Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The wages of casualization

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.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

One of my adjunct friends is 62 or 63. She has no other options as far as I can tell, and of course, has no insurance. We pay only 1800 per class, and she teaches 5 courses (one more than I do) per semester, but makes over 30 thousand dollars less per year than I do.

Bardiac said...

That was such a sad and horrifying story.

I know adjuncts who worked to retirement age here. At least adjuncts working 51% FTE get benefits here (and my department, at least, tries very hard to give steady employment to strong teachers so they'll get benefits).

EngLitProf said...

The predicament of contingent faculty is a personal issue for me, more than for most tenured faculty I know. My closest friend in the academic world, a fellow graduate of my (prestigious) English Ph.D. program, is a contingent faculty member. For most of the past ten years she has been teaching part-time at three or four different institutions, though right now she is in her second and final year as a visiting associate professor at a liberal arts college. She has published articles in top journals, and she has won teaching awards. A research university or a top liberal arts college can assign her a course and rest assured that the students will be challenged as much as they would by any cutting-edge tenured faculty member—and the students love her, to boot. She has the advantage of living in a metropolitan area that has over twenty colleges or universities. However, her part-time opportunities are drying up, and she is pessimistic about picking up courses for 2014-15, even though she is several years short of the point when she can safely retire. She received her B.A. in 1971, and she clearly is increasingly disadvantaged because of her age.

Susan said...

I could easily have become Vojtko, so I get it. When my former institution closed down my program and I was teaching on one year contracts, it was just chance that I got a good job. I did not get several where I was considered a shoo-in. So I would have become an adjunct at age 55.

But: as I read that terrible article I was puzzled: my mother, who has very little money, has medicare. (She stopped working just before her 80th birthday, because she moved from a high cost area to a low-cost one.) And medicare really isn't too bad as insurances go. She has social security. Even the minimum amount would have helped. We have done a pretty good job in this country of dealing with the poverty of the elderly. This is not to trivialize what happened to Vojtko, but while an adjunct union is one solution, existing benefits are another. No one helped her in that way. And that too is criminal.

Susan said...

I realize my comment sounded thoughtless about Vojtko, so I wanted to think about responsibility. Clearly, just the fact that you can teach at Duquesne for 25 years without insurance and no job protection is at best in tension (how is that for a euphemism) with Catholic social teaching. But also, it wasn't some abstract Duquesne that freaked out that she was sleeping in her office, or who didn't renew her teaching contract. It was a person, her department chair, whoever ze may be. My guess is that said person - probably a well-meaning, conscientious person just like us - was not given any tools to try to support Vojtko, even if ze thought that an 83 year old undergoing cancer treatment should not be teaching. (And she shouldn't: she should, with a contract, be on medical leave.) Which is to say that there are many different things going on here... I thought the "everything would be solved by a union" line somewhat simplistic.

Flavia said...

Thanks--if thanks is the right word--for these stories.


We're similar. If an adjunct teaches two classes for us--and our department, like most, moves heaven and earth to make this happen--he or she gets benefits. But they're only hired semester to semester, and almost entirely for comp, which has more of a fall demand. Health care for part of the year is better than none, I guess, but not by much.


Yes, thanks for bringing that up. I was wondering about that, too. There's obviously more to this story than fits neatly in the essay's polemic (a word I don't at all mean as a criticism; it's just the genre). Among other things, Vojtko seems to own her own--albeit uninhabitable home--and the math indicates she *started* adjuncting at Duquesne when she was nearly 60 (though who knows; maybe she adjuncted elsewhere before then), all of which suggest some radical change in her financial life in her 50s or 60s. Most likely she was divorced or widowed, or lost a full-time job, but there could also be some more complicated story about her personal life or personality--estranged from family, difficult to live with, unwilling to accept help, etc.

But even allowing for those possibilities, the story, as you say, remains scandalous.

Flavia said...


Just saw your latest comment after posting mine. I think we're on the same page, here. Those details don't make for good polemic, though, even if the author knew them. (Since he's leading a unionization drive at Duquesne he obviously has a vested interest in painting the most tragic picture.)

That doesn't take away from the horrible situation that adjuncts, especially aging adjuncts are in--I don't need my poster children to be perfect--but you're right that real-life stories rarely come this pat.

Bardiac said...

I was wondering about Medicare, too. Though I think Social Security can depend a lot on previous income earned, and there might have been a gap for Vojtko?

My chair has done a tremendous job getting our university to acknowledge that we're better off all around if we can balance the fall/spring comp demand so that we're not constantly leaving our adjuncts in a lurch. It's a real change for our department, and a very positive one. (Most of our adjuncts are fine teachers, so it helps their situations; the few who were very weak weren't rehired, and that was good for our students at least.)

squadrato said...

I was struck by the fact that someone was concerned about her and tried to get her some assistance from Adult Protective Services, but that she seems to have panicked and to have regarded this intervention as deeply humiliating. Now, I should add the disclaimer that I have no idea exactly what being in the care of APS might entail: perhaps it involves a significant loss of freedom...? But I wondered whether she was perhaps too proud to take advantage of these and other programs, like Medicaid etc., that might have helped her. I believe there also are programs to help impoverished people keep their heat on, etc.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I, too, suspect that there are some complications to the story that didn't make it into the article, but the tension with Catholic social teaching about work (clearly derived from Biblical principles about fair treatment of laborers) is what stood out for me, too. At least our governor, who is doing all he can to make sure that as few adjuncts as possible become eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, is philosophically consistent (still morally wrong, in my opinion, and subject to some of the same objections since he claims to be a Christian, but consistent).

At least at my institution, I'd say that at least a good 30-40% of adjuncts, and possibly more, are middle-aged or older, nearly all women, and many on their own (though they may not have been in that position when they started as adjuncts; however, death and divorce happen, and it is, indeed, hard to change career tracks entirely at 50+).

From my own (full-time contingent) perspective, I, too worry about involuntary early "retirement," and/or trying to find a new job in my 50s or 60s if the course on which my job depends falls prey to curricular reform (it's a comp. course, and so expensive to teach, and pressure for core classes to be more efficient, so as to free up funds for other university activities, is ever-present). Even social security thinks I should retire at c. 67, not 65, and I think that, given the extended period I spent getting a Ph.D., I need to work until I'm at least 70, and maybe longer -- and preferably at least some of that time for considerably more than I make now (which, although I have the title "Associate Professor," still isn't as much as an entry-level tenure-track assistant professor makes). I do, at least, get retirement benefits (including a 10% contribution to TIAA from my university, but of course that 10% is based on my salary). I'm still in a much better position than a part-time adjunct at my institution (and in a position not so different from many American workers), but it's definitely much more precarious than the tenure-track one I expected to be in while making the decision to spend all those years in grad school (admittedly for some of those years there was still a mandatory retirement age of 70 in place at many schools, but, assuming employment straight out of grad school, that sounded, and still sounds, like a situation which would allow room for living within one's means, planning, and saving).