By James Anderson
Graduate Assistants United provided new graduate assistants at Southern Illinois University Carbondale an introduction to the union during orientation at the start of the fall 2014 semester in August. GAU also provided those incoming GAs with 250 donuts.
“That was thanks to me,” said Natalie Nash, 26, the union’s new vice president for membership. She said she specially ordered the confectionary from Larry’s House of Cakes, a shop on Main Street in Carbondale known for baking fresh desserts daily.
Nash, who, along with President Bob Velez, gave the union presentation at orientation, said not many donuts were taken as students were going in, so she and Velez started to get worried.
“You know, we did the speech and we were like, ‘And there’s more donuts outside!” and by the next break they were gone, Nash said.
Nash, a graduate assistant and teaching assistant in zoology, said people “didn’t seem too bored” by the union’s delivery. She said she was possibly “too nervous to realize if they were” bored or not.
Nash, who has done improvisational comedy and theater, said she nevertheless felt confident “the union was very warmly welcomed” at the big orientation and during all the different department orientations she attended.
She attended almost 10, including the ones for art and design, music, rehabilitation, zoology and the big orientation with Velez.
“She was very good, very articulate,” Velez said about Nash’s performance during the university-wide GA orientation. He said he trusts the work they did and continue to do “will bear fruit.”
Now a TA for Zoology 118: Principles of Animal Biology, a class also for non-majors, Nash hopes the fruits of her pedagogical labor are realized as well.
As the TA for the course, which she facilitated during the spring 2014 semester too, Nash attends two lectures, teaches three lab sections and has one-hour office hours for each of those sections every week.
In the class, she said students – among other things – do science experiments; learn more about the scientific method; get into the nuances of cellular structure; study the basics of muscles, tissues and organs; discover the dynamics of diffusion; and explore the ins-and-outs of mitosis and meiosis.
Because it is a class for non-majors, “you don’t get people as enthusiastic about the subject matter,” and sometimes students are “dragging their feet because they have to be there.”
They “sometimes” get sassy, she said. Nash said she tries to make the subject interesting for those non-majors who otherwise might not be as engaged with the subject matter.
Early education at home
Nash said she generally enjoyed school growing up, but she learned in a unique setting where there was little cause for sass. She was homeschooled from first grade through high school.
“It really just allowed me to be kind of true to myself,” she said. It was quite “structured,” although Nash said she could choose the order of what they worked on each day.
While she said her homeschool experience and extra-curricular activities exposed her to a multiplicity of perspectives and opportunities, she noted not everyone who is homeschooled is as fortunate and some only get to see one viewpoint.
“I think that is a shame,” she said. But the “homeschool network” she and her family were a part of encouraged critical thinking attuned to many views, she said, noting that she took karate classes and swimming classes at the YMCA and was interacting with other kids there as well.
Nash lived in Maplewood, Mo., an inner-ring suburb just outside of St. Louis, while growing up. She would have been in the Maplewood and Richmond Heights school district if she went to public school.
But her mother decided when Nash was in kindergarten that she wanted to take on the responsibility of educating her at home.
Her mother taught Nash and her sister who is two years younger. She also tutored a friend’s brother who was autistic, Nash explained.
On top of that, her mom landscaped their “really big backyard” and “probably repainted every room in the house like, twice, over the past 25 years,” Nash said.
After taking care of her grandparents throughout Nash’s childhood, her mother is now taking care of the neighbors in their old age.
“We’re all Irish, so we’ve got that bond,” Nash said about the relationship her family has with neighbors.
She did not grow up in a distinctly Irish neighborhood, however.
“There is an Irish neighborhood – ‘Dogtown’ – but this one was not,” Nash said. “So that’s kind of why we were so close.”
While her mother oversaw most of the homeschooling, she said her father worked as a bartender at a few places, including Union Station, when she was growing up. For a short period of time he also worked at Washington University so the kids could enjoy the family dental plan, she said.
He also worked – and still works – as a bartender at The Schlafly Taproom on Locust Street in St. Louis.
“He’s the only bartender there with gray hair,” Nash said about her dad, who is also the oldest server there behind the bar.
But he knows his stuff, Nash intimated when recounting visits she and her dad have made to the taproom’s other Maplewood location.
“So we’ve gone there together for breakfast,” she said, “and the manager there has walked up to my dad and asked his advice on a reservation issue that came up.”
Community college to Thailand and back again
Nash, who started community college at 16 and graduated three years later with an “English-heavy” associate degree, has also received some fortuitous advice – not only from her father, but from a friend who was an entomologist, studying insects.
After taking a biology class at community college and then enrolling at Webster University in St. Louis to pursue a bachelor’s in the discipline, she said she realized the related field of zoology was her passion.
