What Do You Do?

An “alt-ac” reflects on #IAmMargaretMary

October 27, 2013

Lately when people ask the question “what do you do?” I cringe a little. Depending on who’s asking, I might say that I’m an academic. Or I’ll say that I do gender research and teach part-time. Or I’ll say that I write, teach, and freelance. All of these descriptions are true, but my daily reality is much more difficult to explain.


Having decided to leave my options open post-PhD, I knew that I had choices. And for the most part, I love where my career has gone: I write for two feminist blogs (including this one!), I teach (mainly) first year students the ins and outs of feminism, and I do freelance research for international organizations. Right now I’m also co-editing a book on gender and international development and, to keep my own balance and serve my community, I co-founded and teach at a yoga school in my neighborhood. Life is good. But as you also might have guessed, life is BUSY. And, if you know anything about the precariousness of the freelance and adjunct teaching worlds, you will also know that life is very, very, contingent.


I am aware that my complaints might be viewed as those of privileged individual – and after all, I am. I am white, I come from a middle-class background, and I have been educated at some of the best higher education institutions in the world.  But I am also someone who has been struggling to keep afloat as an alternative academic (alt-ac).


On the other hand, some of a different political persuasion might say that I’ve just made “bad career decisions.” To them I say: Fuck you. No, seriously. I did everything “right.” I did really well in school. I kept going. I finished my PhD. I work constantly (and I mean constantly). But I’m also constantly struggling: of that long list of jobs above, few of them provide a living wage. (Solidarity with the many organizations and unions working for a living wage for all workers.)


As a result, I have put off major purchases. Although some of those purchases, for example a computer, may seem like a luxury to some, in my profession I absolutely have to have a well-functioning computer, and mine is in serious need of an over-haul. I have also put off certain life decisions, such as having a child, in part due to income insecurity, but in large part due to lack of adequate coverage under my current health care plan. I receive insurance through a company for freelance workers and, though I count myself lucky to even have health insurance in this country, the company does not provide exceptional coverage. Further, the monthly payments are large and the plan also requires hefty co-payments that, in some cases, have meant that I have put off getting health needs taken care of (I’m looking into my options under the ACA as we speak – if this act wasn’t made for someone like me, I don’t know what was). It is important here to note that many of those in alt-ac careers live in dual-income households, where the other partner has a full-time, well-paying job (or at least one with decent health insurance!). As a single person, I do not have this type of security.


When I read the recent piece on Margaret Mary Vojtko, the adjunct professor who, after working for Duquesne University 25 years was fired with no notice and no benefits, and died shortly thereafter, I was at once horrified and relieved. Horrified at the tragic nature of the story, but relieved because her story was being told. The initial report sparked several conversations, including a large dialogue on Twitter under the hashtag #IAmMargaretMary in which adjuncts and other alt-acs documented their daily struggles. Bringing these personal daily struggles to light is much needed. Yes, there has been new attention to the plight of adjuncts and other contingent faculty and staff by several amazing organizations and individuals.  But what is often lacking is what these statistics mean in real life. Yes, we know that 76% of faculty positions are now contingent. What does this look like? Yes, we know that 33,655 people with PhDs received public assistance in 2011 (up from 9,776 in 2007). What does this mean to people’s daily lives? I am of the opinion that more of us need to tell our stories.


The truth is, although it’s definitely not what I thought my post-PhD life would hold, I love what I do. But I also yearn for security, which in our society currently tends to be provided by a full-time position, whether or not it is a tenure-track one. However, the reality is that many of us in the post-PhD world will never have that type of position, whether we yearn (and are extremely well-qualified) for one or not. It is my hope the conversation that #IAmMargetMary started will continue to spark dialogue and, more, will spark a much needed change for those working in and around academia.


I’m also hoping that someday, like one friend and mentor promised me in the middle of my PhD, I’ll have a weekend.


Brooklyn, New York


Gwendolyn Beetham lives in Brooklyn, where she does freelance work, manages the column The Academic Feminist at Feministing.com, and teaches college students about feminism and community members about yoga. She has a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow her on twitter @gwendolynb


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