An update on the “death of an adjunct” story at Duquesne, and a jeremiad against self-sacrifice.

L.V. Anderson has done some new reporting on the death of adjunct French instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko in Pittsburgh this summer.  The real story turns out to be more complicated than just “adjunct work killed Professor Vojtko.”  She earned a nursing degree but preferred medieval studies.  However, she never finished her Ph.D., apparently had signs of mental illness for years, and individual members of the Duquesne University community (NOT the institution itself) had repeatedly reached out to offer her help, appropriate housing, and similar assistance.  (It’s interesting that Vojtko once wanted to be a nun; she remained a devout Catholic, and to the end of her life lived like one–but more on the self-sacrifice later in this essay.)  UPDATE. 11/22/2013:  Last night, to my chagrin and embarrassment, I discovered that Flavia at Ferule & Fescue had already commented on this story in a post earlier this week, after having written about the story when it first broke this summer.  She offers some interesting thoughts about the Catholic perspective, hers and Duquesne’s.

This reminds me of the simplistic moralizing that flowed from the suicide of Aaron Swartz, the illegal downloader targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice.  The larger story, as Larissa McFarquar reported in The New Yorker earlier this year, also included a history of mental illness and quite possibly chronic malnutrition, neither of which help people make informed decisions about their futures.

In addition to her reporting on the Vojtko story, Anderson published an essay explaining “Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Other Jobs” that I found pretty nutty.  She explains that adjuncts must teach such a heavy load that they don’t have much time left over for writing, publishing, and applying for jobs–all true.  But then she also explains–through the help of some adjunct faculty correspondents–that the academic calendar somehow prevents them from looking for work:

This means that people who want to get out can look in the summer and for two weeks around Xmas to change careers, but other than that they’re stuck. I was talking to a colleague last week who told me that she saw the most perfect non-academic job for her in Boston the week before, but since we were already 3 weeks into the semester, she couldn’t imagine ditching her students mid-semester. There’s a real sense of duty that comes with the job. 

This is the part that strikes me as completely nuts.  Any adjunct faculty member who puts the well-being of hir students ahead of hir own well-being is utterly and completely deluded.  (I would say that the same is true of tenured and tenure-track faculty too, BTW.  It’s not just faculty, but also the institutions we work for, who are responsible for the conditions under which students are expected to learn and earn credits.  Faculty alone can’t be responsible.)

The fact of the matter is that faculty sometimes can’t fulfill their teaching responsibilities to the end of the semester.  Usually, it’s illness, childbirth, or family crises that intervene, but sometimes adjuncts just resign mid-semester because they’re pissed off (something that happened in my department several years ago).  Yet somehow classes get taught, students earn credits, and life goes on.  Sometimes natural disasters intervene:  for example, here in Colorado, an adjunct faculty member who lives in Estes Park was teaching at a front range university when the flood ripped through our state.  The only reasonable, direct route to his job was via a road that was entirely washed out (and remains washed out until tomorrow, I believe)

Guess what?  It’s not the responsibility of adjunct faculty to solve the problems that properly belong to the university!  Adjunct faculty should tend to their own needs and interests, and to hell with your employers.  If the university you teach for has made you no commitment, then you owe it–and its students–precisely jack squat.  Please, please, please:  DO NOT MAKE THE MISTAKE OF DEMONSTRATING MORE LOYALTY TO AN INSTITUTION THAN IT DEMONSTRATES TO YOU.  Our employers looks after their own interests; that’s why most of us don’t have tenure-track jobs.

I agree with Anderson’s conclusion that an adjunct union recognized by the university might have helped out Vojtko, but if adjunct faculty should learn anything from the Vojtko example, it’s that no one will look out for your interests if you don’t look out for them yourself.  Think about your future, not five years down the road, but thirty-five; does your university pay into Social Security?  Does it make contributions to TIAA-CREF on your behalf?  If you never find a tenure-track job, will you ever be able to afford to retire?  What happens if (like Vojtko) you are involuntarily “retired” from adjunct teaching?

If you are an adjunct lecturer now, please put a time limit on the number of semesters you’re willing to work as an adjunct.  Seek out opportunities outside of academia, no matter if it’s February, May, September, or December.  If you have a Ph.D., it may not count for much in some lines of work outside of academia, but what it suggests to me is that you’re able and willing to learn and will be successful if you choose to work in another field.  You possess substantial intellectual and cultural capital compared to the vast majority of other job seekers.  Use it.

Margaret Mary Vojtko might have been happy to live like a nun, in poverty and embodying a spirit of service and sacrifice to her students.  Will you?

