Frustrated System

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This is not a regular letter as I have had a very irregular week – I am writing this on a flight to Los Angeles where I am attending one of the larges physics conferences in the United States following a week of actively participating in a graduate employees’ strike on my university’s campus. Consequently, I am simply sharing some personal reflections on the strike and being a part of it instead of the usual breakdown with recipes and listening recommendations. If this is not something you want to be reading about please feel free to skip and wait for next week’s letter, hopefully of sunnier disposition (and not just because I am spending the next five days in California).


Thursday is one of my research days. I do not have any teaching duties, I am not expected to attend any lectures and there are no relevant seminars or colloquia. Most Thursdays I eat oatmeal or vegan yogurt with banana slices, peanut butter and nuts and seeds for breakfast and I treat myself to a coffee after my lunch break. The walk to the engineering library where my favorite coffee shop on campus is tends to be the longest stretch of time I spend outside until I have to walk home from the gym much later in the day. Often times I try to do some upper body exercises at the gym and struggle to find small weights. I eat easily and quickly assembled bowls of leftovers for dinner and try to put in a few extra hours of work afterwards, before my 2 AM bedtime. Thursday is not an exciting day.

This past Thursday, I had to wake up really early for a visit to the dentist, then rush to work while the taste of medicine lingered in my mouth. I spent the next few hours in a marathon presentation session with my research group. The three of us graduate students were preparing to give talks at an upcoming conference in Los Angeles and our advisor, reclining in the mostly empty conference room in a colorful patchwork hoodie and flared jeans, was giving us ample notes. We debated when it is appropriate to mention Majorana fermions instead of Majorana modes and whether the physics of the Kitaev chain can be explained in half a Power Point slide. Someone brought up whether having a slide showing only commutators would be confusing for the non-theorists in the room. Someone else expressed a minor annoyance with an experimental collaborator that forgot to pass on some data. It felt like business as usual. Not unexciting but also not out of the ordinary.

I had lunch early but still had to wait in line for the microwave in the increasingly crammed and dirty communal kitchen one flow below my office. Instead of my usual coffee run, after lunch I headed to the heart of campus and joined a picket line. This was nowhere near being a regular Thursday activity.

Before over ninety percent of the membership of the union that represents graduate employee’s of my university in collective bargaining and contract negotiations voted to go on strike earlier in the year, I had no idea what the word ‘picket’ meant or what picketing might look like. During one of the weekends leading up to the announced strike date I attended a short picket training session to try and parse what exactly this was about. It is not very complicated: if you protest inside a building that might be considered trespassing so you stay outside, on walkways that technically don’t belong to anyone, and since just standing there might be considered loitering you keep walking, in circles. And you yell and you chant so that those that are not picketing can get a clear sense of what you are trying to do. Most of the time the pickets are positioned near doors of busy buildings so that they cannot be ignored and so that there is a guarantee of their loud message being experienced as such.

Thursday’s picket was my fourth in four days and it felt less intimidating than when I just heard about it in training, which had oddly taken place in a church above a vegan restaurant. It was cold and ground was still showing signs of the previous day’s rain. The big slabs of concrete surrounding the building we were picketing were dark gray and the people in my line, ten or so graduate employees, some of whom I recognized from previous days, were traversing them in winter boots. Someone wore a really fuzzy crocheted hat. Walking in circles for two or three hours every day makes your calves really sore, more sore than running a mile every night, and yelling in the cold and dry winter air means that your voice wanes more quickly. Your throat gets itchy like it would at a heavy metal show or a soccer game, but coupled with a more urgent need to keep yelling. About an hour in, someone handed me the megaphone and not too long into leading the chant I could tell that I was operating on autopilot, that the circular steps and the rhythm of the words have slowly become muscle memory. On Monday I had been terrified of even being on a picket line but now it felt like it was actually helping the overwhelming anxiety that comes with withholding labor you really care about. What do we want? Contract. When do we want it? Now. If we don’t get it? Shut it down. Someone was keeping rhythm by drumming on an orange paint bucket and when I went back to my office to finish up working later in the day the sound of hollow plastic being hit at regular intervals was still reverberating in my mind. Whose university? Our university. Who’s got the power? We have the power.

On Tuesday the weather had been really nice and the leader of my picket line, someone called Bob, was having a great time singing covers of Tina Turner’s Proud Mary with the words ‘tuition waiver’ crammed in every even remotely plausible place in the lyrics (and that is not a very rhythmical phrase). On Wednesday it had rained and I was worried that no-one would show up to picket but was instead greeted with a roving picket filled with drums, trumpets and graduate workers in funny orange ponchos looping around the engineering library, the material science laboratory and a cutting edge biomedical research facility where a higher up had been telling me about MRI materials that could be folded into one of my advisor’s art projects just hours earlier. On Friday we had been without a contract for 200 days and shared a large sheet cake to celebrate our strike not dying down after full five days. Later in the day a graduate student organizer shared tips for taking care of your vocal chords on Facebook – more yelling is expected on Monday.

