By Jacob Turnrose | News Editor

On Wednesday, April 11, Dr. Denise Witzig received the Professor of the Year award after being nominated by her peers. In her acceptance speech, she commented on the very nature of work, what gives work value, and asked the question: Do female workers at Saint Mary’s College feel as though their work has value? She suggested some possible answers, too.

Witzig was introduced by Margaret Kasimatis, the new provost. She praised Witzig for having “truly built” the Women and Gender Studies (WAGS) program and for being “integral” in the decision to make it a major. In particular, Kasimatis highlighted the exceptional attention Witzig expresses to her students. “Every semester, [Witzig] meets with every single student in her classes at mid-term for thirty minutes to find out how each student is doing in her classes and at the College,” Kasimatis said. “This is an enormous commitment of time and is a precious gift.”

Dr. Witzig began her speech by telling her work story. Her employment history started at nine years of age when she got a job “making coffee for the nuns” at her elementary school, and she has tracked this history up to her present job of being a tenured faculty member. However, she paid special attention to the 20 years in between when she worked as an adjunct faculty member. She highlighted the bonds she made with her colleagues, but pointed especially to the challenges she faced in her contingent employment state.

“I had little control over what I taught or when I taught,” she said. During one semester, Witzig mentioned having to teach an 8:00 a.m. English composition class and a 3:00 p.m. WAGS special topics course, both on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Two days a week I had to leave before my young children got up and get home after they were in bed.” Witzig also referred to making $12,000 for the year as an adjunct, despite teaching four courses. “This was just enough to pay for childcare.”

“It felt like a precarious way to make a living,” Witzig pointed out. “Being [given] an uncertain future, in a profession that I felt like I had spent my whole life preparing and hoping for.”

“This is just one story of a job, but it’s a familiar account for many women in higher education, who have become experts in the so-called ‘work-life balance,’” she said. “It is still women who continue to be challenged in the academic workforce by the demands of highly gendered expectations and incomes [that are] in uneven alignment with their own professional goals.”

But she hinted at an even a deeper meaning to such hustle and work that transcends a general sense of “rightness.” What truly gives work value? To her, the answer is found in the movie “The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter,” which she showed in an upper division WAGS course. This movie highlights the lives of actual “Rosies”—blue-collar women, often women of color, that filled the factories during World War II.

These Rosies, Witzig emphasized, “had taken factory jobs to learn skills and make more money than regular service jobs.”

“The striking thing about their stories,” she continued, “is the tremendous pride they felt as welders and machine operators, skills they had to learn and prove everyday. The work challenged them and paid them well.” The value of this labor was found in their profound contributions to society at that time, and society, in turn, recognized it as such—until, of course, the women had to leave the factories after the war ended.

This challenging nature and adequate pay, as well as the social recognition, is what led one female welder in the film to muse, “Work is sweet.” 

Witzig points to the contingent faculty union as an example of such sweetness made present at Saint Mary’s College. “In my own 20 years as an adjunct, the feeling of precarity was at the core of my employment experience, to just an economic precarity, a precarity of worth—a reciprocal value expressed through mutuality and respect.” The union has addressed some of this. “It is a formal recognition of the tremendous value of the teacher, as well as of teaching itself.”

But what remains to be done? “Is work sweet for women workers here?” she asked. “In many ways the answer is yes,” Witzig answered. “When it is closely tied to the mission of the College and the tradition of the liberal arts, it is embracing, fulfilling, and [consistent with] our central ideas of self in community.” Yet, there is more to be done, says Witzig. She lists four concerns that have consistently been brought to light by her colleagues. These involve transparency, autonomy, service, and representation. “There is much to say about gender and equity in service,” Witzig said.

Citing an investigation done by the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Witzig explained, “Female faculty were disproportionately represented in commitments to service, teaching intensive courses, and advising, and that this disproportionally was multiplied for women faculty of color.” Such service was not clearly defined by the College and, in turn, not valued when seeking higher stages of career advancement.

Citing a book of essays by SUNY Press, Witzig said, “For most United States faculty, service is not perceived as intellectual work and is often framed as a ‘labor of love’ akin to the caregiving tasks that women perform for their mates, children, places of worship, rather than work they should be paid and acknowledged for.”

At Saint Mary’s, while the College has not published data related to gender and service, anecdotal discontentment has been expressed in workshops, departmental meetings, and climate surveys. This discontent has been due, in large part, to escalating service expectations, retirements, and accelerated administrative committee expansion, Witzig said. These service expectations have, “seriously detracted from research and other creative opportunities.”

“The additional commitment of time, intellectual energy involved in many of these endeavours has seriously detracted from research and other creative opportunities,” she said. But Dr. Witzig is not a fatalist: “This leads me to say that we can do it! But we won’t succeed at our attempts to face challenges if we don’t take into account the stories about work that women tell and the obstacles and condition they convey.”

“Women are at the heart of the mission of Saint Mary’s,” Dr. Witzig stated, “and their future is our future.”

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