46 thoughts on “An update on the “death of an adjunct” story at Duquesne, and a jeremiad against self-sacrifice.


    I learned this when my mom put off getting surgery for breast cancer so she could finish the semester and get surgery during break (it had metastasized by then and she had to have lymph nodes removed), and then came right back because “they needed her.” During her recovery phase she got lower than usual teaching evals so the uni didn’t give her a raise that year on the basis of that, whereas she would have gotten a raise if she’d taken the semester off instead of teaching during chemo.

    After that she stopped being so much of a doormat and started saying no to things. And I learned a valuable lesson as well. (Also I hope she lives forever.)


  2. OMG, n&m. I hope she lives forever, too.

    One of the things I’m proud of is that I’ve never believed in my own indispensability. Someone else will do the work/chair the committee/etc.–it doesn’t have to be me.

    (Of course, this can be a self-serving philosophy, but I prefer to see it as self-PREserving.)


  3. This awful story echoed into our suite via a photocopy of the original story a couple of months ago. Whether the more fully-reported journalistic account significantly modifies the outrage generated by the advocacy piece is unclear. A reporter who thinks that a couple of hundred dollars from a brother’s estate would fix a house-sized furnace in the Pittsburgh SMSA might be a little challenged on the fact-checking side. But the details and backstory are compellingly interesting on their own account.

    Totally agreed that an adjunct should fly that minute at the drop of any better opportunity, especially one that is time-critical. Our union even suggested at one point some years back that one could [i.e. a regular faculty member in this case] legitimately and in advance *plan* to retire on, say, October 30, if that best suited their needs and plans. To the shocked “what about the students,” and the “its a vocation” demurrers, I would say that the universities–by rendering the students as consumers and customers–have cut themselves off from that claim. No one would suggest that an insurance professional with customer-service functions and responsibilities should not grab that out of the blue report next week offer in Sarasota because “a lot of hir clients have complicated policy renewals coming up during this quarter, and how will they cope with a fill-in agent who doesn’t know their needs and circumstances?” Contingent is a two-way sword. It’s not brain surgery. Changing on the fly is a good thing to get used to early.


  4. I agree completely. Adjuncts need to remember that they serve their own needs first! The university will happily exploit them without looking back. And we tenure-stream faculty have got to watch their backs, too, when we can to make sure that they do not do extra work for free out of a sense of “loyalty” to the institution. We have an adjunct here who has taken on extra study sections and extra students sent to her by the Academic Resource Center out of a sense of responsibility. She needed to know that she was under NO PRESSURE from the department to say yes to any of these requests.

    By the way, an interesting article on the failure of MOOCs appeared in Slate today…


  5. HA! I just saw that via Jonathan Rees’s post on it on his blog. (Bonus Monty Python joke if you click that link.)

    Yes on the responsibility of tenure-stream faculty to serve as counsel to adjunct faculty. There are adjuncts in my department who teach independent studies & do this kind of work, too. But, that’s how they roll. There are some who don’t want to find TT work because of family commitments in the area. And yet, teaching overloads for no more money seems like a recipe for burnout. Dispensability is a value some might to well to cultivate.


  6. I feel truly conflicted about this story. Surely, MMV deserved better than to die in the street; and yes, all universities could do much more for their adjuncts than they do. Yes, the conditions are exploitive.

    But at the same time, the issues you raise, Historiann, are important: Why would anyone expect loyalty from a large bureaucratic institution? One might argue that institutions *should* support their workers, but anyone with a brain can see that they do not and never have, unless legally constrained to do so. To expect such support is nothing short of delusional. MMV apparently took few steps to plan for the future, consolidate her relationship to Duquesne, or work the institution to her own advantage — by finishing her PhD, for example; planning for retirement or illness in some way (she did have more resources than many people — outright ownership of 2 houses, for instance); or seeking other job opportunities.

    An intelligent, dedicated individual who knows that her employer offers no benefits or security, but who nevertheless acts as if everything will always stay the same, is in some serious denial.


  7. Squadrato, it’s good to hear from you. I think we’re on the same page on this issue.

    Your comment makes me think that MMV would have been better off in a convent, preferably in a teaching order. She could have taught all her life, and then when teaching was no longer possible, she could have retired in some kind of basic comfort and security. Now *that* is the kind of institution (Catholic or otherwise) that can be counted on to care for its own. But outside of religious life, you are totally right on to note that that’s not what institutions are for.

    Having taught at a few different Catholic institutions, I have my own observations about the rhetoric of care and “family” that Catholic universities promulgate. As I came to learn, “family” is merely a metaphor, and employees and faculty of Catholic unis had better recognize it, & the sooner the better. On the whole they are no different than secular universities w/r/t employees & faculty. It may have been MMV’s Catholic devotion that led her to hope for better.


