A Welcome and a “Thank You”

By Bob Velez, President, GA United

 

temperamental-women            The fall 2014 semester is underway and I offer a “welcome” to new and returning SIU grad students!  We start off this new academic year with new leadership in both our union and the university administration.  Your GAU bargaining team is gearing up for meetings with the administration’s team to secure a new contract that will cover a multitude of items including stipend levels, benefits, and working conditions.  GAU will do our best to provide whatever information we can on the progress of these negotiations throughout the semester and we are optimistic that we will secure a fair contract that balances the needs of graduate students and the university.

 

GA United is, of course, part of the larger organized labor movement; a movement that has its roots in New Deal legislation that made collective bargaining legal and saw the birth of several unions including the American Newspaper Guild and the United Auto Workers.  Those unions, ironically, formed during a time of enormous strain on the U.S. Economy: the Great Depression.  Unemployment reached 25% in the United States and rose even higher in some other countries.  The widespread poverty and lack of opportunity notwithstanding, these trailblazers called for the labor provided by the workforce to be recognized as valuable to the business sectors they worked within and risked their jobs (and, sometimes, life and limb) to organize for better pay and working conditions.
minneapolis-teamster-strikeWhile we are currently not in a period of widespread want and woe, it is not uncommon for some segments of the population to criticize unions and the labor movement for seeking more for their members.  Its no secret that Illinois is in a precarious financial state and as public employees, our fates are inextricably bound to those of Illinois; at least for our time here at SIU.  While we make no guarantees regarding what we will be able to secure in our next contract, we do not apologize for a collective bargaining process that seeks to better the situation for our members.  State funding for higher education has been only one victim of the full frontal assault on public budgets over the last decade or so.

 

I invite new and returning grad students to join GA United.  As I said during the new student orientation this year and in several departmental meetings, more members gives us more clout at the bargaining table.  Membership has its privileges as well; not the least of which is having a say in the governance and operation of the union that represents you.  As an all-volunteer run union, we always need individuals to invest their time and energy in keeping our ship afloat.

 

strike-ends            One final note: you are receiving this newsletter over a “long” weekend.  While Labor Day is generally viewed as various things including the end of summer, the beginning of campaign season in an election year, and the deadline for wearing white clothing and accessories, it commemorates “the social and economic achievements of American workers” (http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm).  Some of those achievements include, but are not limited to: the 40-hour workweek, the end of exploitative child labor laws, and the weekend.  Some of these gains were bought with enormous sacrifice on the part of labor activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it is easy to take them for granted today since we rarely face the brickbats of business thugs and mercenaries eager to crack the skulls of “rabble-rousers”.  For their sacrifices and commitment to the cause of organized labor, I offer a heartfelt “thank you”.  It is my ultimate hope that we all spend time reflecting upon those that came before us and did the heavy lifting of securing for labor a spot at the table.

 

 

From a pain in the neck to Conscientização: The “untested feasibility” of humanizing the university

By James Anderson

The day before my 10-year high school reunion my neck and shoulder started aching.

This was not an ordinary ache, but a sharp and debilitating onslaught of unrelenting pain and stiffness.

While I made it to my reunion and managed to dance – hurting my ego far worse than my neck, the pain continued with the same severity for about a week.

Overwhelmed and in a world of hurt, it occurred to me: I am not as young as I used to be. The irony of the injury occurring the day before my high school reunion was not lost on me. To be human is to be fragile. Our fragility can increase with age and intensify with chosen vocation.

In addition to carrying a bag over my shoulder for too long the day before the onset of pain, another likely cause has to do with sitting hunched over a computer for hours typing away, which I have been doing regularly for some time now.

When I was TA my first few years at SIUC, I spent hours each day at a computer grading or responding to emails from students in my lab. These days I am at my laptop incessantly, either working on my dissertation or annotating texts in order to do more work on my dissertation.

CONSCIENTIZACAO_1234715043PWorking through the pain and the second chapter of my dissertation this last week, I had occasion to return the writings of Paulo Freire, the seminal thinker in the critical pedagogy movement and a major influence on the philosophical-historical approach for my project.

Throughout his work, Freire argued humans, as sentient beings, are not just conscious but also conscious of being conscious. We have an innate capacity to objectify our existing reality and reflect upon it. By critically apprehending our reality, we represent it so as to pose it as a problem. We question how it came to be so. Tracing the genesis of the problem, we consider how its historical context normally conceals but can also reveal the way unjust relations are reproduced. We problematize the normality of present configurations, evaluate how commonsense assumptions elide injustice, and assay the prevailing practices producing subjects geared to thinking in ways conducive to maintaining unjust arrangements.

