Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Can’t trust the younguns with the critical thinkin’.

File under: Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, No More Pencils, No More Books, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 2:59 pm.

Oh, for the love of God. You don’t see self-parody this good every day, so savour the moment as you witness an instance of the barrel of fish that is guerilla politics:

By my junior year of college I’d had enough of the credit card advertisements.

They were on every bulletin board on campus. They were on the boards in the mailroom, in the dorms, even on the boards of the various academic departments.

…I took down the ads. Every last one of them…I carried a staple remover wherever I went.

So the point here is, if you’re a college student, or a college professor, or even if you’re the parent of a college student: Get yourself a staple remover.

Well, speaking as a college instructor, my entire work rests upon the illusion that students are adults, capable of rational thought and analysis of the world around them. Consequently, I strive to challenge their brains with facts and theories, rather than shield their sensitive eyes from things that I’ve “had enough” of. So, last semester, rather than remove the ads whose revenue helps offset my students’ tuition and related fees, I addressed their mounting credit card debt in a fashion even more radical for this West Coast campus: I educated them.

My subversive political action was taken straight from the syllabus of the Discrete Math for Social Science course, required by all first year social science programs here at Island U. Sometime in November, between the linear program section and just before we got to probability, I taught a unit on financial mathematics. I found this section a lot less interesting than the rest of the course, but taught it with the same enthusiasm that I bring to all of my classes. And something strange happened: for the first time ever (other than at camp), my students were more interested in a topic than I was. One kid, who sat front row centre, summed it up: “This stuff is useful.”

In three or so weeks, my students learned how compound interest worked. They learned that paying a credit card bill two months late is more than twice as bad as paying it one month late. They learned that by putting $20/month in an RRSP, starting now, they’d be able to withdraw hundreds every month for retirement. They learned how much less of their own money they’d have to pay back on a loan if they set up a sinking fund. One day, after class, a student told me that she wasn’t going to make any more credit card purchases until her card was paid off. Another girl, fresh out of high school, informed me that she was going to start saving for her retirement now.

And, all due respect to Pink Floyd and all - that, kids, is the difference between education and thought control. Teaching can be a depressing vocation at times, but it would be a downright futile one if it truly were so that university students’ intellects were so fragile that they would forever be powerless to avoid getting sucked into a vortex of credit card debt, but for the valiant actions of those brave guerilla warriors who wield staple removers. (And even then, they’d only be safe on campus. Once they saw a billboard or turn on a television, there’d be no rescuing them.)

So the point here is, I’ll pass on the staple remover, I’ll turn down the offer of same should a concerned friend of mine present me with one, and I’ll kick the ass of give a good talking-to to any student of mine I catch removing credit card ads in the name of protecting their peers the unwashed masses.

But if I ever saw a student of mine defacing said ads with the compound interest equations and calculations pertinent to the interest rate offered - that, now, would be a happy day for this college educator.


  1. I confess: I pull down credit card ads when I find them posted on my campus. (However, I marvel that anyone needs a staple remover to accomplish this feat.) In my defense: the bulletin boards in our classrooms and office buildings are for posting departmental and course announcements, for campus events and midterm grades, for students seeking to obtain (or provide) tutoring, and stuff like that. Commercial interests who paper our boards with credit card adverts and fliers for off-campus stuff have to take their chances that we won’t reclaim our space as soon as their stapling minions have canvassed our school. Furthermore, my school is a humble community college with relatively low tuition (although the “Governator” in Sacramento is eager to screw that up) that encourages enrollment by low-income students. A lot of our students sign up to take arithmetic from us and are exactly the innumerate marks that credit card companies are happy to snag before they wise up. I’m going to keep tearing down those “easy credit” posters as quickly as they bloom in my classroom.

    - TonyB — 3/12/2005 @ 5:25 pm

  2. what’s a sinking fund?

    - Jen — 3/12/2005 @ 6:00 pm

  3. Tearing down ads in places that are reserved for academic notices is a different story. I have no problem with blocking off certain areas for certain types of notice.

    However, even the most innumerate students can process information of the form “the average amount of credit card debt per student is suchandsuch” and “if you have $X on your card and interest is y% per year, and you don’t pay off your card for five years, you’ll owe $Z.” Also, yeah, it’s disturbing that innumerate people will rack up massive debts when they don’t have the tools to understand what they’re getting into, but it’s even more disturbing that innumerate people over the age of are eligible to vote when they can’t critically evaluate the statistics trumpeted by politicians. If a lot of those students are at my college, should I bring my staple remover to the areas that sport posters encouraging them to register to vote? I’d rather try to inform them on the issues.

    Jen - a sinking fund is basically just a bank account that you deposit into at fixed intervals, which you then use to pay off a loan. That way you collect interest on your money, which then goes to pay off the loan.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/12/2005 @ 6:25 pm

  4. At my school they’re always giving out free t-shirts at basketball games for signing up for a credit card. And they usually seem to run out. Most kids are probably putting fake names and addresses (like I did a few times), but one figures this must be worth it to the company if they’re doing it.

