#iammargaretmary

 

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.

Sigh.

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.

Desperately.

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.

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17 comments on “#iammargaretmary

  1. bethbyrnes says:

    I did the exact same thing. The work to prepare for these courses was staggering, the pay was minimal. I did not do it long enough to find out if I could have endured or gotten a tenure-track position (I think it might have been possible with sheer determination) but I left to get married and move away, so I will never know. I enjoyed it but certainly not for the money or the glory.

    • colemining says:

      Educators are among the most undervalued contributors to our society these days, and try as I might, I just can’t figure that out. Those I know who have a true vocation for teaching are not looking to hit the Fortune 500, and some are so passionate that they are willing to endure remaining near the poverty line for the duration of their working life because teaching is something they HAVE to do. Yet I also know great teachers who have been lured from the classroom into admin positions because the effort to support families on teaching salaries was too cumbersome. The system is broken, and it is showing.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. Wow. This does press into a soft spot with me. And sorry in advance for my lengthy reply.
    My last two teaching positions were with Christian schools. I left the public school systems because my heart led me to teach in private, Christian schools. Neither of them paid into State disability because, as religious institutions, they didn’t have to. The last one didn’t pay health benefits.

    When I had to leave teaching due to a disability after more than 20 years in the profession, I had to apply to State disability, but was rejected because my employers didn’t pay into the system. Because I didn’t belong to a union, I had to use my entire, meager savings to live on while I applied for federal disability – which I couldn’t apply for until I was turned down by the State in which I lived.

    During the 5-month waiting period – in which everyone I knew told me I would be denied and would have to obtain an attorney – I was forced to apply for welfare and food stamps. It was one of the most humbling experiences I will ever go through.

    I was one of the fortunate ones; the day of my birthday, I received a letter that my disability had been approved (and I thank God to this day for this birthday gift!).

    And now, after two years of being on disability, because I am “only” 63, I will qualify for Medicare next month; that will reduce the amount I live on by nearly $200/month. I am looking for a place to live on my own (without roommates) for the first time in nearly 4 years – almost an impossibility, yet am relying on a miracle from God to create a peaceful respite of solitude.

    I feel ancient, displaced and terribly unappreciated at times by individuals in a system designed to toss away those of us that have no family, but have given our lives to something for which we have felt a passion and a calling that can only come from God. Yet, as I’m sure Margaret Mary did, I will love and believe in Him until my death.

    • colemining says:

      Oh Susan, I know far too many people who can relate very directly to your experience. The systemic undervaluing of teachers is reprehensible, and that undervaluation is magnified when the social programmes, that so many are forced to rely on when the educational institutions fail to provide, are inadequate to meet basic needs.
      The imbalance is insane.
      I sincerely hope you find the deserved respite you are hoping for.
      Thank you for reading.

  3. A sad and ugly situation. My Dad got a PhD in philosophy from Duquesne in 1957 or so, which makes this seem personal in a way. I suppose this exploitation of adjuncts is justified because of the “bottom line,” and paying the president $700K is justified by the old “You have to offer a competitive salary to get the best” argument. Things are seriously out of whack in this world. It makes one flail around for quick solutions. Socialism, anyone? Not likely.

    • colemining says:

      Audrey- the whole thing turns my stomach so very much. Especially because that old salt about ‘paying competitive salaries to get the best’ doesn’t seem to extend to the people who are actually EDUCATING the students. There are entry-level admin staff at one of the universities where I used to work who make a great deal more than the Sessionals/Adjuncts who actually manage to land 3 courses/term, 3 terms/year. I will never understand how that makes anything like sense.
      Thanks for reading!

  4. […] hard on the heels of my post regarding the reprehensible treatment of educators here in North America, came more news that truly put me off my food for the […]

  5. […] regarding an in-the-works CBC radio story on a topic close to my heart.  The one I wrote about here.  This friend gave the producer my name to possibly have a chat about my experience with and […]

  6. […] Beth Parton left teaching in search of greener pastures… along with stable work and good pay. She is a former university professor with a doctorate in religion and culture. Beth Parton was in Toronto. […]

  7. The Hook says:

    I wish I was intelligent enough to follow this entire post, but I am in awe of the sections I actually understood.
    I hope you return to the clasroom soon, my friend.