  8. When I read the article, the question that I kept asking myself was: Where was the Social Security. I do know that for some institutions (government an perhaps some educational institutions), no Social Security taxes are taken out because they are in a governmental pension plan. Was this the case here? Because if it was and she wasn’t part of the pension plan because she was an on demand employee, there is a huge whole here that colleges and universities are exploiting.

    Does anyone know if this is likely to have been the case. If not, why was there no mention of any Social Security income in the article?


  9. lahana, the article quotes Vojtko saying that she has Social Security income: “‘I am my sole support and have no other resource except Social Security which covers my expenses for food, utilities, and incidentals,’ she wrote in her EEOC complaint. ‘I have no retirement income from previous employment.’ Years earlier, she had floated the idea of renting out her second house for extra income, but now she told Cira, ‘It’s just too much to think about.'”

    In Anderson’s telling, it wasn’t penury that doomed Vojtko, it was mental illness and an absence of a family member who could clean out her houses and coerce her into assisted living or something like that. Like many adjuncts, she thought of herself as a professional even in the absence of any secure professional position or job security. (Note the parts of the article in which she bristles at offers of assistance from a social worker, friends, etc.)

    In addition to friends offering to pay for a furnace repair, “Renault introduced her to a nun who was also a social worker, and who looked into senior housing options for her, but Vojtko feared losing her independence and didn’t pursue them. Cira encouraged her to apply for a subsidized apartment through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She refused to fill out the paperwork.”


  10. A couple things, from a current adjunct:

    First, while I may not care too much for my employer as an institution, I do sign a contract every semester saying that I will teach ‘X’ for that semester. The last thing we want, if we do care about adjuncts, is for universities to start thinking that even semester-length contracts are unnecessary, or that us academics don’t care about them.

    Also, I see a distinction between my university as an institution and my department as part of that institution–I happen to like and respect both my chair and the assoc prof who handles adjunct hiring and scheduling. They have pretty thankless jobs (at a mid-sized urban public university with a 4/4 for full-timers and still about 65% adjunct-taught classes), and I wouldn’t voluntarily put them in the position of replacing me halfway through the semester. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just bad form, and while the university might not care either way, it would make their jobs more difficult.

    Second, while I appreciate the thought behind the jeremiad, for some of us, adjuncting isn’t a bad lifestyle choice–my wife happens to be in a field that is a) well-paid (far better than even generous academic standards) and b) currently has her moving year to year. My options are either to set up long-term somewhere where she isn’t, or move with her.

    Yes, it’s one data point, but while I want to improve the conditions under which contingent faculty work, and to reduce the numbers at universities like my current institution in favor of more permanent positions, I also appreciate that I can move from city to city and do what I love every semester.


  11. Yes to everything in this post.

    As I recall, Tenured Radical got a surprising amount of pushback a few years ago when she made similar arguments (to the effect that visitors and adjuncts shouldn’t believe their institution will try to keep them or that the next opening is “theirs” — even if they’re told so, by multiple people — and that they should think first of their own careers). I didn’t understand the rage then, but I’ll be interested to see if you hear similar objections.

    I mean, it’s wonderful to have a job that you love and it’s wonderful to have caring, thoughtful colleagues. But if you’re not getting retirement contributions or healthcare, or making enough to save for the future (or don’t have access to those things through other means, as in the case of Limehen), your wonderful colleagues only go so far and their goodwill can’t save you. The money for hiring doesn’t come from the department, and even those staffing decisions that ARE made at the departmental level have lots of outside pressures on them. We have lovely and talented people we can’t renew (or can’t guarantee more than a semester of work at a time).

    It’s totally reasonable to be hurt or angry if those you regard as colleagues don’t renew your contact — whether for good reasons or bogus ones. But it’s not reasonable to make financial decisions based on your presumptions about your colleagues’ goodwill.


  12. Is this the one you mean, Flavia? And then, there was the follow-up post, with more poo-flinging! (We need to think up a new kind of Godwin’s law, in which the commenter who suggests to Tenured Radical that she’s not in fact radical at all, or there’s no such thing as a tenured radical, etc., automatically loses the debate. Potter’s corollary?)

    As I recall, TR had the temerity to suggest that VAPs should actually move to be proximate to their jobs. Much confusion abounded because she used the word “adjunct” sometimes when she really was writing about people who had full-time one-year or replacement positions.

    Good times, good times.


