“Panel 6: Student Debt: Individuated vs. Collective Responses,” MLA Subconference: Resisting Vulnerable Times, Chicago, IL, 9 January 2014

by si isa

9 January 2014 – Columbia College Chicago (Illinois)

9:30-11:00 AM: Panel 6: Student Debt: Individuated vs. Collective Responses

Moderator: Andrew Yale

Robert Oxford (American Studies, worked in NY with Occupy project, worked with TX communities affected by fracking boom; University of Texas-Austin)
Duke Collective [5] (individuals who pooled resources for collective self-sufficiency; Duke University)
Sara Appel (Dietrich School Postdoctoral Fellow; MS in progress Touchdowns and Devil Towns: Class and Cultural Politics of Friday Night Lights; ever-increasing US class inequality; more than 140K in student debt; University of Pittsburgh)

Direct action, consistent radical intervention as ongoing strategy, not just in moments of crisis.  Strategies for how to do that, new autonomous collective, moving forward, continue conversation, gathering more people.

MLA theme next year – “Negotiating Sites of Memory” – Vancouver, BC.  Thinking about locations, places for organizers to stay, contacts in Vancouver.  Annual ongoing event.  

Robert Oxford – Google+ Video – experiences with organizing in NY with Occupy and how it turned into a convo about debts in general, student debt in particular.  Critique the ideology of student debt, understand what the ideology of acquiring student debt means for the 21st-century college student.  Idea that debt is inevitable, a part of life in education, education mandated for success today in the knowledge economy.  For UGs this belief is especially true.  Old-school conservative notion of personal responsibility.  It would be a personal failure not to be able to pay off school debt through a high-paying career post-college.  Create awareness and an organizing structure to discuss student debt.  Ideology – cash-in, cash-out relationship with the university.  Ability to critique administrative bloat or tuition increase is lost because has little to no meaning in immediate career path.  Higher education means simply career path moment.  Tuition increase is part of this ideology, that a high price tag is expected & natural & can’t do anything about it, esp. at a prestige school; we’ve seen brave resistance at UC Berkeley and CUNY in past few years.  Brian Wider, “sinks and pools” of debt at university, financial issues that make irrelevant the purpose of the department, universities often are not taxed for income/expenditures, manage funds in such a way that can accumulate money off of tuition base, tuition increases and the university acts like an empire, must expand and must continue to expand beyond its borders or it dies, which is completely against the idea of a university.  Pooling money for large expansion projects – NYU for example, setting up campuses in the some of the most repressive places on earth – or more locally buying land for a retail purpose or something outside of education – NYU runs a credit-card scheme with its bond issuances, now in the billions, almost $2 billion in institutional debt, credit rating based on assets (retail holdings, art, all kinds of things which can be priced).  Empire Universities – UGs believe they must be there – excluding faculty in the interests of the institution itself.

Principles going forward, a way of refocusing the discussion from student debt to that of tuition and admin fees and monetary kickbacks to family members, tax free-loading, that sort of thing – what is most relevant: (1) Tuition should be free at public higher-ed institutions.  $62 billion – cost for federal gov’t to subsidize publid ed – a drop in the bucket compared to budget of federal gov’t.  Scale of money – get away from billions – talk abou campus level – admin fees and local finances.  (2) 0% interest loans for students who need them.  The way student-backed asset securities work from POS (fed gov’t) out into the invisible hand of the free market – it’s unfortunate the fed govt takes compounding interest on student loans – if education is such a priority.  (3) Private colleges/universities must open their financial books.  Keep it very close to the vest now, and for good reason on their parts – their kickbacks are way less scrupulous.  Use endowment funds to float their credit ratings as a way to bolster their ability to issue bonds and expand.  Reliant upon an endowment that works as hedge fund, not a pool for students.  (4) Write off all outstanding student debt.  May be utopian but still something we should keep in mind in the spirit of preserving the goals and mission of the academy in the 21st century.

Duke Collective – have been called that – but object – not least based on common disdain for Duke – collective is not restricted to students and not limited to Duke students.  Came together as friends in Durham living in proximity faced similar economic conditions.  Will not discuss debt.  Many of us did not have ability to incur debt – status as NRAs – lack of credit – had to do something else than incur debt.

Wage-sharing.  Pattern of atomization, compression, anxiety, depression, economic desperation.  Dept’s increasing adoption of market-oriented paradigms and professionalization.  Combat effects.  Perception of academia as meritocracy alongside increasingly shrinking funding opportunities.  Competition, not solidarity.  Colleagues, not friends.  Want to form intellectual community, not solitary.  Responsible conduct of research; ethics; — supposed focus of studies – only thing mentioned was plagiarism – others stealing your ideas – against community.  Subsistence tied to rituals of professionalization.

