Paychecks for Oddballs

Margaret Mary Vojtko, fall 2008.

Every now and then, a story grow legs and start doing laps around your social circle. The nice thing about Facebook is the way it archives these marathons, documenting the progress of anecdotes among people inclined to share them. Last September, my social circle, which contains a disproportionate number of people who have, or are about to have, PhDs in humanities fields, eagerly shared the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

Margaret Mary, longtime adjunct French instructor at Duquesne University, died on Sept. 1 at the age of 83. She was memorialized in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed by Daniel Kovalik, a senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union and academic labor activist. Kovalik described a dedicated, grandmotherly teacher who’d been grievously betrayed by the university she’d served for decades.

As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.

Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Margaret Mary’s story was familiar enough to my generation of PhDs, many of whom work in such terrible adjunct jobs or know colleagues who do. I’ve been on the cusp of such work several times during my own academic career and I’ve more than once vowed to quit the profession rather than live on less-than-subsistence wages. I love academia, but I won’t starve for it. Vojtko’s story predictably sparked a reaction from the huge community of precariously employed academics, who reacted, as we do, with a lot of words, ranging from efforts to connect academic labor to the broader struggle for worker’s rights to a hashtag, #IamMargaretMary. She quickly became something of a saint, a martyr who died for academia’s economic sins. The fact that she was a grandmotherly white lady certainly helped.

I’m not complaining. Outside of academia, people tend to assume that professors are still well-paid, respected professionals, even though 73% of American college instructors are now non-tenure-track, and most of them receive meager pay and little to nothing in way of health insurance, pensions, etc. I remember assigning last year’s composition students an article about the economics of higher ed and noting their shock that their exorbitant tuition largely wasn’t  going to people who teach them. I’m glad Mary Margaret’s story is carrying the plight of adjuncts into mainstream consciousness. If we are going to reform academic labor, we need to engage the consciences of students, parents, alumni, other exploited workers, and the many other members of our larger communities.

But saints are always more complicated than their icons. Recently, published an investigation into Margaret Mary and the movement her death spawned. The Margaret Mary who emerges from this story is still a passionate teacher, dedicated to the point of self-sacrifice (‘”Teaching is not a profession or a career,” she told a campus magazine a few years ago. “It is a devotion—a dedication. Too many people look upon it as a job, a source of income.”‘), but also eccentric, irascible, weird. In addition to teaching French, she was president of the local historical society in Homestead, PA, and became protective to the point of hoarding with artifacts from that town’s bloody 1892 steel strike.

None of her preservation efforts related to her work at Duquesne. In fact, the other members of the Homestead Historical Society didn’t know she was a professor. They recognized her passion—and worried about where it led. Vojtko was proprietary about her research, and about objects. Once she had possession of an artifact—a billy club used in the Battle of Homestead, or scrap metal from the mill—she refused to part with it. “She would say she had them in her home, and we’d say, ‘Margaret, they really shouldn’t be in your home. I mean, there’s an insurance issue, and they need to be catalogued in, and they need to be public property,’ ” said Jan Carr, one of the founding members of the Homestead Historical Society. “She wouldn’t surrender them.”

She hoarded other things as well, eventually inheriting two houses, filling them with emphera, and refusing to allow maintenance and repairs. She was also a staunchly conservative Catholic, and rubbed her students and colleagues the wrong way (and held views I, and probably most of her colleagues, find wrongheaded). She was also a strong advocate for faculty unionization, supported by 85% of Duquesne adjunct faculty but blocked by the administration, leading to a protracted standoff. “She was toweringly angry that they refused to recognize us, and angrier still that they refused to recognize us by referring to religion.”

The portrait that emerges from the Slate piece is not of a cardboard saint, but of a passionate, eccentric, irascible, cranky, self-righteous, difficult woman who worked at a university for decades, but never fit neatly into its changing conceptions of itself. She didn’t make things easy on herself as her health and finances declined, spurned offers of help and drove people away with her obsessive control of her space. She, like most of us, was the partial author of her own misfortunes.