  13. Although the outcome was still sad, that follow-up article where so many people tried to help MMV was heartening.

    But to your larger point, Historiann: yes, it will be an administrative headache to replace someone in the middle of a semester, but if you’re an adjunct and the job with benefits and a future won’t wait, take it.

    Any department worth its salt is going to say congratulations and godspeed. If it doesn’t, it’s not living up to all those high-sounding ideals that the humanities are supposed to promote.


  14. I am waiting for someone to do some research on contingent labor to explain why they stick with it. Many claim they can’t do anything else, but it’s hard to believe that is true, even though they may sincerely think it.
    Much of the information we have about these workers is purely anecdotal, but articulated as fact.

    MMV is not the only one to have become a symbol after death, and my view is it is all in your perspective. Remember the math grad student at Berkeley who shot his advisor in the 1980s, before shooting people down in their offices was all the rage? He had been in school 15+ years, had had been ABD and teaching sections for over a decade, and flipped when the department suggested that maybe the Ph.D. was not happening. I was in grad school at the time, and I remember all of us going like, “Dude! Righteous!” I know this is appalling in retrospect, but he became the symbol of our oppression, and we believed it was all the department’s fault.

    Re. MMV: actually she did have family who tried to help her, and she quarreled with them because she couldn’t bear to have anything in her house moved or touched ( believe me, it is a huge trauma for hoarders to get what seems like ordinary help.) She could have gotten the furnace running if she had let a repairman in the door to light hte pilot light. Yet some contingent fac. on FB are still insisting this was Duquesne’s fault and they never should have fired her, even though she was way beyond being able to do her job. I think it is significant that contingent faculty, while often having a disproportionate sense of profeional responsibility, often trash students on Facebook and see them as part of the oppressive system. So some of htese folks don’t see it as a problem, as we tenured or tt fac might, that MMV was no longer a competent teacher.


  15. Amen, especially to the point about not being overly loyal/self-sacrificing. Yes, if necessary, adjuncts can and should walk out the door to take a better job.

    I do take Limehen’s point about signing a contract, but it’s worth noting that there’s no practical enforcement mechanism for such a contract. I’ve got a multi-year contract, but I’m sure my department wouldn’t bat an eye if I resigned at the end of a year, or even a semester, mid-way through that contract (since I do have a full-time job, with benefits, I feel a bit more responsibility to finish out a semester, though I also wouldn’t hesitate at this point to use my accrued sick leave if I found myself in the sort of situation N&M describes). And tenured professors, who theoretically have lifetime contracts, quit on a pretty regular basis. I believe there’s at least a custom of giving notice by May 1, but not everybody adheres to that. And there have been some interesting debates (which I can’t find right now) about just how bad it is for a job candidate to accept one job in, say, February, and one (s)he deems better in, say, April. There are valid arguments on both sides about that one, but there are some similarities to the adjunct question (including the issue of signing a contract which is not, in any practical terms, enforceable).

    That said, given the nature of teaching work, there probably is some middle ground available if an adjunct wants to take a better job, but doesn’t want to burn bridges with a department from which (s)he might need recommendations in the future, or simply feels loyalty to the students, if not the department. While teaching is time-consuming, the scheduling of most aspects of it are also flexible, so in many cases, with a bit of negotiation with the new employer and the department, it might be possible to finish out the semester and begin the new job at the same time (not easy, but possible). It’s also quite possible that a department would have another adjunct who was ready and willing to take over the class (which is, of course, what would happen if a teacher of any rank fell seriously ill or died).


  16. Undine: who cares if a soon-to-be-former department hates an adjunct who resigns mid-semester to take a job? ZE HAS A JOB!!!

    It seems like a lot of people really overestimate the degree to which a department will hate or even think about them ever again after they resign. Even if one has a job in academia, it’s your future employers, not your past employers, who you should worry about impressing.

    Tenured Radical raises a point that the Anderson article touches on but doesn’t address directly: the question of age. I’m already feeling (mid-40s) like my hold on the students has an expiration date. I think it’s hard to relate and appear relevant to students past a certain age, no matter how able-bodied, vigorous, or determined one is. (At least, not 4 classes a semester, every semester.)

    Contingent Cassandra is right; most employers want to hire people who already have jobs, and so most real-world employers will understand that one must give notice, etc., and may even be willing to wait until the end of the term to start a new hire. The rigidity of the second Anderson article–both on the part of supposed future employers and current employers–just seemed too wacky for me to believe. (And if they are that wacky: who cares? You’re well rid of them, and no one else will likely take their word seriously.)

