Month: April 2015

“But I went into the humanities for the $$$!”*

*No, I didn’t.

It would appear as though the problem that haunts the halls of modern academia (which is to say that adjuncts are taking over the academy while being paid poverty wages) is riding the heels of journalism too.

Since I’ve started working at the CPI, I’ve signed up for some of the bajillions of emails that the journalism industry sends out to itself each day. I get headlines from the American Press Institute, the Pew Research Center, and Neiman Lab in my inbox every morning (or, in Neiman Lab’s case, every afternoon. Get on it Neiman Lab!). They’re all pretty good, if highly repetitious, and underscore the fact that journalism is the only industry more interested in navel-gazing than academia.

When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, the prize for local reporting went to three reporters from the Torrance, Ca.-based Daily Breeze. And, shortly after the winners were made public, there was an onslaught of articles (many from those email list-generators) about one of those writers, Rob Kuznia, who, after 15 years in the business, left the Daily Breeze last August for a better-paying job in PR.

“I was able to pay the rent. But I wasn’t able to save anything. A house was a pipe dream,” Kuznia said. “It’s the kind of thing that if I was in my 20s I would have been okay with, but I was approaching 40, so it was scary.”

Scary indeed.

It seems like this what teaching and journalism have become – a place where recent graduates (20-somethings in journalism, 30-somethings in academia) can muck about for a few years before things get “serious” (i.e. marriage and children) and it’s time to actually be an adult (i.e. leave those scrawny fields for some “greener” pastures). Because, if you stick around in these industries and don’t “make it” (i.e. get a tenure-track teaching position or some well-paying position at BuzzFeed), the options become pretty bleak.

margaret maryTake, for example, this NPR article about Margaret Mary Vojtko, the 83-year-old who died penniless and nearly homeless after 25 years of part-time teaching at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Vojtko had cancer and “very high medical bills,” according to Daniel Kovalik, senior counsel to the Steelworkers Union, with whom Duquesne’s adjuncts were trying to organize. She earned $10,000 a year and had no benefits, and was overwhelmed with both debt and doubt: Duquesne, like most schools, renewed her contact annually and it was never guaranteed. Vojtko was probably also only teaching two to three classes a year. At $2,500 to $5,000 per course (and you are paid per course), most adjuncts make between $20,000 (if you’re only working 50 or so hours a week) and $40,000 a year (if you’re really busting ass). That’s a low wage lifestyle without added benefits and no guarantees that your job will be back next semester. It’s terrifying.

Now Vojtko is the exception rather than the rule. But that’s not to say that her story isn’t illustrative. And it’s not to say that there aren’t a whole lot of other Margaret Mary Vojtkos out there, both teaching in our classrooms and writing our news stories.

But the way I see it is that Vojtko and Kuznia as two sides of the same coin. Kuznia bailed out of journalism when things got too rough, even though, after he left, he was awarded one of the most prestigious prizes for his work. His award is essentially a postmortem to the end of his career, even though he claims he would reconsider journalism jobs if they could support his family. Meanwhile, Vojtko stuck with it, dedicating her whole life to teaching, and died penniless and destitute because of her choice. Could Vojtko have pulled a Kuznia and bailed out when things got rough? And could Kuznia have been the next Vojtko, struggling – and perhaps even dying – from dedication to his career?

I think Vojtko and Kuznia are closer than we think. They represent what happens when people from the humanities struggle and suffer in an economy that doesn’t adequately remunerate what we do. As undervalued actors in a global society, they represent two of the more extreme choices humanities scholars have to make: should we bail out, or stay? And what are the costs of either choice, or both?

Writing, teaching, reporting, living the life of the mind and defending culture and the “truth” – these are the things that initially attracted me, and most of the people I know, to the humanities in the first place. Journalists stay in journalism because it’s a “calling.” That’s also the reason most people teach. And yet, due to “fluctuations in the market” and the “changing nature of the industry,” it’s also the reason why we’ve allowed writers and teachers and professors and journalists to be some of the people who are getting screwed the hardest by the changes taking place in newsrooms and classrooms across the country.

My husband was a journalist when we came back from Africa and were living in the D.C. area. He was thrilled to find the job – it was 2008 and he was thrilled to find anything – but he was especially excited to write about arts and culture. He was not terribly excited when they offered him his starting salary, however: $30,000 a year (though that came with benefits, so he had it better than most adjuncts). He convinced the paper to up it to $35k (no small feat) and off he went, driving down to southern Maryland from Takoma Park every day, piling over 50,000 miles on our old Hyundai Elantra. And why? Because that’s what he was: a journalist, and a proud one. So proud that he was willingly underpaid. For a guy with a bachelor’s degree from a good school and years of experience, even in 2008 it was hard to get $35k. That’s small-town journalism for you.

