I spent some time- almost 10 years- as an Undergraduate Instructor (Part-Time Professor, Sessional Lecturer… the nomenclature varies with the school) at a number of universities here in Canada. It says as much on my ‘About‘ page. If you have checked out some of my musings hereabouts you likely are aware that I do have something of a tendency to, well, lecture– for lack of a better term- at times. It comes naturally.
N.B. THIS is going to be one of those times. Fair forewarning.
You’ve also likely gathered that I am not, currently, teaching. And that this is in spite of the fact that I LOVE being in the classroom, and hold those experiences as among the best of my life thus far. In addition to the life-long friendships that I established with cherished mentors, I keep in touch with a number of former students. I celebrate their victories (academic and otherwise) and empathize when the row they’ve chosen to hoe turns out to be more obstacle-filled than expected.
I understand that last bit all too well. It’s not easy being an academic these days. And certainly not an academic in the Humanities. This is my personal experience speaking, along with the witnessed experiences of close colleagues, friends and former mentors who have come up against the same shift in values that I have dealt with.
I personally know people who struggle to make ends meet on Sessional salaries (approximately $7200-$8000 per course per term, when last I looked at Universities here in Ontario) that, even when maxed out, still don’t amount to substantial earnings. Especially when you consider that Sessionals rarely, in my experience, secure even two courses per term. And since, despite the incredible work load associated with preparing, presenting and marking for more than two courses a term (with classes of as many as 300 students), those salaries generally don’t include benefits.
Here in Canada we are fortunate- with our Universal Health Care medical concerns are generally not financially crippling. But prescription costs, dental bills, eyeglasses (to compensate for the strain we put our eyes through reading all our weighty tomes) are, in the main, not covered if you are not a tenured or tenure-track Professor. And when the rotation of courses means that there isn’t anything available for you to teach for one term, or two terms, or three terms… employment benefits can be difficult to come by.
I remain on the mailing list of one of the Public Unions I was involved with as a Sessional Lecturer, and yesterday I a received an email with a very disturbing linked story. A disturbing American story, but the situation at Canadian universities is far too comparable. Also included was this response from Inside Higher Ed, an American website that offers news, opinion and information about job opportunities in the realm of higher education.
Take a second to click the links. I’ll wait.
How is this possible?
I was well-aware of the insecurity of the job description. I have read numerous articles about the “Road Scholars”- those academics who travel between universities in different cities to make ends meet until landing tenure track positions (or giving up the career path for reasons of exhaustion and emotional defeat).
I actually was
crazy delusional committed enough to my academic career path for a time that I commuted from Toronto to Ottawa to teach a course there for a term. A WINTER term. Did I mention it was in OTTAWA? Where it snows. A LOT. One term was enough. Between gas prices/train fares and the time needed for the commute, it was starting to COST me money to teach my classes.
I admit it. I gave up. When reapplying for my job every four months- generally with uncertain results- began impacting my health (to say nothing of my credit report), I gave up.
Unlike Margaret Mary Vojtko, I had options and could afford the relative luxury of giving up. I am young(er), healthy and I have an incredible support system surrounding me. I have been able to figure out next directions and work toward revised goals and still keep a roof over my head and food in the refrigerator. It hasn’t always been fun, but I have never had to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries.
I can’t say the same for friends who haven’t given up. I know of many who have had to rely on Food Banks and other valued community services to get through the rough terms. That makes me very angry.
What makes me very sad is that neither I, nor anyone else I have had the privilege of working with over the years, chose academia and university teaching for the big pay cheques. I chose to pursue my doctorate as an expression of my love for my subject matter and the importance I place on education.
Education for its own sake rather than as a means to an employment end.
I have always felt a strong pull toward the classroom- I continue to be surrounded by teachers- and firmly believe that a strong grounding in learning how to read and write critically and with analysis, research skills that can lead to the development of independent thought and opinion, and the exploration of the great works of human history, literature, art and music are key elements in creating responsible citizens who participate in our democratic processes and concern themselves with issues outside of themselves.