    I hosted a conversation here on this blog about accepting a job #1 in Feb. or March, signing the contract, and then taking job #2 in May because it’s a better job. Spoiler alert: I said it wasn’t a big deal, and that there wasn’t anything to do about it so why should department #1 get angry, but others disagreed.


  17. On social security: any time someone works for anything other than cash under the table, social security is deducted. I’m pretty sure that an employer always has to pay its half, and deduct the other half. There are some exceptions for people who work only a few hours a week, but relatively few (this is why potential political appointees often get in trouble over failing to pay the “nanny tax” — which often means failing to pay into social security for domestic employees).

    The frustrating situation comes when one is officially self-employed (e.g. doing various sorts of freelance work). In that case, the worker is responsible for both halves of social security (c. 14-15%, on top of other taxes). When I do freelance work, I send in estimated taxes of 50% of each payment that comes in, and usually get just a bit back. This, combined with the need to buy one’s own medical insurance and fund one’s own retirement, makes freelance income worth a lot less in practice than it might seem when compared to a salary that also includes social security and some benefits.


  18. CC: lahana is right; many institutions don’t pay SS because they’re funding another kind of pension for their employees, at least in theory. I don’t get SS paid by my uni, because they’re paying into TIAA-CREF, but this is of course NOT AT ALL the same as a pension plan. (There’s another pension plan for state employees who are not faculty called PERA, which seems like a better deal overall.)


  19. Historiann:

    Yes! Those are they. What fun trip down memory lane.

    But you’re right, too, that the real outrage was based in a misunderstanding of terms, and TR’s suggestion that FT contingent faculty move. So the pushback was more focused/less generalized than I remembered.


  20. Ye gods yes. I remember. As if I wuz such a tyrant I would expect someone to move in order to teach a course for $3,000.

    There is currently someone commenting on my blog who has no command of the English language and thinks I am supporting Obama’s drone strikes.


  21. I just wanted to point out that, at least where I teach, the adjunct contract only protects the institution and not the adjunct. On the contract is a statement that claims the contract can be changed at any time. I signed a contract right before the semester started last spring to teach three classes. One of my classes was canceled due to low enrollment, and I was told that I had to go in and sign a NEW contract for only two classes (and, of course, only two classes worth of pay). I’m not sure if it’s that way everywhere, but clearly the contract only exists to protect one party here: the institution. As far as I’m concerned, signing the contract didn’t guarantee or gain me anything, but I’m sure it gained my institution the right to seek out some kind of retaliation should I not have fulfilled the contract.


  22. Re: TR’s question regarding why some adjuncts stay on and feel they can’t do anything else – in my own case it’s been extraordinarily difficult finding a new job because having a PhD is viewed as a liability by so many employers. I’m an adjunct in my 30s who’s been adjuncting for a few years following a post-doc, and have published two books and several scholarly articles, but am now networking aggressively and applying for jobs in academic administration, particularly academic advising roles in university advising centers and dean’s offices. I’ve applied for academic jobs as well, but had little luck there as I work in an obscure subfield with almost no openings. Although I enjoy teaching and have had a positive experience, I truly do not want to be a long-term adjunct; it’s not feasible anyway with budget cuts, and I never had any expectations that a permanent teaching position would open up for me at my graduate institution, where I now teach. One administrator I talked to flat-out said “I don’t hire PhDs” and I’ve heard “you’re overqualified” on a number of occasions. In interviews I try to stress relevant experience (work with students, service as a faculty advisor, which my institution allows contingent faculty to do)and downplay historical research and publication, but sometimes there’s no getting around a PhD when they want someone with a B.A. or an M.A., even if the PhD has relevant experience. Also, there’s some circularity in that administrative leadership roles tend to require a PhD, but you have to get a foot in the door with an entry level administrative job first in order to rise through the ranks, and if they reject PhDs from the get-go, this trajectory can’t happen. Other adjuncts with PhDs have surely had different experiences with the job market, though, so fingers crossed…


  23. I wonder if the academic admins who interview you and/or tell you they don’t hire Ph.D.s think you’re still hoping to find a research position? If you can’t make it clear that you don’t want to work as a faculty member & that you want to leave the traditional academic track, you might consider leaving the Ph.D. off of your resume. You can say that you “pursued” a Ph.D. to cover the time hole on your resume, but you don’t have to claim it if you think it’s getting in your way.

    Glamorous Glue: I think your take on the contract situation is for the most part correct, but I seriously doubt that this institution would pursue you legally in the event you resigned mid-contract. I hope you documented the new contract signing situation; you can always use that as an illustration of the fungible nature of their contracts.


  24. I’m the one who said the quote you find “completely nuts”. It’s about duty to the students more than duty to the institution.