    • colemining says:

      Thank you! For reading and for your lovely comment. Once a teacher… I truly believe that teaching is a passion, as well as a vocation, and I’m sure that I will return to some type of classroom one day.

  8. Chris says:

    I am finding it difficult to write just now: my eyes are brimming with tears of sorrow/empathy/frustration/rage. I don’t know if it will be of any help but I can offer some thoughts on some of the factors that support this situation.

    Individualism: Having been entirely successful in our desperate misunderstanding of the human condition, we, as a culture, have placed an inordinate value on the individual, imbuing it with an existential reality it could not possibly possess. “I am an individual! I am sacred and inviolable” we chant without end as we bash about with all the other ‘individuals’ who are the constituents of our individuality.

    Consumption: We are a culture of consumption – I should think that speaks for itself.

    Commodification/Commoditization: Consumption is so central to our contemporary culture that we devise ways ever new and more ingenious to turn anything and everything into products. And, because these products are being marketed to ‘individuals’, it is incumbent upon the vendors to have the product conform to the needs and desires of the customer, knowing that it is morally wrong to ask the customer to conform to the product. Commoditization is a process whereby one is forced to buy a product to grant access to an area that cannot otherwise be commodified. For example: if you would like to sit in the coffee shop with friends you will have to buy something. I cannot force you to pay for sitting per se, but I can demand that you not sit here if you do not buy my products.

    There is considerably more involved but this will suffice to make the point.

    Education has been commodified (which has the effect of commoditizing one’s future). This product is made to conform to the needs and desires of customers (formerly known as ‘students’) through a standard point-of-sale model, i.e. through sales clerks (formerly known as ‘instructors’). Understanding that the education being purchased is not a mere luxury item (despite its high cost), and lacking the education required to understand what education is required to be a ‘good citizen’, the customers will choose a product that is most likely to leverage their commoditized future. “What will get me a good job?” (Hint: engineers make more money than sociologists.) The boutiques of education understand this and they place their resources behind products that sell well. The humanities lose.

    It is infuriating but the system is not broken; it has been constructed this way.

    • colemining says:

      Chris- I am in complete agreement with most of your points, and while I certainly concur that education (and most of the rest of society) is being treated as nothing more than commodity, I disagree that the system was created as such. The shift in attitudes regarding education (in general, but higher education, specifically, in this case) has led to the institution of business models for universities that conflict with effective pedagogy. Using/abusing adjunct/part time/sessional professors- which has become the new normal in North America- diminishes learning experiences and prevents the production of new research. This is symptomatic of a non-progressive conservatism that has run rampant- in politics, policy and media- for far too long.

      We certainly do have to shift the societal paradigm away from hyper-individualism, -consumption and -commodification. The only way that this will happen is if we wake up and start viewing our world- and its politicians/business leaders/community leaders- with eyes that are capable of critical analysis and contextual insight. You know, those things that one can learn by studying the Humanities…

      The situation in universities is but one example (among too many) of systemic breakdown. I have background and experience in the university system- and a deep and abiding love of and belief in the inherent value of education for its own sake (rather than as the means to secure a ‘good job’), so this issue regarding the treatment of teachers is one of the key windmills at which I have chosen to tilt.

      Thank you for visiting and for your insightful comment!

  9. […] gaps between tenured and adjunct faculty at university. Among the panel of participants are a PhD who left academia after realizing how long she would have to spend at the lowest rung of the ladder, a tenured English […]