“Plan A” – which was in her mind by the time she was doing undergraduate work at Webster – “is to get a PhD in zoology and become a university professor,” she said.
Webster, which she said has dedicated teachers, does not have “a whole lot of research opportunities, and they don’t really have zoology.”
So she asked her entomologist friends for advice on what other universities to look into for research experience.
“She actually told me to contact UIUC [University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign], but all I remembered was IUC, and so when I Googled it I came up with SIUC,” Nash recounted. “And so I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll contact them.’ And so I just kind of asked around if anybody would be needed a lab technician.”
Someone did. She landed a paid position and worked 20 hours per week in the lab at SIUC during the summer of 2011, right before her senior year at Webster.
So she considered SIUC, among other schools, as the place to pursue a master’s degree.
But first she set her sights abroad.
Webster has a campus in Cha-am, Thailand, about two hours south of Bangkok. She opted to attend school there for a semester as an undergrad, living in the nearby beach resort city of Hua Hin while overseas.
In addition to the vast “multicultural experience” of taking classes in a different country with a lot of Thai students as well as many from Europe, she said she took classes she wouldn’t have otherwise. Since the Cha-am campus did not offer many biology courses, she took classes in international relations, human rights, critical thinking and roots of religion during her semester abroad.
Later, she took a two month trip “and just kind of, you know, blew all of my savings because I figured I wouldn’t be traveling again for all of grad school,” she said about traveling to Europe and back to Thailand with one of her friends.
Coming to Carbondale, despite the fees
After taking a year off following graduation from Webster, Nash started at SIUC in August 2013.
Nash said she could have ended up somewhere else, however, if not for semi-ambiguous wording in the acceptance letter SIUC sent her.
Student fees per semester at SIUC are about what the fee total is for the entire academic year at UIUC, Nash noted.
“Because of that and the way it was worded in my acceptance letter [from SIUC], I made the unfortunate assumption that the listed fees was for the whole year here,” she admitted.
Looking back, she said she could see what was meant with the wording, but because of the way the letter said fees are about $1,500 for fall and spring semester, she assumed that was for both semesters combined.
If she would have realized how much graduate students – and those who work as graduate assistants, employed by the university – pay in fees at SIUC, she said her choice of universities might have been different.
“I honestly don’t know if I would have come here,” Nash said.
Nash added that because she had some money saved, she managed to not take out any loans as an undergraduate. Circumstances changed once she came to Carbondale.
“I have to take out student loans now even thought I have a stipend, and tuition waiver and everything,” she said.
The situation is “daunting,” Nash said.
Problematic language, institutional problems
There are many reasons, Nash said, she loves the university and the master’s program in zoology – which is why, she acknowledged, she might have decided to go to graduate school at SIUC even if she knew coming in the exact cost of the fees. But, she pointed out, there are pressing issues that need to be addressed, on campus and on a broader societal level.
To the point, a lot of sexism at the university occurs “without men being aware of it,” she said, because it does not “occur to them to think about how women are socialized” to offer help, be caregivers and make other sacrifices as those disparate power relations become normalized.
Like with racism, privilege prevents those who are not as oppressed from recognizing oppression, she said.
“You can still have a sexist action even though you are not sexist, even though you didn’t intend it to be,” she added, underscoring the ways in which sexism – as well as racism, both of which affect GAs as students and as workers, Nash contends – operate not just at the individual level but become institutionalized.
Nash, who said she identifies as a lesbian, also pointed to the normalization of “rape jokes” on campus as problematic.
When helping an undergraduate club a while back and participating in the organization’s events, she said she heard “rape jokes” five times. Nash said she called out those who made the jokes every time. People should really question whether “it’s acceptable to use rape as an adjective,” she added.
In contrast, there are other serious uses of the word where the answers are not so easy, she acknowledged.
For example, Belén Fernández recently used the phrase “Neoliberal Rape” in a headline for an article about the culpability of the dominant social system – and a market-fetishizing mentality – regarding rape of women in Spain.
Fernández noted rape victims are often blamed for their crimes, similar to how victims of the financial crisis “were made to pay for the crimes of the elite; in 2012, the Associated Press reported that there were no fewer than 500 home evictions being carried out per day, prompting rampant suicides.”
The “neoliberal system predicated on the violent severance of interpersonal bonds such that no human solidarity can challenge the reign of capital” also fosters collective insecurity, Fernández added. This gets “repackaged as individual insecurity to be dealt with on an individual basis, with no acknowledgement of structural causes,” so marketing of “products like anti-rape nail polish and rape-resistant underwear” individualize the problem and attempt to address it through commodification with predictable consequences, she suggested.
