Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Real Adjunct behind "Death of an Adjunct"

A month back, it seemed like everyone I knew in academia (and some general sympathizers) was posting links to an editorial called "Death of an Adjunct" which told the heartrending story of an 83-year-old Duquesne adjunct who died of a heart attack shortly after having not had her teaching contract renewed. This image summed up the fears and tribulations of many of those who are unwillingly trapped in the non-tenure-track world, and the editorial (written by a labor lawyer trying to unionize the Duquesne adjuncts) quickly became a rallying cry.

At the time, I couldn't help wondering if there was more to the story, simply because while being an adjunct can be a fairly bleak dead end for those who were counting on a tenure track position, it's unusual to see an adjunct who is in her eighties. Further, heartless creature that I am, I could imagine reasons why a university might not choose to renew the contract of a teacher in her eighties. While being no less persons for it, many people in their eighties are not all that efficient and effective on a daily basis.

Fortunately, a real reporter apparently had some of the same curiosities, and went and wrote an in-depth piece on Margaret Mary Vojtko, the adjunct in question, for Slate. It's highly worth reading.

The Vojtko who immerges from the article is a fully rounded person rather than simply a personification of an issue: The daughter of Slovak immigrants and depression-era steelworkers, a devout and traditionalist Catholic, a woman who get her undergraduate degree in her thirties and her masters at 40, but never managed to finish the dissertation for the PhD she took the classes for her in mid 40s. Nonetheless, as an adjunct with a Masters she taught several classes (including a graduate class "French for Research" and several classes on medieval history) for over twenty years. However, she found it difficult to contemplate retiring (and never saved for it) and developed a hoarding habit which eventually left her two houses uninhabitable.

Conservatives may sympathize with the university for wanting to cease hiring a teacher who reportedly refused to use technology to interact with her students (even as this became the norm) and became unable to tell when they were cheating right in front of her, but liberals will be less than thrilled with her beefs with the university and the students:
As a traditional Catholic, Vojtko felt that the university wasn’t as religious as it should be. Staunchly pro-life, she was indignant when Duquesne held bioethics panels that suggested that contraception and abortion might be morally defensible. She also thought that Duquesne’s mission statement —which includes “Duquesne serves God by serving students”—was sacrilegious. S├ębastien Renault, a close friend of Vojtko’s, remembers her saying, “It’s bad theology, because it doesn’t work this way. You don’t instrumentalize God. You serve God first. And the more you know him and love him and serve him, then you will serve the students.”

Renault says that although Vojtko was a devoted teacher, she becamse increasingly frustrated by her students, whom she came to see as self-absorbed and disrespectful. Duquesne students aren’t required to take classes on Catholic theology, and Vojtko thought religion should play a bigger role in their education. She didn’t hesitate to share her opposition to abortion, premarital sex, provocative clothing, and gay marriage with her students. She suspected some of her colleagues resented her moral principles and her “cleanness of life,” according to Renault.
Read in full, Vojtko's story lacks easy answers. You can sympathize with the university's desire to get her out of teaching, and it turns out that the university both provided her with alternate housing and attempted to provide money to fix problems at her house (including the furnace going out during the winter -- which she refused to let any of various parties that offered to help fix.) At the same time, you find yourself admiring and sympathizing with this indomitable lady who didn't want to give up her job or allow other people to run her house.


Cminor said...

Hm. Joanne McPortland (Egregious Twaddle) nailed it about the hoarding when the original essay came out.

Jenny said...

The surprising thing to me is that this piece came from Slate.

The problem with adjuncts aside, the real question is how do you help someone who absolutely does not want help. Not sure what else Duquesne could have done for her. I get the feeling that even if she had all those things that the union was promoting, it wouldn't have mattered. She wasn't functioning well enough to have taken advantage.

Joanne McPortland really did nail it in her post from Sept and she got hammered in the combox.