Tuesday, November 19, 2013

An Update on the Complicated Death and Life and Adjuncthood of Margaret Mary Vojtko. From Slate.com.

On Friday, Aug. 16, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who’d recently lost her job at Duquesne University at the age of 83, suffered a heart attack on a street corner in Homestead, Pa. Vojtko collapsed yards from the house where she had lived almost her entire life. She was rushed to the hospital, but she never regained consciousness. Vojtko died on Sunday, Sept. 1.



  1. Stunning article. As is often the case, the first stories we heard were rather incomplete. This, in many ways, while more "complicated" is certainly none less sad.

  2. Not surprised that the full story is a lot more complicated than was reported. I'm not old enough to remember more then a few decades but it seems to me that journalists seek to report a narrative and frequently select facts that fit it. A lot of people in fact did try to help her and it seems some issues of mental illness got in the way; her hoarding made both of her two homes unlivable and she wouldn't allow repairs, and wouldn't fill out paperwork for subsidized housing.

    It doesn't diminish the plight of adjuncts to take the full story into account.

  3. Aw, nuts. I had a draft of a post about this but got distracted by the football game last night.

    I think the article does a good job of fairly distributing the blame, much better than the original op-ed written by her friend and labor organizer. It also explains the plight of adjuncts well by using Margaret Mary as an example but also providing some real data about the growth of adjunct positions.

    The quote that caught my attention was her description of teaching. “It is a devotion—a dedication. Too many people look upon it as a job, a source of income.” I have problems with this attitude though I know many people who would agree with her. If you are devoted to something or someone, you expect to receive devotion in return. Today's environment of academic employment doesn't provide that so faculty should be careful not to build up false expectations. I don't like the implication that some people think teaching is just a job, as if a job were something trivial. Jobs are pretty damn important. A job is a way to demonstrate to others and to ourselves who we are. It's also nice to pay the bills. By thinking about teaching as a job, it reminds us that we, as faculty, can change jobs. We don't have to stay where we are. It also reminds us that people can lose their jobs here just as in any profession. Knowing that you are expendable is not a happy thought but it is true.

    1. Deotion also suggests that we might do it without pay/for less pay, simply because we love it. We don't need admins thinking that devotion is a substitute for pay or benefits.

    2. We'd love it more if they'd get out of our way and let us DO it, but they underpay us AND undermine us. I can accept one but not both.

    3. "We don't need admins thinking that devotion is a substitute for pay or benefits."

      They already do that, and it's done with K-12 teachers, too. All the focus on teaching being a calling, a true vocation, and not a job with ups and downs makes teaching great on the good days, miserable on the bad ones, and a killer at the bargaining table with an administration.

    4. "We'd love it more if they'd get out of our way and let us DO it, but they underpay us AND undermine us. I can accept one but not both."

      HEAR HEAR!!!

    5. The devotion thing bothered me, too, and I think Ben and others above have explained very well why.

      Interestingly, there's a good deal in the Bible about the necessity of paying people fairly, and very little that I can think of lauding labor without pay. Paul is proud that he isn't dependent on the people he's serving, but that's because he's got another, adequately-paying job -- tent maker -- that makes it possible for him to be an apostle for free. And there's the interesting story where laborers get mad that an employer has paid workers hired in the afternoon the same full day's wages that those hired in the morning received, which is mostly metaphorical, of course, but, on a literal level seems to endorse generosity in payment if it endorses anything. I suppose there are the Beatitudes, but they're not about money. Maybe it's late and I'm forgetting something, but I'm not recalling anything to support the idea that accepting poverty wages for work one believes to be valuable is somehow a virtue (I'm not sure it's a vice, either, unless it spills over into thinking that others should do the same, but people who think that presumably don't support unions. She did have some contradictions in her thinking).

    6. The Bible is has nothing to say against slavery, except that Jews ought not to sell Jews to foreign nations. In the Epistle to Philemon Paul advises Philemon to reconcile with his slave Onesimus, because the slave has come back at Paul's advice bearing the letter he is now reading.

      There are any number of New Testament verses enjoining slaves to love and obey their masters, and for masters to deal justly with slaves, but no condemnation of slavery as an institution or any hint that slavery is inherently unjust.

  4. The real scandal for me has always been a Catholic university pleading "religious exemption" to avoid unionization. That Duq did not, as intimated, directly cause the death of an elderly employee hardly absolves them.

  5. A well-balanced, thoughtful, update, indeed. I'm glad somebody did it (hurrah for real journalists -- another endangered breed).

    It's clear that Vojtko did not die solely because she was an adjunct -- or, for that matter, solely because she had an independent streak bordering on the self-destructive and some other personality quirks/issues, including a tendency toward hoarding (which left me wondering -- is that tendency, perhaps, a bit more common among professors than the general public? I suspect that, as with OCD and professions that require precision, such as engineering and accountancy, there's a not-entirely-bright line between traits that make for a good, if perhaps slightly obsessive scholar, and those that tip over into undermining not only the person's academic work -- Vojtko was long-term ABD -- but eventually their lives. Of course, scholars who do manage to get the Ph.D. and tenure -- perhaps because they are males with wives and/or mothers to look after them? -- have the sort of private offices which Vojtko had, then lost).

    I do wonder, however, about underlying weaknesses/tendencies and tipping points. To what extent was she stuck as an underpaid, badly treated adjunct because of personality problems that kept her from realizing her full potential, and to what extent was her ability to cope despite personality problems undermined by being stuck in a job with poor pay, poor security, and little respect? One could argue that she got the respect early on, but one could also argue that low pay and short-term contracts send a pretty powerful message all on their own.

    And yes, she and the lawyer who may have exaggerated/exploited her story for his own purposes were/are both absolutely right about one thing: Duquesne's stated reasons for opposing a union are absolute hogwash. I'd love to see the Pope step in on this one and order them to have the election. I wonder if he could do that? It would be nice memorial to Ms. Vojtko, who, however and whyever she died, certainly served the school and its students.