Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Memoriam: Margaret Mary Vojtko, Adjunct

Today I worked at School Two, the one I must commute almost two hours with traffic to.  By the time I returned home again, I was tired and ready to spend some time with my family before scrounging up some food.  I had been having trouble with the wifi at work all day, which gave me the sneaking suspicion that I was not getting all my emails.  Home again, with a somewhat more reliable network, my phone blew up like a student's:  so. many. emails.  I decided to rock the small child while reading through what I hoped would be only spam and junk mail that could be deleted without opening.  Instead, in my School One account, one faculty listserve thread already had six responses on it.  These usually are never good news, but sometimes good for a laugh before deleting.  I opened the thread and went to the first post, which included Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Daniel Kovalik's article "Death of an Adjunct."  At first, the literature scholar in me thought perhaps it was some clever play on the title of Arthur Miller's classic play Death of a Salesman, used only to highlight the growing problematic use of adjunct labor at the region's many colleges and universities.  Additionally, to my genuine admiration, the original sharer pointed out that this was an especially important article in light of the fact that "we" [meaning the department that I work in] had now made all the temporaries [their term for us] part-time.

I still had not opened the article because I couldn't believe what I was reading:  an actual tenure track person taking up for us publicly on a department forum.  This issue of our reduction in status at School One might be considered something of a summertime deal, done when few regular folk were present.  Many did not even know that we had been cut back until three weeks into the term--that revelation also coming via email.  Anyway, it was a nice surprise...until I opened the link.  For the death of an adjunct was not merely some metaphor, some witty allusion to a play, but a true life tragedy that played out in the city I had just driven back from while doing the same kind of work.  Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, adjunct instructor of French for Duquesne University died from complications of a heart attack she suffered two weeks prior (Kovalik).

The link above leads to the full article and the details are sorrowful indeed.  The comments following it, containing tributes by friend and co-workers, among other people's opinions, are heart tearing.  Here was a woman who dedicated her life to teaching those seeking to learn, and she had been utterly failed by her employer.  This inhumanity perhaps compounded by the fact that the school is a Catholic institution which takes pride in values and its mission statement.  Yet, here was a woman who had worked for them, had given of herself to her classes, and died destitute after a battle with cancer.  Like me, she had no health benefits.  At one point, this elderly teacher not only fulfilled her duties at the university, but also worked at a nearby Eat-N-Park to try to survive.  Kovalik mentions her dire embarrassment at offers of public assistance; her drive to keep going.  Is this all a teacher is worth?  Recently Duquesne had let her go with no retirement, no severance, nothing.  Disposable labor when administrators rake in the biggest salaries in the history of high education [That is solely my opinion.  I am not an economist and have not adjusted for inflation or done any large study].

Once I made some attempt to recover from the article, I checked the other posts in the thread.  Two of them were from "temps" who I know, appreciating the sentiments expressed by the original poster.  Then several other full time, tenure track people chimed in asking that this issue be placed on the department's next meeting agenda, for this decision to cut our hours, salaries, and benefits had not been done with full department disclosure.  I almost could not believe my eyes.  The sense of rejection and disposability I feel, that seemed to be so invisible, so ignored, was in fact being addressed publicly at last.  Was it because Margaret Mary Vojtko once lived and worked so very nearby? Was this, instead of just another news item to scan or ignore, a call to action?  Kovalik spoke with Vojtko's nephew and he "implored me to make sure that she didn't die in vain.  He said that while there was nothing that could be done for Margaret Mary, we had to help the other adjuncts at Duquesne and other universities who were being treated just as she was, and who could end up just like she did." Perhaps, just maybe, this woman's life may not pass unnoticed in the world of post-secondary education.

By late evening, a hashtag emerged on Twitter:  #IAmMargaretMary  used by other adjuncts to show their sadness and solidarity as part of the adjunct army:

               @TendentiousD  "#A labour in makes a more tangible product than  
, & rakes in money for schools, but gets peanuts.

                @MariaMaistoNFM Vojtko remembered for pride, eloquence

Though the tag is not trending at this time, it is my hope that as users return to Twitter tomorrow, this story spreads and the hashtag is taken up by anyone who cares about the state of education and the American teacher.

I am sorry, Margaret Mary, that I never met you in person.  I am truly sorrowful for your death and the lack of compassion shown to you by your employers.  You will not be forgotten.  Perhaps it is this story that will move to action many who have been biding their time, biting their tongues, and delaying their cause.  Let me erase the board for you, my comrade.  Don't worry.  I'll turn off the lights.

Thank you, Margaret Mary Vojtko, and adjuncts everywhere.  There is honor in what we do, even if there is not fortune.

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