  10. Socialism gets such a bad press in some quarters – a communist bogeyman – and also has so many variations in theory and practice.
    I think of the union movement as a necessary force to represent the interests of any group whose voices and concerns may very well be ignored completely without representation. I have belonged to a union since I was a student teacher and then, continuously since, as a teacher. They don’t always do what they should do, imo, but they are there to give volume to collective voices who need protection and representation in the face of those who would dismiss their concerns otherwise.
    Outwith teaching, the labour movement, historically, changed the way in which any workforce could be treated. I don’t see it as evil but almost as a necessary evil. Would that society and governments themselves were equitable in their treatment of all workers (for the kingdom or otherwise!) it might not be necessary to have a union movement. But, given the penchant of the elite few to favour their own interests and working conditions/salary above the majority, it remains a necessity.
    My heart goes out to Margaret Mary and anyone who is so shabbily represented and treated, regardless of their job. What a freakin’ world we live in when we cannot see the intrinsic value of diverse employments and the roles we all play in keeping the cogs oiled and the wheels turning.
    I remember, back in the seventies, the strike action that was occurring all over here and the impact it had on society (mountains of rubbish, rats emblodened, as refuse collectors sought better working conditions). It was really then that I, and many others, understood the value of the invisible workforce, the jobs no one wants to do but we all want done.
    Many people would run screaming from teaching or working in health care or any other area for which they felt ill-suited. That’s kind of as it should be. I wouldn’t want to work in industry or business. Diversity is needed for society to function. I just wish that we recognised the value of all roles and bestowed the same working conditions on all. Health care should not be a perk, a living wage should not be a perk, job security ditto. On and on.
    I guess I’m a socialist through and through, with the emphasis on society, working together fairly for the good of all but also for our own.
    I think those on the +000,000k salaries tend to forget that we, as workers in all fields, are the producers. We create the wealth. We keep the wheels on the carriage and the rats from the doors. They just manage it. Poorly, all too often.
    Sorry for the rant, Cole. It’s one of those subjects that gets my goat. I still occasionally have horrific visions of Maggie, trying her best to disassemble not only the union movement here but the very fabric of society as a collective. She was instrumental in applying business practices to education and health and anywhere else she could with no regard for how ill-suited those practices were for public institutions. Happily sold off, for a song, nationalised bodies, giving private ownership the upperhand and free reign to answer only to shareholders instead of the public. It’s never really gone away here. Her legacy, and those of her ilk, is to value the ‘loadsamoney’ mentality above all else, including social well-being. They made, of the ordinary worker or the unemployed, a scapegoat for their own economic policies. Cameron and cohort continue it. I guess a lot of them do. Easier to blame someone than to reflect on causes and change the status quo. Convenient and cunning.
    I better stop. :/
    It’s not less socialism we need. More education and a move away from the new religion of individuals above all else. I kind of thought that’s what society was meant to be.
    Keep right on writing and speaking out, Cole. It gives me hope that, worldwide, some values are a constant.x

    • colemining says:

      So much wisdom, here, A-M (no surprise, of course). Our un-lamented former PM was a Maggie-in-training to be sure. Now that we’ve seen the back of him, I’m hopeful that we can refocus on the betterment of society as whole- instead of pandering to those individuals who hold the money and, therefore, the power.

      I fear that the ‘business-ification’ of education (university education, in particular) is a done deal, though. I don’t see how we can return to the idea that higher education is about education for its own sake- rather than as a training ground for one job or another. I lay our increasing societal ignorance at the door of that particular reality. When we are told that the only end to which education is the means is one of ‘gainful employment’, we lose its true benefits. I firmly believe that we are becoming more and more stupid as a result.

      The university model, here, is irreparably damaged. As much as I miss teaching, I don’t feel like there’s a place for me there any longer. I have friends still caught in the struggle- answering a truly-felt calling to teach, while attempting to keep a roof over their heads. I admit that I threw in the towel. It was a necessity, at the time, and I’m not sure I have the gumption (or whatever) to return to the instability of the Adjunct life. Which makes for an unhappy cole at times, tbh.

      As I spend my workdays in the public sector, I frequently shudder at misspent time and disorganized use of resources, and miss feeling as though I’m making any real contribution to society. Yet there are those who still find it amazing that I was able to find a ‘real’ job in the ‘real’ world with the ‘airy-fairy’ skill set I bring with me from my academic life.

      Knowledge (or intelligence for that matter) isn’t looked upon with favour in this world of ours. That breaks my heart as much as anything. A reversal of that would go a long way toward healing some of our problems- globally and locally- but I don’t see it happening.

      That doesn’t mean I won’t keep tilting at the windmills- but it’s hard, sometimes. Thanks, as always, for the support, and for demonstrating that mine isn’t the only voice pushing for reason and equity. xo

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