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A Life Off-track

A talented historian’s tragic end

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | April 10, 2019
Flickr/thomashawk
Flickr/thomashawk

A devastating article in The Atlantic details the life and death of an itinerant adjunct professor named Thea Hunter. Hunter, who was black, was educated at Columbia University and showed early promise in her field, the history of the early Americas, before spiraling down an increasingly unstable path. Race and class were factors but not in the most straightforward ways. Her father was an academic, and though she seems to have started her scholarly career later than usual—she only began Ph.D. work in 1994, when she was 38—she landed a tenure-track position at Western Connecticut in 2004. But she left that job two years later.

“She would often arrive on campus early, around 7:30, for office hours,” Adam Harris writes. “She would get settled into her office and sit down. She was a black woman in a largely empty building, and people would come by and inquire about whether she was the janitor. Then she would teach classes. Her students loved her, but their parents would call the school questioning whether she had a doctorate.”

Upset at such treatment, she quit and never quite recovered. Not wanting to leave the New York City area (she’d commuted to Connecticut from Manhattan), she limited the scope of her job applications and accepted temporary adjunct gigs that became more and more difficult to explain to prospective employers. The brutality and chaos of the adjunct system meant that she lacked access to proper health care. She was overworked and stressed, and when she died of organ damage, friends were left to wonder whether she might have survived in other circumstances. It went unstated in the article, but I also found myself reflecting on how significant it was that Hunter was unmarried, and the disproportionate extent to which this is an educated black woman’s fate.

This sad story reminded me—albeit in a more extreme way—of black friends and family who have also found themselves trapped on a bad-decision treadmill. Often it is difficult to isolate the one wrong move that proved decisive. Perhaps, my wife responded when I told her how disturbed the article had left me, the ability to consistently make “good” decisions is, paradoxically, itself a kind of good fortune.

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