Pool or socialize wealth.  Sharing food, not just talking theory over food.  Began to matter less and less who received a grant, etc., or who was more in need, summer teaching, etc.  Dodge various practices univ used to instantiate competition.  Partners, children, out of funding cycle (6 or 7th year), clinging to dream of tenure, hoard privilege, no trust.  Dept and grad school controlled opaque process of grant distribution.  Requested that budget be made transparent – why no funding for 6th/7th years?  imposed from outside? what criteria for funding projects?  Make teaching field optional – MLA compatible – marketplace-oriented.  Assumption that scholarly work does not need to be done in an academic institution not accepted.  Treating academic work as labor was seen as being a freeloader.  Seizure and mediation of student awards.  Duke dept absorbs students’ external awards/grants to compensate for a student-funding-based budget gap put on dept by grad school!  Dept always at deficit and students expected to make this up.  Fellow students only accepted call for transparency in funding.  Academic wage labor became their utopian end, rather than a condition of their economic subjugation.

Isolate specific faculty members by approaching them in private to determine sympathies or apathy re: funding.  Faculty full of internal contradictions to exploit to advantage.  Galvanize fractured student body – no one could stand in opposition to financial transparency – unfortunately it became an end in itself, letting financial radical change be coopted by liberal desire to change but leave status quo intact.  Representation (no voting power, just presence on committee), not institutional change.  Inquiry into dept finances was revealing nonetheless – met with chair and director of grad studies — $60K surplus revealed rather than deficit although in previous years deficit was run with no consequences – kept in place for potential student need in future, stated – urged them to use the money – response: not fair to only fund one 7th year and not another, so neither should receive funding at all, even partial – usual insistence on lack of disclosure on how external funds were used – not “our” responsibility – displacement of responsibility onto grade school – faculty: privileged grad students in private institution, should take out loans as they had, assumption we were unaware of it, int’l students with no credit history can’t take out loans or work off-campus – suggestion that run a charity drive, $50 for copies.  “Whiny grad students” response.  Pattern of just sticking to studies being suggested by faculty who also ran professionialization boot camps.  How to get by in summer – summer teaching prohibited.  Deposit all income in same account and spend as need be – 3-6 members.  Concerns rose.  Still, socialization of wealth must begin with ourselves and our daily practices – necessity for structure and rules should be negotiated in the practices of the moment.

Sara Appel – recent Duke Ph.D. from literature – impressed that “Duke Collective” took on admin and proposed idea of collectivity – it’s about time – Appel took 9 years to complete Ph.D. and had to contend with same grant structures.  Class consciousness-raising and consciousness of wealth re/generation.  “A person must pay one’s debts” – some gesture toward repaying wealthier friend Emile’s loan/gift of $5000 – social capital exposure, key to beach house, “resource generation” (RG) – wealthy young people in a group, website, national, etc. – anti-oppression efforts.  Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building . . . reenvisioning what U.S. philanthropy could be – listening to rich kids confess and analyze nuances of class experiences – very edifying – indebted or indentured student experience.  Debt requires social contact to a privatized service – higher ed as a consumer good, job training, etc.  Let debt be analyzed as public policy of wealth, not meritocracy etc.  Speak public truth to expose secret hidden elements of class privilege.  Exorbitance has much in common psychically with poverty.  Avoidance of the topic.  Shame-addled relationship to wealth.  Self-stying hiding or passing.  Personal history of wealth/poverty buried inside academia’s mantle of meritocrity.  Order least expensive thing on menu, have friends drop you off at a place not actually your home but nearby.  Subprime mortgage crisis, seductive consequences of claiming American Dream without resources behind you.  Cronyistic, keep it in the family venture.  The more wealth you have, the more right to keep its accumulation private.  Dangerous to discuss family’s wealth – assumption of revolt, or class revolt from within ranks of the wealthy.  The impossible unfairness of things.  Exposure of family investments in unethical multinational corporations – feared.  Wealthy activists often don’t know how to begin using their resources for good.  How politically loaded concepts like entitlement and dependency get discussed.  You’d never be able to make it on your own; you deserve this money.  Wealth – freedom to make plans for dreams, take risks because have fallbacks.  Fear of being labeled dependent – characteristic silence of US class system.  Women, POC, and queer-identified – insectionality with class status.  RG pedagogy of wealth exposure – responsible philanthropy involving wealth transfer based on need – but the receiving end keeps control over how money is used.  Charter school investment erodes development of healthy public system, for example.  Must relinquish power over how money is used, actively invest and participate in public sphere.  Not paternalistically police return on philanthropic efforts.  Systemic critiques of capitalism.  Internally confront “the capitalism within our hearts” – Rye House.  Emily and Joe.  Sting of greed – need to trust others need what they claim – let go of feeling what one earns is one’s own – still marked by class/SE privilege.

Complacent silence with which wealthy accept and entrench private benefits.  Dismantle social contract even if requires giving up supposed personal benefits/desserts.

Q – Duke Collective – lived experience of pooling, collectivity – Responses: you always assume you’re the wealthy one and others will be draining your resources – solidarity? trust issue? my experiences: some objections politically based, projecting failure, to mask fact of lack of trust.  Building trust, solidarity – emerged out of our daily practice – roommates, shared food, very close to collectivity already – why not open a collective account, family model, happens all the time, not really irregular – move past confines of family as blood or nuclear or filial relationship – no other way to understand or accept collective.  What to do if one wants car, house, to start a family? – will figure it out as we get there.  Challenge own assumptions about why buy house or have nuclear family.  Fairly new project as yet.  Questions about members moving, leaving, getting TT jobs – not yet faced.  In geographic proximity, similar pay at present.  Internal problems – have been resolved by treating problems lightheartedly, jokes, basically giving each other shit.  Did you find that your spending patterns changed at all – No.  Part of the problem was actually encouraging people to use the money – guilt, not actually mine feelings.

Q – Robert – StrikeDebt, Dorothea’s mom, as a teacher knows that so few students aware of these issues Robert’s discussed.  Occupy the classroom.  Unpacking the White Backpack, the male knapsack, the tenured academic’s knapsack, needs to happen in the classroom from the first semester onward.  Must encode, engage in this information?  Get beyond lack of transparency that all of us suffer from, grad students, contingent faculty members.  – Robert: Teaching freshman comp, how to implement outside research on what it means to be a 21st-century student, consumer culture as a theme and what better place to start than right with their own experiences, not immediate activist culture visible on UT-Austin campus, isolates those who might want to be involved / do investigation into debt UG situation.

Q – Duke Collective – limited to friendship circle? more diff to build trust outside of existing relationships?  Yes, limited to friendship circle.  Now seven members.  Only Wels-Fargo Bank would allow them to do collective account although it’s quite a mundane enterprise.  Credit unions? – benefits of incorporation for tax breaks?  Problems with it though.  Bank said if hit fifteen members could incorporate.

Q – broaden nationally – write handbook online?  — Problem: have rules etc. in handbook – in classes, constantly discuss friendship – basically: pool money, spend as you will.  – Q: structure is good, not need to re-do groundwork — ?  — Response from panel: How we as friends support one another – at UNC – Chapel Hill, had to teach every semester, take the pressure off, make it a more productive space, neither students nor I feel exploited, share teaching moments in classroom (doesn’t have to do all this work on her own – other come in to help teach)

Q – for Sara and Robert – much slower process to bring in “outsiders” – what relationship status might be – intentional choice or organic model of project? – not just information you produce but collectivized and socialized, feeds into way organize life – difficulties around collectivizing student debt rather than collectivizing resources, legal obstacles etc.  – Sara: Rye House collective has a standard paying off of collective student debt among affinity group or model similar to Duke Collective, functionally and in forms of trust built, have institutionalized paying off student debt every month – how does that work for varying loans???  Family money that might go back to slavery – what is at the basis of it – is it indeed a meritocracy?  — how you feel when you might have put more into collective pool and feels like someone else is taking more.  – Robert: what does it say about our culture if you can’t repay your debt – personal responsibility mantra – not being used as an activist tool – people are left to suffer on their own – not politicized when people end up in default – use as a tool of resistance.

Q – small actions that produce cracks in the capitalist structure – which is enormous – nt necessarily asking what is the telos of all of this – but how do you see yourself taking on these huge structures? reconfiguration to get structures to crumble, not just be weakened by pockets of resistance?  — Sara: people with wealth must be part of convo; problem with opacity, lack of information; illusions of talent, merit, etc.; ability to take unpaid internships, etc.; mass coming out and listing of numbers; assign a text like Classified for students to read before first year. – Robert: Idea of money as private discussion must be confronted; silently and without much financial debate; generate conversation through line-item or almost receipt tally to show cost of making it look like there’s merit or talent; panel or pre-intake seminar for students; be careful about patronizing or insulting students who are on a financial precipice actually, may be first-time college attendees or background totally in debt to attend university. – Duke Collective: point of dissention internally among DC, but idea of making impact on big situation still resonates with imperial politics, so would rather think in very local terms.  Friendship question – systems do not establish power relations but envelope them from outside to fix them.  Pour out of these diagrams – friendship a way to dodge the diagram and not act within its fixture.  We basically do it on a very everyday basis.  Spirit of friendship not exclusive like nuclear family or couple.  Limits of course – ontology of individualism – we establish friendships – friendships a constant brokering of difference.

My thought – Strategies – dealing on a psychological as well as action-based level with institutional and individual responses which can be vicious.