Not everyone out there agrees with me.
I have had far too many conversations with those who see the study of the Humanities as little more than ‘dilletanteism’, with no ‘practical’ application in the ‘real world’. I won’t go into my responding rant (perfected through the number of times I have had to employ it) at the moment, but suffice it to say that this sort of attitude lies at the very heart of a number of the things that I have mentioned here, in this forum, in the past. We aren’t critical enough in our thinking or analytical enough in our responses to the wider world around us. Without being able to quote specific statistics but drawing upon my experiences and those of others I know and hold dear, the decline in the emphasis on the importance of studies of the Humanities is surely directly linked to our current level of intellectual laziness.
As I say, a rant for another day.
Likewise I’m not going to comment on the behaviour of the Roman Catholic authorities and their dismissal of the facts of the case. I will say that it is interesting that a representative of the labour union that was attempting to organize the non-contract/tenured professors (a move that was stopped by the institution’s claims of ‘religious exemption from federal labour regulations’) seemed to care more for Margaret Mary’s welfare than the religious institution that had employed her for 25 years and then unceremoniously terminated that employment.
Margaret Mary’s story hit very close to my home. Even though I am no longer involved in that world, I know and deeply respect many of those that are.
As Daniel Kovalik (said union representative) noted in Colleen Flaherty’s article:
“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 to the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.”
In the last year, he says, Vojtko was reduced to ‘abject penury,’ following a course load reduction- she was teaching one class, making $10,000 annually- with huge medical bills stemming from her cancer treatment. She could no longer afford heating, so she worked at an Eat n’ Park restaurant at night to stay warm. She tried to sleep during the day at Dusquesne (University), when she wasn’t teaching.
“When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office,” Kovalik says. “finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor- despite many glowing evaluations from her students.”
Please note that Margaret Mary was 83 when she died, earlier this month.
As Mr. Kovalik also notes, ‘adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.’
Despite ill-informed commentary to the contrary, we do not treat our teachers (at any level of the educational system) with the respect and dignity they deserve- especially given the importance of their role in furthering the education of the next generations of community, institutional (medical, educational, not-for-profit and etc.), business and political leaders.
In addition to his statement that freedom is impossible without education, Epictetus maintained that the understanding of our ignorance and gullibility needs to be the first subject of all study. With this self-knowledge we can begin to discover and incorporate knowledge that has come before us, and use it to develop our own ideas and solutions to problems.
Strong teachers facilitate this process.
We need them.
This a reality that is reaching critical mass. The life of Margaret Mary Vojtko is a shameful illustration of the imbalance between the compensation received by teachers and that received by administrators in educational systems both here and in the US (the same can certainly be said for the disparity between the wages of workers and the salaries of CEOs in the business arena, but I’ll leave discussions about that sort of thing to Bill Moyers- he’s my favourite voice of reason in that particular realm).
I WAS Margaret Mary. I left the world of the university when the ‘paying of dues’ on the road to career success seemed less and less likely to lead to anything like a liveable payout.
I quit. I admit that.
I know a lot of people who defiantly remain on the road, and one or two of them could well end lives of educating, mentoring and facilitating the development of pivotal skills, in the same ignominious manner as did this life-long teacher who positively impacted the lives of countless students.
It’s long past time for us to re-evaluate our societal priorities and set up a rest station on this road- an exit that offers a break from the long haul, to grab a cup of figurative coffee and have just a little bit of leisure time to shore up reserves before getting back in the classroom to aid in the retention of freedom about which Epictetus spoke. Almost 2000 years ago.
I just hope that there are still enough people out there who have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to the analytical and critical thinking tools- like those suggested by Epictetus- required to address and rescind such inequities.
If we don’t make systemic changes SOON, there certainly won’t be in the years to come.