He did this for four promotion-less years, until he realized that it just wasn’t sustainable. Now he still writes – he’s a speechwriter for the Secretary of Transportation – but he isn’t in journalism. And it’s precisely because of his career change that we’re now able to begin discussing things like buying a house and having a baby – things that would have been impossible when he was a journalist and I was a grad student.

Dickson is just like Rob Kuznia. He abandoned journalism when he realized that he needed to (and, yes, that he wanted to) live a life that was more economically sustainable. And why the hell not? Why wouldn’t someone in their mid-30s be interested in being self-sufficient and pursuing the markers of functional adulthood that not-mooching-off-your-parents bring?

So why do we continue to allow universities to be bloated with administrators while paying adjuncts poverty-level wages? And why do we claim to be interested in the news when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists have to abandon the field to go into PR so they can afford to buy a home? Just because people feel a “calling” to enter into a field doesn’t mean that they should be punished for their decisions. The same holds true for teachers at the pre-college level, social workers, health care aids, and police and firefighters.

And yet, for as much news as Kuznia and Vojtko generate, very little is being done to actually solve the problem. Journalism is still a “sinking ship.” Myriad commentators continue to warn against getting a humanities Ph.D. And people like Dickson – who was really a good journalist! – and me – who taught my own class once and the students didn’t riot! – are going to keep leaving the field, probably at an even faster pace, if we can’t make lives out of this that don’t leave us dying in the damn streets.

If you get a Pulitzer and still bail, you’d think people would start to reconsider what was happening to the state of American journalism, and why. And if an 83-year-old dies destitute for her “love of teaching,” you’d think universities would open their hearts. But are they? Well, not yet. Maybe they will, and that’ll be the subject of another article I read in an email from Neiman Lab or the American Press Institute. In fact, I look forward to that day.

But until then, it’s your call, Industry, and your future too. Use us or lose us. Because once we’re gone, like Kuznia and Vojtko, we’re really gone. And that waste of human talent is huge.


Washington Post article up!

It took a while (two and a half months) for it to see the light of day, but the article I wrote about D.C. parent activists and their opinions on the city’s new legalization law is finally LIVE. You can access it here.

I love the pics – they’re fascinating. Both Vonneva Pettigrew and Joyce Nalepka offered the Post photos of themselves during their heyday, and they’re amazing. I’ve never seen them before. I’m copying and posting them here, because I LOVE Vonneva’s Louis Vuitton clutch.

Joyce Nalepka (left), Vonneva Pettigrew (center), and an unidentified (but supremely stylish) woman at an NFP luncheon in the 1980s. Note Pettigrew's LV clutch! Girl had style!

Joyce Nalepka (left), Vonneva Pettigrew (center), and an unidentified (but supremely stylish) woman at an NFP luncheon in the 1980s. Note Pettigrew’s LV clutch. Amazing.

Screenshot 2015-04-17 14.27.35

Vonneva Pettigrew (center) talks with First Lady Nancy Reagan at the White House in the 1980s.

That’s really the issue though, isn’t it? No one really has full access to everything these women did. When I was talking to Nalepka in February she told me that she had over half a million pages of material in her home office – that’s an archive in and of itself. But she and her husband are moving soon and who knows what will happen to all that stuff. I’m hoping to get over there and see it, but it’s always a matter of time.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the article. It’s not the complete story, but it can’t be – not in 2,000 words. There’s always so much that goes unmentioned, that’s elided. And some of the language is a bit more fluffy than I’d like, but my editor said it had to fit the tone of the Style section, so there wasn’t much I could do about that. Still, I hope the women like it. I feel I portrayed them fairly, and even though I voted for legalization, I can see where they’re coming from. The D.C. law is full of holes, and the people who opposed it have as much of a right to have their story told as those who supported it. After all, they’re not trying to Andy Harris the thing – Vonneva just wants D.C. residents to be educated about pot’s effects. What’s so wrong with that?


Just Say Yes: What to Make of the Marijuana Memoir

Maybe it was only a matter of time.

just say yesIn recent months, the New York Times has ramped up its coverage of marijuana, covering everything from how Colorado’s marijuana taxes may have to be returned to residents, to Obama’s trip to Jamaica, to op-ed essays like this one, simply called “How I Buy Weed.” The writer, 68-year-old Catherine Hiller, is the author of the forthcoming book Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir, that will be published – as if the puns weren’t already laid on thick enough – on April 20, or 4/20.


