Monday, September 29, 2014

One Year Later: Margaret Mary, Burning It Down, and What Comes Next

Margaret Mary Vojtko Memorial Card

Today, September 29, is the remembrance day for Margaret Mary Vojtko.  Dan Kovalik's piece broke the story on the 19th and by the month's end, her sorrowful tale resounded worldwide.  Here we are on the day dedicated to her:  one year later, one year louder.  The death of Margaret Mary stands as a lightning strike in the midst of the drab chaos adjuncting can be.  It was her death that shook so many into realizing that the story could end the same for them.  It was her death that made many who do care about teaching and learning conditions realize the situation was indeed dire.  It was her death that put many of us on the path to activism.  When we win any victory, any recognition, it also belongs to Margaret Mary.

When I drive into the City of Pittsburgh and past Duquesne, I imagine her spirit there.  When I waiver on publishing a post, or speaking to a reporter and using my name, I think of Margaret Mary.  I remember how cold, so very cold I felt inside though the day was blistering hot when I read Kovalik's article.  This could be me.  Oh god, this could be me, my brain whispered as I stood at the start of my first multiple-school teaching year.  That feeling has driven me ever since.  I will not let an entire generation of scholars go down in flames. I will not let students be deprived of the educations they are paying large sums of money for.  I will use my words and time to work for better.  If I have to, I will also use actions.

This weekend, Twitter citizen @downwardlymobilePhD, with the help of others, planned and carried out an adjunct online forum that allowed for truth telling and airing of grievances, and I also participated in the event.  Given the marker #BurnItDown, the hashtag raged much of Saturday afternoon and into Monday was still garnering new hits.  Anyone with a Twitter account can, of course, search the hashtag and see the full stream of tweets.  Raging Chicken Press created a Storify of some tweets called "Ripping Back the Veil of Exploitation in Higher Ed" that gives a good summary of the tone and the truth many adjuncts face. I just wrapped up my Saturday class as this event began and was still amazed, as I scrolled to catch up and join the fray, how similar to my own experience total strangers' adjunct lives are no matter where they call home.  This is indeed a worldwide crisis at this point and adjunct issues often garner hits not only from the US, but Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Certainly, these fiery tweets will be read as complaining and whining by some.  That happens nearly every time an adjunct speaks out.  However, for many of us, our scholarly community--the people who understand exactly what this life is--are our on-line adjunct colleagues and we need these moments of shared experiences to affirm our solidarity.  Make no mistake about it:  solidarity amongst adjuncts exists not only on campuses as we unionize, but now it extends across state lines and country borders.  One success at a small school is a victory for everyone.  It is a slice of light seeping in.  Our cause now regularly appears in publication and news venues.  We are not whining so much as standing up for ourselves at last.  We dare to challenge the current state of higher education with our BurnItDown mentality.  We care about the workpain of adjuncts and other downgraded--both in salaries and hours-- and entirely necessary campus employees.  We care about our students and do not like that they pay for educations but are given climbing walls and waterfalls.  It is this last part, this care for our students, for the art and craft of teaching that has lead many adjuncts to ponder, "What next? What can we do to start again? To create something better that meets the needs of students and teachers without exploitation and unnecessary expense."  That answer will come and it will be beautiful and varied as the people who now fall under the term "contingent labor."  Make no mistake, we may take a day to air our grievances, but we never stop working towards the ultimate goal of better for all who want to take part.

Strength is in numbers, as Margaret Mary knew when she sought out the union.  I hope our efforts would make her proud.  If she knew how many her life inspired to speak up, to challenge the system in quieter and equally effective ways, I think she would be pleasantly surprised.  Thus, today after Burning It Down, we remember her and are renewed in our quest to find a better way.

(Oh, and Happy First Payday to those of us who've been waiting until the 30th of Sept. to get some much needed monies for our labor.)

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