    Your “solution” is shortsighted. We are talking about structural poverty and an economic system that is relentless in its pursuit of eliminating workers and wages. Just simply looking for another job means one gets to be part of a disposable labor force in another field, which solves nothing except to give people a false sense of security.

    The real solution is to organize. That is the only way that workers can have any real say on working conditions.


  25. By emphasizing one’s individual marketability in a critique of structural violence, you are falling victim to neo-liberal subjectivity, even propagating it.

    What you have here is the true function of ideology, when contradictory information fits neatly into a worldview in spite of (and because of) its contradictory nature.


  26. Glamorous Glue: this is where unionization really matters and, although it is not a solution to underemployment, builds in a contract that is fairer. At my own institution, adjuncts receive a “kill fee” of 50% for a canceled course. This means that at a place where students pay per credit it is often profitable to run the course and means you don’t have disappointed students; and when the course is cancelled, a kill fee acknowledges that the adjunct may have turned down other work to take this job.

    Madeleine: I’m so sorry — you are obviously a person of high achievement, as many contingently employed faculty are. Part of what I would be interested in from a broader study is: we don’t hear from the people who go into other fields with doctoral training, only those who feel they can’t. I think this skews a great many people’s view (including those mostly affected by it) about what the employment possibilities are. It’s hard to get an administrative job if you don’t have a background in administration, which frankly, I think out to be built into graduate training.


  27. By emphasizing one’s individual marketability in a critique of structural violence, you are falling victim to neo-liberal subjectivity, even propagating it.

    NOPE. I agree with your analysis overall, Matthew, but where I disagree is your taking responsibility for it by suggesting that looking for other satisfying and productive work is somehow a betrayal of your responsibility to your students. I guess it sounds entrepreneurial to suggest that academics should think of #1 first, but no one else is going to do it for you.

    I think organizing and unionizing are great ideas and am all for them. But for people who inhabit human bodies which are prone to decay like Vojtko’s, and whose time is limited, I’m merely suggesting that they develop a plan B unless they’re happy to end up like Vojtko. The union may or may not arrive in time for many people. In any case, the adjunct unions I’ve seen (including the one at Duquesne) as they are proposed aren’t going to agitate for tenure-stream appointments for everyone.


  28. I’m just trying to complicate your use of the straw-man fallacy, especially since I am the straw-man you speak of.

    I would like to hear about your background and working with the Adjunct Faculty Association at Duquesne and what we are agitating for. I go to meetings but I hear not of this limit we have put upon ourselves.

    You speak of organizing as plan B, why was the plan A of organizing not mentioned in your post?

    I’m sorry to be picking on you. We are all subjects to neo-liberal subjectivity and ways of thinking about ourselves and others through this destructive paradigm.


  29. Thanks for your response & for commenting here, Matthew. All I know about Duquesne’s adjunct union comes from the Anderson article, but from what I know of other movements to unionize adjuncts, most are pretty modest in their goals (i.e. they want stable, multi-year contracts, health insurance, a fair pay scale, etc.) and most seem accepting of the status quo (i.e. that they will remain adjuncts rather than get tenure-stream appointments.)

    Why didn’t I write about unionization as plan A? I thought that Anderson’s article covered that pretty well, and I agree with her that a union would probably have helped Vojtko. I just disagreed with Anderson’s promulgation of your viewpoint, which is that adjuncts are prevented somehow for seeking other employment. They are not, and I think that your views on this are incompatable with addressing the systemic problems all faculty face.

    If you’re unwilling to resign to take another job because of your responsibility to the students, how can you really support a strike, which presumably you will need to do at some point? I dislike the doormat attitude that many faculty–regular and adjunct–take on, as though our universities aren’t also responsible for the conditions of student learning. We are not nuns, we like to eat too, and we are NOT the only ones on the hook for students.

    If your university really cared about continuity and stability in its faculty, wouldn’t they pay for it? If they cared about the students as much as you do, you would have a secure position.


  30. The “systematic problems that all faculty face.” What part-time adjuncts, full-time adjuncts, and full-time permanent faculty face are not one and the same. Believing that they are erases and continues to subsume adjunct issues under larger, presumably more important TT faculty issues. We are not one with you.
    Do you even adjunct, bro?


