Letter from Birdland | A cause worth supporting

Letter from Birdland | A cause worth supporting

In Birdland, the winter is turning the corner to spring. I see it in the slight greening of the grass and the bulbs coming up, little nubbins of bright green emerging from the soil.

I love these seasonal cycles, and I notice that in teaching, my work follows similar cyclical patterns.

My students are deep into their research, and I know they will emerge in a few weeks, having developed and supported their theses, with a new crop of argument research papers.

I walk across campus and hear the unmistakable call of another academic cycle. It's not semi-annual, like my undergraduate research cycle, but a sporadic response to habitat fragmentation.

I hear the courageous protest of the GEO, the Graduate Employee Organization. The GEO flock spends its semesters deep in scholarly work: researching, writing, teaching and supporting their colleagues in the larger ecosystem of the academic community.

However, under times of great stress, it has been known to emerge as one unified organism, leaving classrooms and carrels for the open air of the Quad, where its heroic calls resound throughout the campus.

Yes. Strike season is upon us. The call of the picketing GEO can vary from loud drumming, clapping, whistling, clanging resembling cowbells, whooping and ululating, to a more melodious, rhythmic singing. At times, one voice will emerge and lead the rest of the flock in a call-and-response-type demonstration of solidarity.

The GEO is seeking a contract, one which will enable it to do its best work in nurturing undergraduate students, researching ideas and adding rich and intelligent voices to the scholarly conversations that are the most vital part of the university. A crucial component is the protection of tuition waivers for graduate students, who have at least a 25 percent appointment to teach or do research.

The habitat of the GEO is the Land Grant University in Illinois, which evolved from the original Academic Community (for all practical purposes, only accessible to the very wealthy). In 1862, an act donating public lands to the several states and territories which may provide colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the mechanic arts (or the Morrill Act, for short) helped create the great land grant universities.

By way of benefiting the agricultural and mechanical arts, the University of Illinois also became habitat favorable to the growth of an educated populace within the state. No longer did the farmers and workers of Illinois have to be wealthy enough to send their sons and daughters to travel and pay tuition to an Ivy League school; they could send them closer to home for a tuition of $5 per term (in 2018 dollars, adjusted for inflation, that's $80.01).

By contrast, according to the Yale University Catalog of 1867, tuition at Yale was $60 a term. Consequently, by providing an environment conducive to scholarly pursuits, the state reaped benefits in industry and agriculture, as well as in the liberal arts, fine arts and social sciences, all while providing greater opportunities for advancement of its citizens.

However, since its inception, the land grant university habitat has gradually been eroded, and we are in danger of having education again become a rarified experience, affordable for only the privileged few.

To fight this habitat loss, every few years the more vulnerable populations walk the picket lines. Two years ago, it was a related species, the NTFC (Non-Tenure Track Faculty Coalition); now it's the GEO. Always these flocks fight to protect and enrich education, calling for the tools they need to join the academic community and teach their students: tuition waivers, a living wage, health insurance, child care.

The picketing always continues until the GEO is successful in securing a fair contract, which in turn protects and strengthens the academic community. Like my graduate student colleagues, I would rather be teaching, but I will join in these cries whenever necessary to help defend and safeguard the land grant university habitat: This is what community looks like.

Walk in beauty; work in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She believes in Education for All. She hopes that by the time you read this, the GEO has secured a fair contract and the strike has ended. You can follow Birdland on Instagram (@BirdlandLetters) and Twitter (@BirdlandLetters). Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.