Finally, good reporting on an adjunct’s life and death

Attention conservation notice: if the humanities really aren’t about job training, that holds for the PhD level of training as well as undergraduate.

Earlier this year, most of us probably read Death of an Adjunct when it was swirling around the internet a month or so go. Writing for Slate, LV Anderson opens up the story by doing actual journalism (whoa! So refreshing when that happens!) about the life of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

Instead of the victim and object of pity the first op-ed portrayed her to be, Anderson gets at Vojtko and paints her in many dimensions. It has been a very long time since I’ve seen writing I admired more than this in Slate. There are three takeaway points

1. Margaret Mary Vojtko lived as she wanted to live, within the constraints of gender, her income, and unjust institutions. She seemed to have been fiercely independent and wanted what she wanted and didn’t want what she didn’t want. She appears to be have been a difficult old woman. This difficulty does not, I should note, ameliorate the obligations that the rest of us have to care about her and support her. It just makes more real the idea that caring and supporting is difficult, and contemporary society makes it easy–very easy–for people to shrug off the opportunities they have to help and care. Duquesne’s policies are lousy, but she had family, too, who “didn’t speak to her for months.”

2. There are multiple Catholic approaches to poverty, but the university here epitomizes one that social policy scholars have critiqued. Sigrid Kahl argues that institutional Catholicism, with its focus on works, sees nothing wrong with those who are impoverished. So unlike the stigma associated with poverty in American and English protestants (God hates you and loves me!), those raised in Catholic tradition happily offer charity to individuals. But the institution does not necessarily work for the major structural reforms that serve to alleviate poverty. (See Kahl, S. (2005). The religious roots of modern poverty policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant traditions compared. Archives Européennes de Sociologie (European Journal of Sociology) 46(1), 91-126.)

3. Adjunct unions can make a difference in their pay and benefits packages.

Unstated throughout is something I really wish to note: nobody pays any real attention to the oversupply of PhDs in the humanities even as they remark upon it (as is done here), and even though Margaret Mary Votjko herself did not hold a PhD. That is, not only are there more PhDs than open jobs, but there are people like Votjko with master’s degrees also in that job pool. That’s impossible. So what’s the answer? I’ve heard various answers from various quarters, and none of them have to me to seemed like good answers, a lot like the unionization answer. Unionizing vis-a-vis an oversupply doesn’t strike me as a winning strategy in the long term, but I could be wrong, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong here.

One answer is that programs in the humanities should accept fewer candidates.

But which schools should eliminate their programs is a tough question. Let the Ivy leagues keep their programs to populate all the other programs, since those are the only places that produce people who get jobs? There’s some value to diversity. And no department wants to give up their program as it signals a loss of status in the hierarchy of universities. There are many takes on why departments hold onto PhD programs, and none of them make sense to me, as most PhD programs lose money for departments and universities. But I have to admit that PhD education overall is still a bit of mystery to me, despite my having one and working in academic departments. One claim is that departments couldn’t function without PhD students: professors supposedly steal students’ work and use them as veritable slave labor.

I personally have experienced none of this. I worked with Randy Crane at UCLA, and he was lovely to me even though I was a difficult young woman. I can see how lab work might turn exploitative, but for me, students take up time and resources and I don’t actively seek them, wonderful though they are. Instead, I am confronted with young people who love the subject and want to have more education in it, and would love to do the job I do. Denying them those things because they may not get a job at the end seems awfully paternalistic and even mean to me. Why can’t a person give themselves that time and a shot at their dream job, even if that shot is a long shot? Nobody is telling people their sons and daughters shouldn’t have music lessons, lest they later yearn to be musician in a hard labor market for musicians.

Instead, humanists create a contradiction in their own arguments for the humanities in their own expectations about jobs. Humanists routinely argue about the inherent value of the humanities–and I agree wholeheartedly–for undergrads. It’s not job training, we say. But then, at the end, if there is no secure university job for humanity PhDs, it’s tragic rather than expected. Mary Margaret Votjko strikes me as exactly fitting this contradiction. She also studied nursing. She could have pursued nursing as a job and her various interests in languages as a vocation had she really wanted economic security. She didn’t do that because she wanted what she wanted.

It strikes me as much more reasonable to caution people about how hard it is to get and keep university jobs, let them make their choices, and also encourage the idea that the avocation of the humanities is not your job ticket even with a PhD.