As “beings of praxis,” according to Freire, humans unite action and reflection. Our endowment for objectification of experience enables critical reflection upon the world, which enables us to project beyond what is and posit what could be. Informed by our imaginary, we can transform the world. Transforming the world “is to humanize it,” wrote Freire, who qualified that transformation can lead to humanization (realization of potentials) or dehumanization (an increase in the gap between what we are and what we could or want to be).

This poses a problem. Provided we use our capacities for conscientização, for the in-depth perception of contradictions, we recognize these alternatives subject to our action. Realization of the possibility for making the world more just emerges, for Freire and many of us, as the desired course of action and object to be achieved.

To maximize our potential we need to be both physically and psychologically healthy. When graduate assistants are expected to accomplish more during the 10 or 20 hours they are contracted to work on average each week, this leads to one of two negations of our potential. It either pushes a GA to increase the intensity of labor at the expense of physical or psychological health, or it results in a GA quietly working longer than his or her contract specifies, which can imperil health and impede a person’s success as a student when overwork without remuneration impinges on graduate studies.

“The problem of graduate student overload without proper compensation is a serious one that I have frequently seen during my nearly three decades in higher education across multiple universities,” James Garvey, who recently assumed new responsibilities in the graduate school at SIUC, just told GAU.

He added that GAs “should not tolerate over-commitments that tax their degree progress, interfere with their lives, or strain their health.”

While exploitative overwork cannot be blamed for my neck injury – or the fact I feel old because 10 years have passed since I graduated high school – it has no doubt been injurious to the health and degree progress of other GAs.

As Garvey suggested, this is not limited to SIUC. It is a problem afflicting cash-strapped universities across the country increasingly reliant upon the low wage labor of graduate students.

But graduate student workers nationwide no longer see it as inevitable.

Ana Maria Araújo, who Freire married and affectionately called “Nita,” explained in the notes to her husband’s book, “Pedagogy of the Heart,” that the notion of “untested feasibility” pertains to a “belief in the ‘possible dream,’ and in the utopia that will come once those who make their own history wish it so.”

In critically articulating themselves as workers – woefully undervalued workers – members of United Auto Workers local 2865, the graduate student-workers union at the University of California, committed to the struggle for a better contract. Rejecting the notion that an academic labor utopia would be awarded as a gift, their union argued “there are only gains that we win for ourselves, together, fighting.”

The Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, the democratic reform caucus within UAW 2865, advanced their struggle by advocating social justice unionism, which encompassed promotion of internal participatory democracy for rank-and-file empowerment and formation of an “Anti-Oppression Committee” committed to addressing issues of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia/transphobia.

As a result, student-workers at UC “made big gains on both bread-and-butter and social justice issues,” in their new contract, Katy Fox-Hodess, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and a guide on the UAW statewide executive board, noted publicly.

Natasha Raheja, a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University and a member of the NYU grad union, GSOC-UAW local 2110, implored leadership to recognize the possibilities demonstrated by their sister union in California. Raheja suggested a “member-led contract victory” – set to be the first for private sector student workers at a university in the US – “will reverberate across the academic labor movement.”

Graduate Assistants United is now negotiating a new contract with the University. While conditions in Carbondale differ from the situations in New York and California, the struggle to humanize the university resonates with us. Conscious reflection upon how best to overcome conditions that limit potentials animates us as students and as workers, as it surely does those who labor and study at UC and NYU.

And we must recognize the limiting situation as more than just a proverbial pain in the neck, as it were. Following Freire and a long history of labor and syndicalist mobilization, we can recognize the situation as an open-ended reality ready to be transformed by solidarity and struggle. The new semester offers new opportunities for testing the feasibility of this.

 

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

 

 

James Garvey Talks with GAU

Having recently accepted additional responsibilities for the graduate school, James Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research and professor in zoology who writes sci-fi fantasy novels in his spare time, also accepted a request for an interview with GAU. Our union asked him about his new responsibilities, the condition of the graduate school, work conditions for graduate assistants and the protagonist with earth-communing superpowers from one of his novels.  

 

GarveyGraduate Assistants United: Susan Ford delayed her retirement to serve as interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. As a result, you’ve been given additional responsibilities in the graduate school. How do you feel about your new role and about the state of the graduate school?

Dr. James Garvey: I am delighted to provide my services to the Graduate School. My days as a graduate student were among the best I ever had. It is my hope that I can provide a similarly positive experience for the graduate students here at SIU. I’ve been working at graduate training for the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences and the Department of Zoology as Professor and Director for several years and hope to take some of the tricks I learned and apply them to the whole university. I can’t do this alone. Thankfully, Provost Ford left me with a very capable, highly motivated, and extremely positive staff in the Graduate School. They make my new job fun and enriching.

The state of the Graduate School is strong. Enrollment is up, especially in terms of international students. With many new faculty members arriving on campus this fall and several novel graduate programs on the way, we should see graduate students increase in prominence on campus in the near future.

