went untreated.
We must continue to work for better schools, better supports for our youth--those that are facing bullying and oppression and even those who are causing it. We have to work for a better world--one with fewer guns, more understanding and community, and better services and supports to those in need.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Living in the "real world"?

Okay, so I went to a presentation the other day with staff from the university counsel's office, outlining their role in the university. I left especially irritated.

One of the representatives kept contrasting the university with "the real world" (read: the capitalist corporate system). Of course, this is nothing new. Any faculty member with family who live and work outside of higher education knows that we often have to defend the actions and practices of the university. But to hear a university employee talk about our workplace as something other than the "real world"... well, that was a trip.

According to the illustrious counsel, one example of the ways in which the university fails the "real world" test is in our employment processes. In the real world, employers can fire people at will, thanks to the right-to-work legislation in most states. (Obviously, this lawyer had not worked with businesses where workers were represented by unions. That is not surprising--few workers are represented by unions these days, though word is that they are making a small resurgence, at least in the service industry.)

For lawyers, firing at will is a gift, a freebie. Unless the fired employee can claim some kind of discrimination (and only based on those protected categories like age, race, and gender, by the way, not sexual orientation or gender expression), there is little recourse for him or her in court. So, there is not much heavy lifting for the lawyer in these cases.

The university's bothersome tenure procedures and protections make life difficult for university lawyers, especially when tenure is denied or tenured folks cause trouble. One of the lawyers intimated, in what was clearly a personal opinion, that the process of reviewing a tenure case that has been denied was a waste of time. Why? Because so many "impartial" committees had reviewed a candidate's packet by the time of a denial. The candidate is unlikely to win, and the sheer expense of time and energy by all members of the grievance process is hard to justify.

I disagree. So strongly, in fact, that I had to speak out in the moment. I explained that I have seen some terrible travesties when it comes to tenure. I have friends whose tenure bids were tanked by colleagues who were threatened by them. I have heard stories about university-level committees where they made fun of journal names and research topics listed on candidates' vitae. Outside reviewers can be selected because they are friends of tenure review committee members, even if they are not the best or fairest judge of the candidate's area. There has to be recourse to the inappropriate or unfair denial of tenure, because it just isn't as rare as it could be.
Futher, and underlying this whole argument and the claim that the university is somehow not the "real world," the lawyer was basically misunderstanding and dismissing the intrinsic role of tenure in the success of the university. As I noted before, tenure is not just an issue of job security for (relatively) economically privileged elites. Tenure guarantees the chance for the best of education and research, uninhibited (or at least only marginally inhibited) by political, economic, and social pressures within and outside of the university.

I wanted to note that in the "real world" the counsel spoke of outside academe, workers are exploited, fired for being gay or lesbian, not hired due to race and ethnicity, not promoted because they have the wrong (family) values, and pressured to work longer than federal law allows. Workers in the real world organize in unions, protest, and challenge the rights of employers to dictate the terms of their employment. The EEOC deals with numerous claims of discrimination in the real world, discrimination based on protected categories such as age, ability, race, gender, and veteran's status. Do we want to support that world as somehow better than academe? Or is it just better for institutional counsel?

Universities constitute a growing segment of employers. According to the 2005 Census, there are over 4,000 colleges, universities, professional schools, and junior colleges, employing over 1,290,000 instructional staff. These are real jobs in the real world. Calling it something else is disrespectful and dismissive.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Simple pleasures

Life on vacation is just fantastic. We arrived to find a great condo with a big living room, full kitchen, separate bedroom, and a patio with a view of the ocean. The water is so blue, you know immediately you are looking at the gulf.

We spent yesterday reading and sipping drinks in beach chairs and then sampling some of the local cuisine.

We agreed to not check our email, and we have kept our word. We have been online checking the news and watching the storms ravaging the country (everyone who doesn't have a tornado/severe storm/snow and ice warning, raise your hand?)...

Today was a **very challenging** day. Three hours of spa time, including a facial, massage, and pedicure (mine are the red toes (and sunburned pink foot); the gf got "black cherry chutney"). I am sure I have been this relaxed...sometime, though I cannot recall when.

One more day of being off email...which is proving to be challenging to me, if not the gf. And my conference starts Wednesday night. Until then, I will be reading the biography of Audre Lorde and enjoying the storm outside.