Vandana Shiva, a physicist and eco-feminist environmental activist who won the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1993, has used the word in another serious context after a series of thousands of incidents of rape were reported in India several years ago.
“When there were the—the epidemic of rape started with December last year in India, you know, I did a piece that connected a violent economy, which thrives on the rape of nature, but also then creates social systems where men have no work, they have no meaning, and they’re seeing Bollywood films all based on sex and violence,” Shiva said in December 2013.
The point is “we need to see these connections a bit more,” argued Shiva, who also founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and its offshoot the Navdanya biodiversity program committed to promoting “Earth Democracy” and rejuvenating indigenous knowledge and culture.
Shiva underscored those connections in an editorial deploring the relations of debt and despair created by Monsanto, headquartered in the greater St. Louis area not far from where Nash grew up. Monsanto controls 95 percent of the cotton seed market in India through its genetically-modified organisms, Shiva wrote, and the corporation commodified the common resource of farmers – seed – into “intellectual property” from which it collects royalties and extracts profits as farmers’ debt and the consequent debt-induced suicides grow.
“Uncivilized people rape the Earth for today,” Shiva said about what corporations like Monsanto and the fossil fuel industry do to the natural world.
Nash said the “rape of the land” is undeniably a serious issue, although she understands why other people would be opposed to the language in this context.
“Whether or not it is OK, it’s definitely, it’s incredibly different” from using the word “rape” in a joking way or as a wholly inappropriate adjective to describe success over something, Nash said.
The undergraduate club she worked with has since taken initial steps to discuss the problems with the latter usages, she said.
But Nash emphasized the persistence of the problem. She also acknowledged the efforts of Emma Sulkowicz, a rape survivor who has been carrying a dorm room mattress around with her everywhere she goes on Columbia University campus until her rapist is expelled or leaves.
Seeking justice within existing institutions fraught with institutionalized racism and sexism has proven problematic elsewhere.
The Oklahoma NAACP recently called on the Justice Department to investigate the case of an Oklahoma City police officer accused of rape.
Two African-American brothers who spent more than 30 years behind bars after being found guilty of rape and murder were exonerated this year. In June, New York City agreed to pay $40 million to the five black and Latino men – the “Central Park 5” – who spent years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of raping a female jogger.
Acknowledging the racism entrenched within the system, Nash said it is also important to remember the notion that victims of rape often make false accusation is false.
Further, when a rape victim really comes forward it “does not ruin a person’s life,” and rapists ruin their own lives when they decide to rape, she said.
Unions at University: Degrees of benefit and benefits beyond the degree
Regarding sexism and racism on campus, the University of California Student-Worker Union, UAW local 2865, created an “Anti-Oppression Committee” to address those problems as part of a “social justice unionism” approach, which Nash said sounds promising.
As regards other injustices at the university, she said the situation GAs at SIUC face is “unjust on the broad contract level,” although things vary at the departmental level and in the workaday relationships across assistantship appointments.
Stipends across the board could “probably could be higher,” she admitted.
GAU is bargaining a new contract with the University this semester, and stipends are high on the list of items for the union to address.
Nash said the benefits for becoming a member and getting involved are more direct this year because of the bargaining. But some people do not know what the union does, she said, which prevents participation, as does somewhat understandable but self-centered thinking.
“You can benefit from the union without paying the dues,” Nash said about the general situation improving for all GAs, even those who do not support the union or opt not to pay the $23 per month to join the union. “And I think a lot of people just ride it through that way.”
The union should and must still struggle for all assistants, said Nash, who joined the union the first weekend she came to SIUC.
It should not be “an exclusive club” either, she said, but rather open to and attentive to the needs of all GAs, especially because the University is not.
“It feels like grad students aren’t a priority of SIUC,” Nash said, qualifying with “maybe this school is going to be a little more union friendly,” given recent changes in top-level administration.
She said “there’s not enough pressure on the university,” however. “I don’t feel like they feel pressured at all.”
But pressure must come from below.
Nash, who for her thesis plans to study the dispersal of the southern pine beetle with the help of advisor John Reeves, stressed opportunities for putting pressure on the University to improve conditions for GAs are related to pursuing the possibilities the University setting offers.
“Graduate school is so much more than just your thesis,” said Nash, who will still research different samples of beetle populations, run “micro-satellites” to determine if the insect populations in Louisiana are genetically similar to those in Mississippi.
There are more species of beetles than there are species of mammals, Nash said before reiterating the rationale for not limiting your life to only degree-directed research.
She said supporting each other in the union helps grads “stay grounded,” and meet people with many different perspectives from different departments to better understand what campus is like for everybody.
“Don’t get lost in your research,” she advised.
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.