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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