I'd been thinking of writing a post about what it feels like to be back in the classroom as a student after more than a decade at the front of the room, but I wasn't sure I had much to say. Then I read this horrific article about the death of an impoverished adjunct just weeks after she was fired from Duquesne's French department, and it clarified some of the uneasiness I've been feeling about my Italian class.
My class itself is great, and my Italian professor everything you'd want from a beginning-language instructor. But like Margaret Mary Vojtko, the Duquesne adjunct, la professoressa is contingent faculty. And like Vojtko, she's older than we--by which I guess I mean "I"--typically imagine adjuncts to be. At first I assumed my instructor to be in her early 40s: she's fit and attractive, with long hair and a stylish, youthful wardrobe. In reality, she must be at least 50. She's also a single mom with two kids.
And for all the hand-wringing and fulminating I've done about the casualization of academic labor over the years, I have to admit that I've rarely thought about adjuncts as men and women in their 50s, 60s, or (in the case of Vojtko) 80s. I've never thought about anyone being an adjunct until retirement--or at least not in the absence of any other career, or without a partner's income, pension, or benefits. Vojtko didn't have health coverage even when she was working at Duquesne, and she sure didn't have any afterwards.
In other words, though I've always seen casualization as a scandal and a tragedy--the fact that talented, highly-trained people who love their work get exploited because of that love--and I've always recognized that there are major financial, opportunity, and emotional costs to remaining in that kind of abusive relationship with academia--
Well, I guess I've still always imagined the adjunct as someone who could leave. Someone who might leave with real scars, but who was still talented enough and young enough to build a life doing something else.
Vojtko's story might be unusual in 2013, but if current trends continue, it won't be in 2033.