While the Slate article hits the right notes about the rights of adjuncts–“We should expect universities to pay adjuncts a living wage, give them benefits and some job security, and provide them with the resources they need to do their jobs well—especially because we tend to think of education as a public good, rather than just another consumer industry.”–it also offers opportunities to scale back one’s compassion for her, and by extension the adjuncts for whom she became a symbol. She was a hoarder, she was disagreeable, she was conservative on sexual and religious issues, she spurned help, she made poor decisions, etc.

I think we need to be careful to resist these qualifications. Even someone with poor financial instincts deserves to be paid more than $25,000 a year for full-time teaching. If you do a job, you should be compensated fairly for that job, whatever mistakes you make or bad habits you indulge in your off hours.

I like Slate‘s Margaret Mary better than Kovalik’s. The fact that she was a much odder, more difficult figure than the martyr she became doesn’t undermine the larger argument about the rights of adjuncts. Even eccentrics and people with bad habits deserve a living wage, benefits, and job security (and probably need them even more). Decent jobs aren’t just for the squared off and self-regulating. Odd ducks need them too, especially because a steady income makes it easier to be an odd duck.

One of the things that bothers me most about the academic jobs crisis is how it’s squeezing the eccentricity out of the profession. In order to land a TT job, your interview suit has to be immaculate, your publications polished and relevant and carefully placed, your demeanor perfectly professional and collegial, your research carefully fitted to prevailing trends and norms. I think about some of the old oddballs and cranks I studied under in college and wonder if they could ever get hired today. We sand off our own rough edges, and turn the professeriat, which should be a haven for weirdness, into a bunch of careful strivers.

Tight job markets discipline the mind, the body, the soul. They force you to twist yourself into the very particular openings available to you, and force you be oh so careful lest you lose the position you squeezed into. We need to fight for better wages, more and better jobs, and better job security, not just as a matter of economic justice, but individual freedom as well.

Paychecks for Oddballs. I like the sound of that.


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The Sea Above


A few days ago, I visited the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, which was once accompanied by a kilometer-long covered arcade. A portion of this walkway has been reassembled, and you look up to see stone ceiling panels covered with stars, representing both stars in the sky and the starfish (or “fishstars,” as our guide called them) in the sea above the sky.

The ancient Egyptian cosmos was a bubble in a great sea, land floating on water, waters flowing above the dome of the sky, land life dependent on the one river that flowed across the earth. The starfish suggest that the sea above, like the sea below, was crowded with life, great schools of creatures passing over our heads.

In spots, a little blue paint still clings to the spaces between the stars.

Yesterday, after a few days of teasing with drizzles one could mistake for imaginary, Cairo saw its first real rainstorm since I arrived in August. It lasted maybe 10 minutes, but drenched Downtown, leaving wide puddles in the rutted, gutterless streets. Came complete with thunder.

The rain came to the AUC campus today. My typing was just interrupted by a thundercrack directly overhead. A student just came into my office sopping. I can hear excited whoops from the quad.

When you live in a narrow valley alongside the nation’s only river, when you can walk to the desert, it’s possible to see something as simple as the rain as a source of wonder. The rumbling overhead reminds me of Melville’s account of the Nantucketer in Moby Dick, who, “at nightfall…out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.” Even in the desert, the sea is here. In Fayyoum Oasis, southwest of Cairo, the fossilized bones of prehistoric whales bleach in the sun, memorials of the sea that was, and will, in the long arc of geologic time, be again.

whale fossils

The ocean overhead, the ocean underneath, ready to flow over us as it likes.


Sovereign Creature



Poster of Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his King-Tut-headed bride, “Egypt.” The faces of previous presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser smile down from the pyramids.


CLEOPATRA:  His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck

A sun and a moon which kept their course and lighted

The little O, th’ earth.

DOLABELLA:                Most sovereign creature–

CLEOPATRA:  His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm

Crested the world; his voice was propertied

As all the tuned sphered, and that to friends;

But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,

He was rattling thunder. For his bounty,

There was no winter in’t: an Antony it was

That grew the more by reaping. His delights

Were dolphinlike, they showed his back above

The element they lived in. In his livery

Walked crowns and crowners; realms and islands were

As plates dropped from his pocket.

Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.80-93

Egypt has a long tradition of deifying its rulers, and the last few months have seen the preparation of a new space in the pantheon. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Minster of Defense, leader of the popular coup that toppled President Morsi in July, and de facto ruler of Egypt, has been lifted aloft by a great wave of popular admiration. Sisi-mania is abroad in the land, and in case you think the crudely photoshopped poster above is an outlier, check out what was published in September in the English edition of Al-Ahram, the state-owned daily newspaper:

Catch the Al-Sisi mania

He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendez-vous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant…

His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless…His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.

There’s even a lovely mangling of Shakespeare:

William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.

Author Lubna Absel Aziz’s prose is nausea-inducing, but Sisi-mania is real, and it’s often not much subtler than the hagiography above. There’s a whole Tumblr devoted to charting the appearance of the great man’s likeness on political cartoons, refrigerator magnets, and a surprising variety of baked goods.


On Friday, October 25, Bassem Youssef, the host of El Bernameg (The Program), Egypt’s version of The Daily Show, returned from a long hiatus. It was the first episode since the June 30 uprising and the July 3 coup, and the lobby TV in our building was surrounded by viewers. The doormen had strategically angled the chairs so they could watch the TV and the entrance at once. Sadly, my Arabic is still too limited to follow the jokes, but I could hear the laughter echoing off the walls as I headed out.

Youssef, who mercilessly mocked Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood during their year in power, recently used his newspaper column to criticize Egyptian liberals for their slide into authoritarianism. But on El Bernameg he tread lightly around the new regime, laughing at Sisi-mania rather than the man himself. In one sketch, a baker came out with a box of El-Sisi cupcakes.

“Very nice. I’ll take half a kilo.”

“Just half? Don’t you like El-Sisi?”

“OK, fine, the whole kilo.”

It wasn’t subtle enough. Criminal complaints were filed by military supporters and CBC, Youssef’s network, suspended the show. Youssef, who had thrived during a year of antagonizing Morsi, was done in one under El-Sisi.

“Thou, an Egyptian puppet”

Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown

In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves

With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall

Uplift us to the view…


Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness 

I’th posture of a whore.  (5.2.209-222)

So what does this have to do with Antony and CleopatraI think the key is a binary that I used to teach the play to my students over the last few weeks. Cleopatra is at once a goddess and a puppet, an immortal towering above ordinary people, and also their plaything. She never gets to be simply woman. Indeed, her indeterminacy is expressed in her play with Antony, during which gender roles become pleasurably fluid:

Ere the ninth hour I drunk him to his bed;

Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst

I wore his sword Philippan.  (2.5.21-23)

This passage does come to mind when looking at El-Sisi’s hermaphrodite bride in the poster above.

Antony, wrapped up in Cleopatra’s cult, goes through a similar apotheosis. He is either a godlike hero or a trophy to be brought back to Rome in disgrace.

Antony and Cleopatra thus shows the result of “immortal longings” (5.2.281). To live forever is to become a “sovereign creature” (5.2.82) at the mercy of the adulation and the mockery of the people. In transforming herself into a monument by dying on her throne in her tomb, Cleopatra seeks to become a goddess, and succeeds in escaping Caesar’s grasp, but she fails to avoid becoming a puppet. Her immortality takes the form of being “boyed,” with all of that word’s connotations of juvenile irreverance and protean play, forever.


It’s fitting that it is “a poor Egyptian” (5.2.52), the only one seen in the play, who names Cleopatra’s endgame to Caesar:

                        The queen my mistress,

Confined in all that she has, her monument,

Of thy intents desires instruction,

That she preparedly may frame herself

To th’ way she’s forced to.  (5.2.53-56)

The ordinary man know exactly what the queen is doing, and shows her no special loyalty.

While some Egyptians are content to make El-Sisi a god, many are willing to turn him into a plaything, especially the rude mechanicals of the internet: