No More Little Match Girl Stories

A drawing of a girl wrapped in a cloak crouching in the snow. She is having a vision of a Christmas tree.
An image from Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy tales and stories, 1900.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Match-Girl,” an unnamed girl struggles to sell matches on a snowy street. Having sold nothing at the end of the day, and desperate to avoid her father’s wrath at home, she lights each of her matches, one by one, to stay warm. As she slowly freezes to death, she envisions a warm house, a full kitchen, a twinkling Christmas tree, and her loving grandmother. Passers-by finally notice her in the morning; they realize she was trying to warm herself with her matches, but they can’t know of her beautiful visions. Only we, the readers, can know–and only in retrospect.

This story is all I could think of when I read Adam Harris’ recent piece in the Atlantic. Thea Hunter lighting her matches, sharing that light with her students and colleagues, researching and writing and building entire worlds in her brilliant mind, and all the while she suffered, only to be noticed after her death by passing crowds unaware of the richness of her life. Harris has made Hunter’s life–especially her inner life–legible to us. Where Andersen did so to assure us that the little match girl was safe and happy in heaven, Harris’ motivations are far more earthly: to highlight “the human cost of higher education.”1

There is so much that is good and important about Harris’ story that I was wary of saying anything about it. I was wary of even reading it, as I know many adjuncts were. His story of Hunter’s life is thoughtfully researched and beautifully written. He tells the story of a scholar I wish I’d known. I am glad to know of Thea Hunter’s life, and to join with so many others in bearing witness to that life and the injustice of her death. But I have mixed feelings on seeing more stories like it. It is not that I think her life and death aren’t worth knowing about. I do. And I am not afraid to confront the awful realities of her experience and the broader issue it represents. Quite the opposite. But I feel uneasy about the “historical” nature of the genre itself, and the way some people–especially people in higher ed–engage with stories like this one, the focus on one person’s life and death allowing them to cling to the barest slip of personal and historical distance from an ongoing problem, even as they sigh and say “something should really be done.”

Nearly six years ago, the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko led to headlines like “The Sad Death of an Adjunct Professor Sparks a Labor Debate.” That headline was untrue in two regards. The debate was nothing new in academic circles, though how much you participated in or ignored the debate had a lot to do with where you stood in those circles and how much you benefited from adjunct labor.  But more problematically, Vojtko’s death did not “spark” any real labor debate among those outside higher ed–even if it did, in some places, it didn’t lead to any measure of change except that which has been forced on institutions by activist adjunct workers themselves.

Here we are, in 2019, reading another tragic story of an adjunct’s life and death, and things have only gotten worse. We’re in late-stage adjunctification. I haven’t seen adjuncts who hold out hope that Hunter’s story will do what Votjko’s didn’t. They know.

But if things have gotten worse, maybe we just need more of these stories? Perhaps the accumulation of these stories in the public’s consciousness could lead to a tipping point where we’ll see some change? Setting aside that having one of these stories “break through” every few years isn’t much of an accumulation, I’d argue that we have no evidence that this is the case.2

Even if it is the case, I don’t want to wait for that to approach to work. And I still struggle with the idea of this genre, not because these lives are are unimportant or unworthy of notice, but because they’re worthy of so much more.

Harris’ approach is reminiscent of the way many historians approach their research and make their arguments. Hunter’s life is a rich source for understanding the lived experience of thousands of contingent faculty members across the U.S. in the early 21st century. That’s a framing you’d expect in the introduction to a historical monograph written fifty years from now. But she’s not some distant historical figure. She is our contemporary, one of our colleagues. We didn’t have to wait till she was gone to hear her story, and even then, only in the form of a historical retelling. Thea Hunter was telling it all along, through her life and in her own voice.

“The human cost” of adjunct labor includes the loss of physical and mental health, financial, social, and geographical stability, and emotional well-being. The costs accrue over time, but their effects are felt in real time, rippling out to colleagues, students, and even institutions, whether they want to admit it or not. Harris makes it clear that Hunter hustled as hard as she could, making tough decisions in a system that was crumbling all around her. Her colleagues knew some of this, and they tried to help sometimes, but neither they nor Hunter herself could fix a system that was doing exactly what it was designed to do. The human cost to Hunter was significant well before her death.

The things that make Hunter and Vojtko such good and representative “sources” for the study of contingent academic labor after their deaths–age, gender, and in Hunter’s case, race–are the same things that facilitated their entanglement in an exploitative system that ignored their voices. As Harris makes clear, even her “successes” required her to “[fly] against a current,” enduring questions about her expertise and assumptions that she was part of the maintenance staff. The particulars of Hunter’s struggle were unique to her, but while they may not always have been visible, the general shape of her struggle, the arc of her academic life and death, were there for all to see–if they were willing to see.

Harris did a service in sharing Hunter’s story with a broader public. He illuminated the life of a brilliant and collegial scholar and teacher and the brutal system that was happy to exploit her as long as it could. But, to paraphrase a friend, adjuncts shouldn’t have to die for their stories to be told. Their stories shouldn’t have to be told in other people’s words, after their deaths, in order to be heard. That stories like Hunter’s can only be this powerful precisely when they’re too late to effect change for their subjects tells us as much about this labor system and its miseries as the stories themselves do.

The little match girl had been struggling every night before the one Andersen shares with his readers. Her struggles were just as important and significant and painful before she died. Even if a passer-by had seen her, and helped her out, she’d still have had to go out in the cold the next day, along with all the other little match girls. The people who finally saw her in death, Andersen tells us, could not fully understand her experiences. If we only recognize the human cost of adjunct labor when the cost is as high as it was for Thea Hunter, it’s not because we cannot see it. It is because we refuse to see it until it is “in the past,” where we can’t be held responsible for fixing it.

  1. My use of Andersen’s story as a metaphor for understanding why I struggle with this piece is going to ignore Andersen’s intended morals and meanings, mostly because I don’t like them. Please don’t think, though, that I am unaware of details and meanings that I haven’t mentioned explicitly.
  2. You might point out that I am just as guilty of trying this approach and have no standing to criticize. After all, didn’t I write a piece in which I made myself into the sympathetic figure who could illuminate the injustice of academic labor? Didn’t I center my grief? The analytical approach to quit-lit hadn’t worked, so why not lead the “sentimental turn”? The thing is, despite creative mis-remembering that took hold almost immediately, I was asking those who’d succeeded in academe to acknowledge their grief. I knew no one cared about my grief; I knew it so much I couldn’t even allow myself to feel it. I knew that feeling sorry for me was unlikely, and I hoped to prompt the “successful” people in academia to acknowledge how much the system was hurting them as well. I can fully admit that approach bore little fruit, but then again, the piece wasn’t really intended for a wide audience in the first place, so my hopes weren’t too high anyway.

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