    - Mike — 3/12/2005 @ 8:58 pm

  5. I’m not sure why you see this as such a stark either/or. You’re teaching your students why they’d be fools to take advantage of being taken advantage of, whereas I took a less subtle tack.

    I am curious, though, as to why educators would think it’s appropriate to offset some of the cost of their students’ tuition by selling ad space to marketers intent on duping those students into a vicious cycle of negative amortization. But, hey, I say paideia, you say potahto.

    More power to ya for teaching this stuff in class.

    - Fred — 3/12/2005 @ 11:31 pm

  6. I’m not sure why you see this as such a stark either/or.

    I believe A) in a free marketplace of ideas and B) that college students ought to be treated as the responsible adults they are. I just don’t see that it follows necessarily from these that C) therefore I must allow college students to be indiscriminately barraged with unscrupulous advertising which, through the future-constricting magic of negative amortization, actually serves to alter and diminish the meaning and content of that education.

    But hey, I say paideia, you say potato. More power to you for addressing this stuff in class.

    - Fred — 3/12/2005 @ 11:44 pm

  7. I gotta go with Fred here. You’re both on the good guys’ team. Why bother snarking on him?

    - Brandon — 3/13/2005 @ 12:11 am

  8. I am curious, though, as to why educators would think it’s appropriate to offset some of the cost of their students’ tuition by selling ad space to marketers intent on duping those students into a vicious cycle of negative amortization.

    Geez, you’d think that everyone who’d ever acquired a credit card was doomed to a life of debt. I’m a person who guards her privacy so carefully that I’ve been known to pay cash for plane tickets rather than use plastic, but even I can see that it’s possible to use credit responsibly. Credit card companies make money on interesst and late payments, sure, but that’s not how they stay in business. They stay in business because businesses have to pay a service charge every time someone makes a credit card purchase.

    I think that selling ad space to a company that wants only ad space and not, say, control over curricula (which some sponsors have been known to ask for at universities), is among the most acceptable ways of keeping tuition down that’s available to us these days. It’s certainly a lot more effective than students rallying for free tuition, which has accomplished absolutely nothing in the past few decades other than a handful of temporary tuition freezes that do nothing but defer high tuition (with interest) to the younger siblings of the protesting students. Students, as a group, have virtually no leverage. They can (and seldom do) vote every few years, but in between, they’re woefully unsuccessful at effecting any change in policy. Right now, my province has a government that, in addition to raising tuition, has busted unions, given massive pay cuts to health workers, and closed shelters. Student activists in my province consider our current government, the BC Liberals, to be positively evil, yet somehow seem to think that our leaders will (if only they’re asked nicely enough) to lower tuition, because Education Is A Human Right ™, the UN even said so. Unsurprisingly, tuition shows no signs of going down. It might after the next election, so, sure, students looking to lower tuition would do well to campaign to get the more tuition-friendly NDP into office, but in the intervening four years between elections, tuition’s just going to go up unless alternative means of funding are found. These include alumni donations (better than ads, but only generate so much revenue), and ads.

    Again, my students are adults. Those who were born in Canada are eligible to vote. If they can be trusted to make decisions about their government, I think they can be trusted to make decisions about their finances. If I didn’t think so, I’d give up on trying to teach them anything - there’d be no point. If I assume that they’re not adults and need to be protected from ads that might mislead them, they pay more to go to school. And that’s why it’s either/or.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/14/2005 @ 10:11 pm

  9. Good work! I do think any connection of math to practical application helps keep the interest levels up for maybe 80% of the students.

    In your financial mathematics piece, did you get into present value and discounting at all? It’s fairly scary that there are large numbers of people investing in the markets who don’t seem to grasp these concepts…

    - David Foster — 3/15/2005 @ 8:40 am

  10. It’s All About The Rate
    Last week Canadian college math instructor and blogger Moebius Stripper had an elegant post on her efforts to educate her students about compound interest:

  11. I guess I’d feel the same about credit card ads as Fred does, but in reality, I have been barraged with mail and advertisements for credit cards ever since I started college. It’s not like that stops once you graduate. There are ads on TV constantly, and I must get 10 credit card offers a week in the mail… and I don’t really think it has much to do with my credit.

    Shielding people from credit card offers is even harder than trying to shield them from internet porn: it’s just not going to happen. So ultimately, only educating will really help.

    OTOH, I think it’s a bit slimy of a university to sell advertising like that. But oh well, they’re going to do it anyway….

    - Moses — 3/15/2005 @ 12:37 pm

  12. The Carnival Of Education: Week 6
    We are pleased to present the sixth edition of The Carnival Of Education. What we have done is assemble a variety of interesting and informative posts from around the EduSphere (and one or two from the Larger ‘Sphere) that have been submitted by vari…

    - The Education Wonks — 3/16/2005 @ 1:47 am

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