It’s my day off from my full-time retail job so this means it’s a teaching day. I’ve walked the dog and gone for my run. I am now doing laundry. I am working through a stack of student papers. I am trying to balance my checkbook and figure out how to pay my bills with too little money, too many jobs and not enough time. I am scared for my future as I think about the sad fate of Margaret Mary Vojtko. I didn’t know about Margaret Mary until I was riveted by Daniel Kovalik’s powerful op-ed Death of an Adjunct in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I am surprised by the immediate and vast outpouring of comments, some from friends, neighbors and colleagues who already know why this story is a zeitgeist moment and many who clearly are shocked at hearing the dismal reality for the first time.
For those who do not know, here’s the quick and dirty: The erosion of full-time faculty positions at American colleges and universities has been silent and steady for thirty years. Currently, adjunct professors teach approximately 70% of all college classes and generally make less in a year than one student pays in tuition during that time. In contrast, janitors on both the campuses where I work are unionized full-time employees with salaries, health benefits, paid sick and vacation time, access to unemployment benefits and a retirement plan. Margaret Mary, a 25-year teaching veteran, enjoyed none of these simple decencies.
As a fifty-something single woman in a tight job market and a race to the bottom economy, my chances of suffering a similar fate to Margaret Mary are uncomfortably high. Some would say I’ve made bad choices, as they imply Margaret Mary “must” have made. Did I make bad choices? Have 70% of my colleagues? Perhaps, like me, Margaret Mary failed to realize the danger to her own financial security until it was too late, because she loved the work and couldn’t leave it, because it is important work that must be done?
True, I am an adjunct professor through a combination of circumstance and choice. Until a few years ago, I always held a professional job in my field — I have a master’s degree in professional writing — and was invited by two colleagues to teach a couple classes “on the side.” Like so many philanderers before me, my side gig turned into a full-on love affair; I decided to make teaching the main work of my life. Part of my excitement about teaching was the desire to know more about it, so I embarked on a doctorate in education — to learn and to gain entry, I naively hoped, into a new career of full-time teaching and academia. When my last professional writing job ended, unemployment compensation was denied based upon my status as a part-time teacher — not my status as a professional writer — and how my state’s department of labor interprets the rule of “reasonable assurance.” Between a rock and a hard place, I had to find another job that would also permit me to continue to fulfill my teaching obligations. Five years later I remain underemployed as a full-time retail manager and underpaid as an adjunct professor. Although I am still hanging on by a thread in my PhD program and have a good idea for my research and dissertation, I find it very hard to find the time to do research, think, and write while working 60 hours a week at retail and teaching.
Critical and creative thinking, two thirds of adults — and employers — say, is more important than job training. A 2010 study from sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that one of the primary determinants of whether or not students in college improve their critical thinking, analytic reasoning and communication skills is the amount of reading and writing that is required in their courses. They also found that a disturbing number of college classes require almost no reading and writing. Fifty percent of students in Arum and Roksa’s sample reported that during the previous semester they had not taken a course which required twenty pages of writing per semester, and one-third had not taken a course that required forty pages of reading per week. The measure was simply one of many criteria the researchers chose to examine. It turned out to be a statistically significant one.
As I often tell my students during our introductory class, while I hope to make the course interesting and fun for them, hard work will also be required — for them and for me. Aside from the time-consuming nature of grading papers, long considered a chore and a bore by most educators, the hardest task is to move students from polite disengagement to the active engagement needed to write well, or even adequately.
Good writing must focus on something real that matters to the writer. In search of topics for their essays, my students and I regularly hop onto the global information highway via sites I have come to trust for accurate news and well-written opinion on the social and cultural issues that reflect our society. Among the hundreds of thousands of competing news stories, we recently learned the following facts:
- Mary Margaret Vojtko died in poverty;
- Diane Ravitch argues against testing and privatization at a local lecture;
- Our country has the widest income gap since the 1920s;
- A local school district voted to fire teachers then spent $15 grand on a two-day luxury resort getaway for school officials;
- A local “non-profit” healthcare provider paid 26 people over $1 million per year yet 319 of its full-time employees need food-stamps and Medicare to get by.
Recently, I used these seemingly diverse newspaper articles to demonstrate to the class how a writer might develop an idea for an essay — then I sent them out to hunt on their own. Reading and writing are complex, time-consuming tasks. That is probably why they are so valuable for increasing students’ ability to think and reason critically and creatively.
Margaret Mary Vojtko worked 25 years for an institution that was fully within its legal rights to exploit her labor and accrue financial benefit to itself by doing so. Duquesne University avoided paying a decent salary with benefits and was therefore complicit in Margaret Mary’s fate. As noted in the newspaper stories above, powerful executives are rewarded disproportionately for “cutting costs” — by hiring contingent or grossly underpaid workers — but every person whose job does not pay adequate wages to keep them out of poverty ultimately becomes a burden on taxpayers. I have done and am doing everything I can think of to avoid the fate of Margaret Mary, who was unable to keep her home habitable in winter and suffered the ignominy of being ejected from the adjunct office by campus police when she was caught sleeping there. With a minor leak in my own roof currently stopped by some tar a kindly roofer put on there while warning me that “this won’t hold up for long,” I watch apprehensively as the black tar from the roof slowly seeps onto the ceiling. Another ugly reality stares down at me: the price that students pay for a college education is very high: the price that adjuncts pay to teach them critical skills may be even higher.