GAU: What are some of the biggest problems, and some of the most promising aspects of the graduate school you’re now partially administering?

Garvey: As with all things, the biggest problem for the Graduate School revolves around funding. We’d like to provide more fellowships, assistantships, and tuition support for our students, although resources for these opportunities are thin. My goal is to help identify sources of support through alumni, industry, professional graduate programs, and agencies to assist in the financial health of our student population. Another challenge is getting the word out to potential students about what a great place SIU is for graduate study. The world is becoming increasingly crowded with conflicting information about the job market, the fate of academia, and the utility of a graduate education. Graduate School is not for everyone. But for many fields, a solid graduate degree is necessary to be competitive in life. We need to better showcase the successes of our students and draw on those great stories to grow our Graduate School.

Our graduate students are chock full of promise and have accomplished amazing things. Without our graduate students and their hard work, SIU’s mission as a research-intensive institution with access for all would grind to a standstill. Also promising is the large number of new faculty members coming to campus, who will teach more courses, provide fresh ideas, and help our graduate students grow as professionals. SIU has a great infrastructure for doing research and creating scholarly works. We are renovating labs and studios and are watching a new interdisciplinary research facility on west campus come to life. These resources will provide unique opportunities to do cutting edge graduate work.

GAU: Many graduate students are also employed by the university as Graduate Assistants. All GAs are represented by Graduate Assistants United and are covered by the union’s contract with the Board. The union is in the process of bargaining a new contract. What do you think are the biggest issues facing GAs that could possibly be better addressed in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and make it easier for GAs to be healthy and successful graduate students?

Garvey: Graduate school is an interesting mix of work, lessons, and play. Many graduate students are lucky enough to get an assistantship, with a corresponding tuition waiver. My parents never really understood this about me when I was getting my masters and PhD degrees– that I could get a professional degree and be paid for it. The concept is sincerely a good one. Schools like SIU can attract the very best students and exchange a higher degree for the good fortune of having talented, smart people help the faculty enrich the academic environment, stimulate undergraduate education, and create knowledge.

Most graduate students have unique needs and expectations that their academic cousins in professional tracks like law, medicine, and business do not. A high-paying career is not guaranteed after graduate school, making the notion of racking up high debt post-baccalaureate prohibitive. Look at me. I scored a PhD in ecology, studying fish. If I could not get economic support as a graduate student, I would never have pursued a career path I love, and society would be less one fish squeezer. Perhaps I am not the best example, but graduate school ensures that smart people take a bit of a risk to better their world and help train generations of people who go on to better, fulfilling lives.

To stay competitive, to ensure that our graduate students do their very best, and to simply do the right thing, SIU and other universities need to balance high expectations for our graduate students with their unique needs. Graduate Assistants United is a way for students to speak with one voice to SIU and ensure that they have fulfilling, productive lives. I can see many important issues that our students need to consider, including fair workloads, a comprehensive health plan, a fearless workplace, and competitive stipends. Students need to keep the perspective that they are getting a valuable degree to do something they are passionate about for a decent price and that cash-strapped universities like SIU have limited resources to give.

GAU: What is your impression of GAU, and how important is it for graduate students who work as GAs to be involved with the union?

Garvey: Collective bargaining is part of the fabric of shared governance, such as the Graduate Professional Student Council, that SIU celebrates. As with all forms of unions, the collective unit must represent the needs of all its members, not just those that choose to pay their dues. This is the grand challenge facing GAU and other bargaining units on campus– getting the silent, non-participants to join and engage so that their voice is heard when dealing with the very important issues facing graduate education at SIU. Educating graduate students that their dues translate to binding contracts with teeth is critical for all sides, including SIU’s administration, to be successful.

GAU: Student fees for the 2012-2013 academic year totaled $3,352.68, according to the SIU Institutional Research and Studies Factbook. Based on the different wages for GAs listed in the back of the existing contract between GAU and the University, the average assistant in a PhD program on a 50 percent assignment earns $1,633.91 per month, or $14,705.19 for the academic year. That average GA thus pays more than two month’s pay back to the University in fees for the academic year. GAs also pay the full amount for parking, which affects those who have to drive to the university to work. Is all this acceptable?

Garvey: I suspect that fees and other costs of campus life will be a topic of deep consideration in the near future. Increased fees are a result of many complex factors including shortfalls caused by caps on tuition, which GAs do not pay but undergraduate students do, the cost of running the physical plant of SIU, which includes our parking lots, roads, and public safety, and the rising costs of non-optional needs like health care and potentially optional ones like recreation, mass transit, and the environment (i.e., green fee). Graduate students need to consider the benefit of paying fees that enhance the university environment and experience versus the loss of these resources, not only to themselves, but also to the integrity and value of the institution to undergraduates, who pay for the lion’s share of SIU’s costs. Alternate funding mechanisms to cover fees such as off of grants and through donations should be explored as ways to offset the burden of costs of graduate education.