I am a theoretical physicist. My training is in quantum field theory, abstract algebra and Gross-Pitaevskii hydrodynamics. I am interested in topological defects in ultracold quantum gases and what it means for a tight binding model to be self-dual. Some days I sit in my office and read papers and crunch equations without exchanging a single word with another person for hours, until my officemate comes by to pick up papers and notebooks before going to a library for a change of scenery. She is interested in quantum Hall physics and gravitational analogs, some truly incredible and creative work. This week, she had also been spending large fractions of her days on the picket lines. Neither of us has come to graduate school to march and shout or be an activist. Neither of us had been trained for it nor had we sought it out the way we had our respective projects. Having that presentation session on Thursday felt so surreal because the importance of a somewhat unclear equation on a Power Point slide by all metrics fades in importance compared to not knowing whether we will have a living wage in the future, or be able to afford healthcare, or find ourselves at a university where all of a sudden most degrees require going into debt or having a remarkable amount of wealth to begin with. It is hard to believe that any graduate student on our campus could have anticipated having to debate contract law and become proficient in the mechanics of legal protest when they decided to accept an admissions offer from our university. Doing so while checking off the boxes required to keep research and other tasks we are typically not paid for going as if there is absolutely nothing wrong is definitely something that would have been hard to conjure up in that moment.

The issue is fairly simple. Under our current contract holding a teaching assignment or a research assistantship guarantees that a graduate employee does not have to pay tuition to participate in their program. This is a standard practice for doctoral programs at prestigious universities across the nation. It is practice that allows everyone, and not just the wealthy, to seek PhDs. Many graduate employees on my campus receive salaries that don’t add up to the living wage that the university itself publishes so it is not hard to understand that most of us would not be able to pay tuition even if we gave our full paychecks back to the university on the 16th of each month when they deposit them into our bank accounts. I had to get a root canal this year for a tooth that ached so badly I could barely sleep and even with the university insurance the bill was larger than what I pay to rent my apartment. At the beginning of the spring semester I paid a somewhat mysterious university fee that also exceeded my rent bill and I will still have to pay more to have healthcare coverage during the summer. Even without paying tuition these financial strains are stressful and limiting. I only get paid for eleven months of the year and visiting my family abroad is always an irresponsible financial decision because flights are so expensive. As a theory student I am likely to support myself by teaching for however long my doctorate takes. As an international student I am unable to work for anyone but the university and I am ineligible for most grants and fellowships. I am a greater liability than a domestic student to anyone who might consider giving me a loan. Collective bargaining of the contract that governs my pay and my dues to the university is the only avenue I have to advocate for an improvement in my living conditions. And in over 200 days the university administration has failed to bargain in good faith despite the fact that the team on the other side of the bargaining table was composed fully of graduate students that they keep reassuring us they value tremendously. Not even outside mediators could help. Walking out on our teaching jobs in response, after months of organizing, meetings and ultimately one-on-one conversations with everyone affected, was genuinely the only option we had left.

I love traveling, I have some great friends in California and I have been complaining about the lack of sunshine in Illinois for months now, and yet as I was packing for Los Angeles last night, I was not excited about my week in warm weather nor my chance to present research I have put a lot of time and effort into. I was worried about not being on the picket lines on Monday and I was worried about coming back to find that the university administration continued to ignore us, to insist on having absolute control over tuition waivers and wages, and to disrespect all of its students, including the undergraduates who’s teaching assistant have been on strike for days. As I sit in talks in the next few days, trying to soak up as much information as possible, I will continue to worry about this. I am taking a day off tomorrow to catch up with a friend who I often wish lived much closer and I worry that instead of enjoying our time shopping and eating fancy California vegan food I will be checking my email for news from our increasingly more chaotic campus instead, chants from the picket lines still ringing in my ears.

It has been absolutely remarkable to see the sheer numbers of graduate workers and their supporters participating in the strike this past week and every time I have felt beaten down by having to be in this fight in the first place, I would see someone dancing in a freezing cold picket or spot a friend I have thought would never dare engage in this sort of thing and feel re-energized. As much as this week has been an experience in heartbreak with this university that has felt like a home for the last four years, it has also been an experience in falling in love with our community. I am honored to have been a part of this movement and it has helped me build character as much as any intimidating presentation I have had to give or a difficult problem I have had to tackle as a researcher. On Friday, I had to attend a career seminar where a dean of some sort encouraged us to grow as people as such growth is often recognized by those that determine the future of young academics’ careers. Academics care about passion, he underscored. I really wanted to ask whether he had walked through campus recently because a tremendous amount of passion had been on display there all week.

There is a chant that simply states ‘I believe that we will win’. After a few days of striking and picketing we changed it to ‘I know that we will win’ and I have to believe that we were right to do so. Wish us luck.



* In condensed matter physics, frustrated systems are those that experience geometrical frustration due to competing forces acting on between particles that make them up. These competing interactions lead such systems to assume complex, irregular, configurations which can result in unusual behavior at high temperatures or a multitude of, otherwise unique, lowest energy states. Various amorphous materials and glasses are a common example of frustration and many remain an open area of study today. (Most physicists actually have no idea how glasses work)