L.V. Anderson has done some new reporting on the death of adjunct French instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko in Pittsburgh this summer. The real story turns out to be more complicated than just “adjunct work killed Professor Vojtko.” She earned a nursing degree but preferred medieval studies. However, she never finished her Ph.D., apparently had signs of mental illness for years, and individual members of the Duquesne University community (NOT the institution itself) had repeatedly reached out to offer her help, appropriate housing, and similar assistance. (It’s interesting that Vojtko once wanted to be a nun; she remained a devout Catholic, and to the end of her life lived like one–but more on the self-sacrifice later in this essay.) UPDATE. 11/22/2013: Last night, to my chagrin and embarrassment, I discovered that Flavia at Ferule & Fescue had already commented on this story in a post earlier this week, after having written about the story when it first broke this summer. She offers some interesting thoughts about the Catholic perspective, hers and Duquesne’s.
This reminds me of the simplistic moralizing that flowed from the suicide of Aaron Swartz, the illegal downloader targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The larger story, as Larissa McFarquar reported in The New Yorker earlier this year, also included a history of mental illness and quite possibly chronic malnutrition, neither of which help people make informed decisions about their futures.
In addition to her reporting on the Vojtko story, Anderson published an essay explaining “Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Other Jobs” that I found pretty nutty. She explains that adjuncts must teach such a heavy load that they don’t have much time left over for writing, publishing, and applying for jobs–all true. But then she also explains–through the help of some adjunct faculty correspondents–that the academic calendar somehow prevents them from looking for work:
This means that people who want to get out can look in the summer and for two weeks around Xmas to change careers, but other than that they’re stuck. I was talking to a colleague last week who told me that she saw the most perfect non-academic job for her in Boston the week before, but since we were already 3 weeks into the semester, she couldn’t imagine ditching her students mid-semester. There’s a real sense of duty that comes with the job.
This is the part that strikes me as completely nuts. Any adjunct faculty member who puts the well-being of hir students ahead of hir own well-being is utterly and completely deluded. (I would say that the same is true of tenured and tenure-track faculty too, BTW. It’s not just faculty, but also the institutions we work for, who are responsible for the conditions under which students are expected to learn and earn credits. Faculty alone can’t be responsible.)
The fact of the matter is that faculty sometimes can’t fulfill their teaching responsibilities to the end of the semester. Usually, it’s illness, childbirth, or family crises that intervene, but sometimes adjuncts just resign mid-semester because they’re pissed off (something that happened in my department several years ago). Yet somehow classes get taught, students earn credits, and life goes on. Sometimes natural disasters intervene: for example, here in Colorado, an adjunct faculty member who lives in Estes Park was teaching at a front range university when the flood ripped through our state. The only reasonable, direct route to his job was via a road that was entirely washed out (and remains washed out until tomorrow, I believe)
Guess what? It’s not the responsibility of adjunct faculty to solve the problems that properly belong to the university! Adjunct faculty should tend to their own needs and interests, and to hell with your employers. If the university you teach for has made you no commitment, then you owe it–and its students–precisely jack squat. Please, please, please: DO NOT MAKE THE MISTAKE OF DEMONSTRATING MORE LOYALTY TO AN INSTITUTION THAN IT DEMONSTRATES TO YOU. Our employers looks after their own interests; that’s why most of us don’t have tenure-track jobs.
I agree with Anderson’s conclusion that an adjunct union recognized by the university might have helped out Vojtko, but if adjunct faculty should learn anything from the Vojtko example, it’s that no one will look out for your interests if you don’t look out for them yourself. Think about your future, not five years down the road, but thirty-five; does your university pay into Social Security? Does it make contributions to TIAA-CREF on your behalf? If you never find a tenure-track job, will you ever be able to afford to retire? What happens if (like Vojtko) you are involuntarily “retired” from adjunct teaching?
If you are an adjunct lecturer now, please put a time limit on the number of semesters you’re willing to work as an adjunct. Seek out opportunities outside of academia, no matter if it’s February, May, September, or December. If you have a Ph.D., it may not count for much in some lines of work outside of academia, but what it suggests to me is that you’re able and willing to learn and will be successful if you choose to work in another field. You possess substantial intellectual and cultural capital compared to the vast majority of other job seekers. Use it.
Margaret Mary Vojtko might have been happy to live like a nun, in poverty and embodying a spirit of service and sacrifice to her students. Will you?