GAU: SIUC has yet to become fully compliant with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The current Student Health Insurance Plan has been criticized for being underfunded, and it is expected that it will soon no longer be certified to meet the minimum essential benefits required by law. What is the reason SIUC has not yet adopted a new fully compliant plan, and what do you think the solution is to ensure that students have accessible, affordable and quality health care?

Garvey: The sad truth about all public universities like SIU is that these schools are rapidly losing the support of public tax dollars and operating more like private institutions. Costs like health care, employee salaries and benefits, maintenance, and energy are rising, while oversight of tuition income continues to be driven by state officials, who are rightly reluctant to allow educational costs to rise for their constituents. The administration of SIU has tried, with arguable success, to control costs, but health care is taxing our limited budget. The university is in the process of seeking affordable, comprehensive health care plans for all our students, but our fiscal uncertainties combined with a rapidly changing health care market make it difficult to find an appropriate plan, especially as it pertains to the unique and varied needs of graduate students.

GAU: Under the ACA, employers like universities are obligated to provide employees working 30 hours or more per week with fully compliant health insurance. After passage of the ACA, the graduate school limited GA workloads to no more than 20 hours per week (a .5 FTE). “This restriction relates to the university’s current understanding of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the way [graduate assistant] benefits will be determined,” read an email, obtained by Inside Higher Ed and sent by Susan Ford to deans, chairs and directors at SIUC regarding the new GA workload limits. “This restriction is consistent with practice being enacted at universities across the country and put in place after consultation with the various offices involved with [graduate assistant] benefits on campus.” Given that the university has yet to become fully ACA compliant, is there a possibility for making an exception again for .75 FTE GA assignments, which some graduate students needed in order to make enough money to pay bills?

Garvey: I would say that the graduate students have reason to be optimistic that a reconsideration of the caps on workload assignments for graduate assistantships will occur soon.

GAU: Per the existing agreement between GAU and the Board of Trustees, GAs have a specified number of hours they are supposed to work on average per week. While many GAs work those average number of hours (10 or 20), anecdotal evidence suggests some are also increasingly expected to do more work during the same amount of time – to grade more papers, research faster, etc. As with other jobs, when the intensity of labor is increased above a certain point, it can be detrimental to the physical and psychological health of the worker. Unduly increased work intensity for GAs can negatively affect an assistant’s studies as a graduate student and adversely affect the university because it compels reduction in quality of teaching and/or research. How serious is this problem, and if serious enough, what can be done about it?

Garvey: The problem of graduate student overload without proper compensation is a serious one that I have frequently seen during my nearly three decades in higher education across multiple universities. It is not unique to our time or to SIU and will always be a challenge in academia where it is difficult to parse apart various roles of teaching, mentoring, research, and studying. Graduate students need to be vigilant of their workload obligations and should not tolerate over-commitments that tax their degree progress, interfere with their lives, or strain their health. Any student with a valid complaint needs to document their working conditions and report them to their Graduate Director and/or me immediately. If we can’t straighten out the problem, there are clear rules for mitigation as outlined by the GAU contract.

GAU: Dr. Ford has said the university is searching for a permanent dean for the graduate school to begin in January, which is when she had initially planned to retire. Any chance you will be that dean?

Garvey: I love graduate education and enjoy this job immensely. I might consider applying.

GAU: “Both Darwin and Snoopy will be waiting for me in the afterlife, waiting to give me a tour,” you wrote on your blog. “I fear the voice of glory might sound like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon rather than a glorious celestial orchestra playing for peace and goodness.” On that blog, you also plug your book, “Earth Rising,” a sci-fi fantasy set in a world where human cities have fallen and nature flourishes, in which you tell the story of protagonist Amy Marksman who discovers she has amazing powers to commune with the earth and see little green people. What would Amy say is awaiting GAs in the afterlife, and what advice would she give to GAs who are struggling for better conditions in this world?

Garvey: Oh, you read my blog and cite my book. I’m not sure whether I should be embarrassed, flattered, or humbled. Amy Marksman is a dear character to me and goes through some pretty harrowing experiences. I hope Graduate School is a cinch in comparison. And if you see little green people like she does, you might want to visit the Student Health Center. Amy would say that you get what you work for, no matter how daunting the task. If you fight for what is right and just, stand up for yourself, and keep a positive attitude during your graduate career, life after graduate school will be rewarding and fulfilling, even if you have a few scars and wrinkles to show for it.

 

Thursday, August 14, Happy Hour @Melange

happy-hour-melange