  31. I teach in the City University of New York where all full-time and part-time faculty (including graduate students on fellowship) are in the same union (PSC-CUNY). Our union leadership is great and quite radical in many ways. In response to Matthew’s point above that organizing should be Plan A, I have to say that even with a strong and active union our adjuncts get paid about $3000/ for a 3-credit course. This might be more than some adjuncts get elsewhere, but NYC is an incredibly expensive place to live. Adjuncts teaching two courses for more than three semesters are eligible for health insurance and a pension plan, which again might be better than in some institutions, but it’s still not great (and I hear that there are problems with the health insurance plan– it’s definitely not equivalent to what full timers receive). We’ve been teaching without a contract for three years, which I hope will change once our new mayor takes office. But I’m not optimistic that our union will be able to completely reverse conditions that exist in universities across the U.S. CUNY, like many public universities, is underfunded and devalued by the state, and until these systemic issues are addressed the reliance on adjuncts will exist to close financial gaps.


  32. Bro? Ahem.

    KW, your adjunct rate is as pathetic (actually, even MORE pathetic) than in my non-union shop. I assume that’s because (not in spite) of the fact that you’re in NYC. My guess is that adjunct labor is pretty thick on the ground there, in all manner of fields and subfields, whereas in Fort Collins, CO, it’s not.


  33. Ah, we are all subject to neoliberal subjectivity, Historiann, even in Fort Collins. Silly you.

    You know, I am so tired of academic navel gazing in which we would all rather sit around and theorize our position than be creative and independent about how to make an intellectual life. One year, on the job wiki, someone fantasized about how it might alter the labor situation for everyone to *refuse* to apply for academic jobs. Now that’s an idea! Another idea is to give it up, once and for all, that there is something so f^cking special and deserving about university teaching that it is better to pick up crumbs than to do something else for a living. There is nothing *more* inflexible than a newly hatched Ph.D., unless it is the college senior insisting on getting a humanities Ph.D. regardless of the fact that it is the least likely way — except for professional athlete, painter or movie star — to get full time work.


  34. Great post, Historiann! And much needed!

    I wouldn’t say that adjuncts who feel honor-bound to finish out the semester are crazy. I’d agree with you that it is a mistake, but it’s an understandable mistake and I’m sure I would be prone to it myself. Feeling a sense of duty to one’s student’s and responsibility for doing the job well is very natural. And I think pride in the quality of their work and a sense of doing right by the students, even if the university never appreciates that, is a big part of what sustains most adjuncts. It’s a major leap to give up the only psychologically rewarding thing about an unrewarding job.

    That said, if you’re leaving teaching, you should leave in October or March or whenever the knew job starts. You NEED to do that.

    As for Social Security: many public universities do not pay it, because the states cannot be compelled to pay that tax for their employees. My sense is that this is more common in redder states.


  35. Thank you for this piece. I’m a grad student on the job market, but I remain puzzled by the adjunct loyalty situation as well. I know jobs aren’t easy to come by, but I worked before grad school (as I think all should) and if I don’t get a job, a postdoc, a VAP, I will find other employment.

    I do think it helps to know how universities work, if you’re looking for non-faculty academic employment. To put it in a crass binary,a PhD will take you much farther in elite schools than it will in non-elite ones; non-elite schools like MA degrees in things like student affairs. Elite schools like PhDs. I’m also not above working for Starbucks, a consulting firm, or whatever other place of employment will have me. I’ll have to move for an academic job, so moving for a non-academic one isn’t terrible either. But stuck in adjunct hell? That’s terrible.


  36. The year I graduate with a PhD was a dreadful year on the job market in the UK – I think there was about 3 jobs in history in the whole country in any sub-discipline. And it wasn’t like there had been a great job market in years subsequent or after either, so there was a glut of PhDs. As a result, more than half my PhD cohort decided to cut their losses (over a dozen people from my uni – much more if I look to other institutions)- either that year or in the next couple of years – and now work in other industries or in academic management. They are all working in respectable middle-class and professional jobs that are reasonably well paid. So, in the UK at least (and I would be surprised if this wasn’t the case in the US), there is life after grad school.

    As I like to harp on, if your students are qualified for the job, so are you, only moreso. So, take some of the advice you give them about marketing your degree and go with it. I know that some people grumble that there aren’t jobs for humanities graduates, but that’s not true either. The statistics actually show that humanities graduates have higher rates of employment and of middle-class employment than many other disciplines, including the hard sciences. One of the main pieces of advice that is given in adapting your CV is a) explain to employers that your looking for a career change (so they know it’s not a gap-fill), and b) don’t imagine that employers (including uni administrators) will know how to translate your research and teaching skills into their list of requirements. Use their language and show what it is you’ve done in the past that fulfills those requirements. Finally, if your current institute has a careers service, use it – they usually know how to edit your CV for a different industry and can be very helpful.


