Friday, September 27, 2013

Our Shared Humanity: Connecting the Death of an 83 Year Old White Female College Adjunct With the Shooting Death of an Unarmed Black Man Named Jonathan Ferrell

Mary Margaret Vojtko was an 83 year old professor at Duquesne University who, after 25 years of service, succumbed to cancer. Delirious, virtually homeless, the French professor passed away on the front lawn of a house that she was too destitute to keep up and was delivered unto God in a cardboard coffin. 
Mary Margaret Vojtko was making $10,000 a year and, like many in her position, she was glad to get it. At the end of her time on earth, she did not have health insurance. Neither did she have job security. On the eve of her death, she suffered the disgrace of finding out that she was terminated after 25 years of service. 
Her death has become a symbol to a special class of professors -- adjunct professors -- who have not the glamor of a mall shooting nor the spectacle of a gas attack to make their cause known to the general public but who, nonetheless, every day die, inch by inch, in a system that, ironically, elevates their labor with that vaunted title "professor" even as it extinguishes their hopes and fortunes and bodies.
What are adjunct professors? They are not "real" professors -- professors who enjoy job security and benefits and dignity. An adjunct professor is the grunt worker of the university system. Often euphemistically termed "contingent faculty," adjunct professors are second tier citizens -- expendable figures who teach class by class, term by term.
We are all being carved up, those of us not part of the 1 percent, and some of us more than others.

Werner Herzog's Bear, one of the friends of WARN, penned a great piece over on his site Notes from the Ironbound that I would like to share here.

I wanted to comment on the death of an 83 year old adjunct instruct who was betrayed by a system which leveraged her talent and ability to teach students who paid tens of thousands of dollars for a degree while leaving her--quite literally--to die penniless.

Werner did it better. This is some powerful writing. We are all in this together folks. "Political race" can and should be real; Werner gives an object lesson in the type of shared concerns and empathy which is the beating heart of such a political project.
Remember last week? In our 24-hour news cycle world events of great import are quickly forgotten. Our nation keeps lurching forward, like a stumbling amnesiac easily distracted by bright, shiny baubles and incapable of recalling the recent past. Horrors and tragedies occur, but are quickly assigned to oblivion with all deliberate speed.

In our quest to forget we enable the same horrific crimes to be repeated. Last week brought three truly awful examples of how certain people's lives are cheap: the Navy Yard shooting, the police shooting of Jonathan Ferrell for the crime of being black, and the lonesome death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, adjunct professor.

In the aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting, where a mentally deranged man with an inexplicable access to firearms and security clearance killed twelve people, we did not even bother having a real conversation about gun control. A pile of dead first graders in Newtown didn't do the trick, so nothing will. We will continue stumbling along until the next mass killing, and afterwards the same usual suspects will spout their same usual platitudes, and nothing will get changed and more slaughters will follow.

In the case of Jonathan Ferrell, he was unarmed, yet shot dead by the police for the crime of seeking help after an accident while black. Evidently running to get assistance was some kind of threat to the officer to pull the trigger. Funny, I don't seem to recall this ever happening to white people.

Last but not least, the plight of adjuncts briefly entered the national conversation after the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a longtime Duquesne University adjunct who died penniless, buried in a cardboard box.

Heaven knows how many other people like her have or will soon suffer similar fates. While plenty of people in the academic world have been using her case to argue against the current adjunct system, I fear that the wider world has already stopped caring.

All of these stories affected me, not least because I know in my heart that more adjuncts will die penniless, more unarmed black men will be killed by the police, and more adjuncts will die poor.  What kind of society do we live in that human lives are so cheap, and that their loss barely even registers?


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thanks again for the exposure, and thanks for the inspiration. Your older writings about the cheapness of black life in America in regards to the Zimmerman case were on my mind when I wrote this. That human beings are treated like something less than human, and that so few seem to care might indeed be a sign of society too sick to survive (to use one of your phrases.)

chauncey devega said...

Not my phrase. The immortal phrase is taken from Ghostbusters. Interesting though, is life cheaper now than before? That sounds like an empirical question which could be readily answered. Thoughts?

The Sanity Inspector said...

Re the penniless adjunct: It's too bad university administrations can't slim down & thus really cut costs--it's obviously too much to expect them to eliminate their own positions. But using glorified temp labor to teach college has obviously not held costs down, it's just made the thick administrative layer on top even thicker.

There used to be a bitter satire online somewhere, likening graduate school to human metabolism, that might be adaptable here. The doctoral candidates and their tuition are ingested as food. They are converted to meagerly-paid graduate assistants, who keep the classrooms and research labs running. Then they are excreted as unemployable PhDs.

chauncey devega said...

There is a chart I am going to post w. a related article that shows just how this con game and McDonaldization of adjuncts and academe is working. Your analogy is a good one.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Well, knowing this country's history, it's hard to argue that there was ever a time when life wasn't being cheapened. That said, I think that the current reigning neo-liberalism has cheapened human life. There is a startling lack of empathy in a country where the most watched cable news network elicits more sympathy for the man who shot an unarmed teenager minding his own business than that young man or his parents. The same cold-hearted people bitch about Sandy relief and, as you've pointed out, seem giddy over the prospect of taking food from the mouths of the poor. It reminds me of the world in Bradbury's _Farenheit 451_, where random death and violence are common, but nobody seems to pay it any mind. The lack of any sense of communal belonging in this country is truly frightening.

j.ottopohl said...

I have a problem with the original article by Khan Ho. The death in a mall shooting is an obvious reference to Professor Kofi Awoonor who used to teach at University of Ghana. He was murdered during the Westgate terrorist attack in Nairobi. His death was not glamorous. It is extremely tragic that a prominent Ghanaian died violently in a senseless attack on civilians in Kenya. Nobody here thinks that his death was glamorous. We don't have adjuncts at University of Ghana and all employees here have health coverage. That doesn't mean, however, that the violent death of one of our own is anything, but tragic.