Yesterday Hiller was featured in another profile piece in the NYT, and while I find her book’s rather obvious title and clichéd release date somewhat tiring, I’m interested in what Hiller represents and in what she has to say. She seems to recognize the social and racial disparities that make it acceptable for her to be featured in two articles about her illegal drug use, and she knows that it’s because of her position as a middle-aged white woman that she’s allowed to publicly admit, and even to celebrate, her daily marijuana use, without facing any immediate legal ramifications.

Catherine Hiller

In response to a critic who said that Hiller’s marijuana use is evidence of her living in a “cocoon of white privilege,” Hiller defended her position by arguing, “Maybe I won’t get stopped. But I wrote this not because of my privilege, but because I think it’s absurd that anyone would get stopped for this. Whatever I can do to legalize it, I will.”

I think this is indicative of the larger shift that’s taking place around marijuana use. The strength of the argument for legalization is being reinforced by a growing acceptance of white middle-class marijuana use, especially among aging baby boomers. While black marijuana use continues to be demonized (see the horrendous comments on this right-wing article about the levels of THC in Michael Brown’s body when he was killed by officer Darren Wilson last August), white marijuana use is seen as either titillating and fun or shockingly banal, depending on who’s writing about it.

Lately, white pot use is seen as pushing the envelope. It’s become exciting, even artistic, for viewers to look inside the lives of regular pot users, as though white smokers were some kind of exotic beast and High Maintenance was a kind of osprey cam, with everyone milling around to see what might happen next. Emily Nussbaum, in The New Yorker, called the web series “luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling.” And, in the same magazine, Nick Paumgarten praised the pot-smoking ladies of Broad City as embodying “the freedom, debauchery, ineptitude, and fellowship that people, particularly young women, must give up, or at least hide from view, in order to function as adults.” Portraying women smoking pot, eating pizza and having sex was, for Paumgarten, nothing less than “sneak-attack feminism.”

Hiller seems to be tapping into this feeling – the idea that there is a sense of liberation inherent in “coming out of the cannabis closet,” if you’re white enough and middle-class enough to do so without fear. She’s even started her own website,, that is less about the author or her book than it is, as the site puts it, “a place for your weed memories and reminiscences. It’s for those who have ever enjoyed lighting up and would like to share their stories.”

(So far only a few people have. Under the suggested topics of “The First Time I Got High,” “My Most Memorable High,” “Close Encounters with the Law,” “Scoring,” and, somewhat amusingly, “Everything Else,” there are only four or five entries apiece at most.)

But Hiller’s book isn’t totally without meaning or utility. What she represents is someone who has consistently used marijuana for over fifty years and who hasn’t, as she put it, “hit rock bottom.” “My story is the the story of so many people who use each day,” she says. “And so what? What’s the issue? What will it lead to?” Her celebratory, even emancipatory tone makes me feel like there’s a Twitter campaign around the corner, with a hashtag like #stillsmokin popping up on self-promoting tweets (“Smoked for twenty years and I’m still employed!!! #stillsmokin”) in the same way #blacklivesmatter or #yesallwomen digitally gathered activists around a cause.

Life-Magazine-1969-10-31It also reminds me of the late 1960s, when white smoking became so banal that it was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine on October 31, 1969. “At least 12 million Americans have now tried it,” the cover read. “Should it be legalized?”

Obviously that never happened, though the widespread decriminalization laws that swept the country from 1973 to 1978 occurred almost exclusively because the face of marijuana was painted a pale shade of lily white. And now the same thing is happening again: if history is any guide, the whitening, and subsequent banalization, of marijuana use will generally lead to greater acceptance of the drug, reflected primarily in state laws.

And now, with her new memoir (which, yes, I am planning to read), Hiller may be the movement’s new face. She’s not using marijuana for any medical cause: “I just like the feeling,” she says. And her desire to use her book and website to liberate “secret smokers” may not be far off. Because of the overwhelming layers of race and class privilege that correspond to her drug use, Hiller as the new face of marijuana reform will probably lead to far more changes in laws than the faces of, say, Snoop Dogg or Michael Brown.

Hiller sees her movement as comparable to the drive for gay marriage. “It’s hard for people to change their mind-set after so many years,” she said. “But look at marriage equality and how that happened so fast. That was unheard-of five years ago. So maybe smoking pot will be completely normal, and no one will raise an eyebrow when they find out somebody smokes.”

The woman who landed a book deal from smoking marijuana wants people to stop raising an eyebrow about pot use? I highly doubt that, but perhaps.