  37. Striking would only be seen as a “nuclear” option a threat that is made knowing that the administration would be damaged far more than anyone in the process. It would indeed be a regrettable threat, but for the long-term greater good. All faculty unions I have been affiliated with see striking as problematic but the only weapon they have. APSCUF in Pennsylvania have been able to stem the tide of universities relying on adjunct labor through voting to strike twice. No one liked to do it, but they won just by threatening. You show your neoliberal subjectivity again by putting the blame on workers for being willing to stand up for themselves.

    What university cares about students? When I was in the Pennsylvania state system our chancellor Judy Hample (who was at the time the highest payed employee of the state of Pennsylvania) referred to freshman into classes as “cash cows”. That said, someone who cares about education and sees education as a service to others values the work, even when others don’t.

    Most importantly however, I highly suggest that all academics deconstruct their own class bias before writing on this subject. A former colleague of mine read the initial post to this blog and said it made her almost physically ill. The advice given is so paternalistic and thoughtless. What’s next? “Have problems getting soup into your mouth? Try a spoon.” Do you really believe that people are so stupid (or crazy) that they haven’t contemplated leaving mid-semester? Of course they have, my initial point is that people’s motivations are complex and deserve explanation. Working class identity is a complicated thing that a lot of people do not understand.

    I will leave you with this, some advice I give my Composition I students:

    1. Facts are important: Get some
    2. Because facts are important you have a responsibility to gather them before speaking out about a subject. To not do so (by say basing one’s entire idea of what adjunct unions are fighting for on 1 article) is best intellectually lazy and worse unethical.
    3. Problematize your own position. Just because one sympathizes doesn’t mean they are being helpful. To borrow from Peggy McIntosh, privilege is an invisible knapsack. We carry it with us without knowing it, and it blinds us to our own invisible biases. Rosemary Hennessy did some great work with this in Profit and Pleasure.
    4. Word choice and tone are important. We have an ethical responsibility not to demean people in writing.
    5. The Internet is pervasive and permanent. If one writes about people, they might just find out about it and reply. They might also choose to utilize a blog post into a conference paper/article on how even those sympathetic to the adjunct cause simply don’t get it.


  38. Hey, Matthew–I’m just one a$$hole on the internet. My (admittedly unsolicited) advice wasn’t designed to make anyone ill. Anyone who doesn’t like or want it is free to click away, or to leave long screeds in the comments. It’s hir choice.

    IMHO, anyone with a Ph.D. from whatever kind of background should interrogate hir class bias. I’m sure you’ll say it’s because of my “neoliberal subjectivity,” but I don’t feel nearly as sympathetic towards unemployed or underemployed Ph.D.s as I do towards people who haven’t had our advantages. I think it’s rather my “enlightenment subjectivity” that impels me to suggest that people with the cultural and intellectual capital of a Ph.D. can figure out another, more secure, and better way to pay the bills and save for retirement than to adjunct semester after semester.


  39. Intentions and actions are two very different things. One may have wonderful intentions, but act (or at least blog) insensitively.

    Good intentions are all well and good, but that doesn’t change the fact that your discourse is more Margaret Thatcher (“There’s no such thing as society, just people and their families”) than Karl Marx.


  40. A-hahahahhaaaaa!

    I really wonder about the kind of movement you’re building. It seems to consist mostly of people “nauseated” by blog posts and who want to unionize but see striking as only a “threat” that somehow magically would make “the [university] administration . . . damaged far more than anyone in the process.”

    Universities do NOT have your best interests in mind and will be happy to exploit you indefinitely. Good luck with your revolution.


  41. A little late, but I would like to point out that my husband’s first non-academic job after leaving a tenure-track position pays literally 2x what his assistant professor job paid. TWO TIMES! Yes, that’s a 12 mo salary instead of 9 mo, but you have to get grants to fill in those additional 3 months (and if you don’t get grants you work for free those months). That’s N=1, but it’s a really big difference!


  42. You may rage against “neoliberal subjectivity”, or decry the lack of a voice option, constraining you to exit, or you might agree with Paul Samuelson’s observation about resource allocation, that it matters not whether capital hires labor or labor hires capital in the determination of wages and rents.

    As long, though, as you live in a world in which markets allocate resources, it is the decisions you make at the margin, whether to continue to be disrespected by the administration or to walk away, that will concentrate administrative minds. Until failure to retain productive faculty and staff makes running the university more difficult than failure to retain unprepared and disengaged students, or failure to go to a bowl game, the resources will go to beer-‘n-circus, and the administrative abuse of faculty and staff will go on.


  43. Pingback: That didn’t turn out the way I thought it would: on the power of walking away | Historiann

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