Cecilia Ready lives up to her name. We'd just started talking about what it's like to be a 70-year-old adjunct professor working through a third bout of cancer when Ready's tongue grew heavy and she began slurring her words.
"Come," she insists calmly after calling her doctor, "we'll do the interview in the E.R."
I hesitate, but am assured by her colleagues in the English department at St. Joseph's University that Ready's unbridled determination is not a reaction to chemo or steroids.
The Springfield, Delaware County, grandmother is part of a legion of underpaid workhorses imparting freshman fundamentals at prestigious schools across the Main Line. She practically lives in her 1999 Ford Escort, hustling from St. Joe's to Widener to Villanova.
When you make $3,000 per class, you lecture whenever and wherever offered - including prison. Ready taught lifers in the State Correctional Facility at Graterford.
Tenured professors like Ready's pals Ann Green and Jo Parker teach three courses per semester. Ready's record: Seven. On her best year, she still earns less than the $50,000-plus her students spend in tuition, room, board, and beer. And adjuncts must pay for their own health insurance. "I know my mom loves teaching, but adjuncts are the migrant workers of colleges," notes Ready's son, Christian. "They're raising the cost of tuition. Would it kill them to see that adjuncts got some benefits?"
Green and Parker can't change their colleague's second-class status. But they'd like to lighten her load while she fights for her life. They're raising money so the department's longest-serving adjunct can, for once, work less.
Paying for loving your job
"I do work I love," Ready declares from her hospital bed after a CAT scan. "It has kept me sane, but it has come at a cost."
Ready didn't set out to be a nomadic academic. Motherhood and divorce interrupted plans for a Ph.D. Part-time jobs at community colleges led to "one-off" gigs teaching "Literature's Greatest Hits" all over the suburbs.
"Forty years ago, 70 percent of university faculty were tenured," Green says. "Now, it's the reverse."
Adds Ready: "Adjuncts are needed but aren't always seen as peers."
But sometimes, they're revered.
"The day we were teaching Kubla Khan, she literally got up and started stomping out the rhythm of the poem in front of the entire class!" recalls Clare Herlihy Dych, a graduate student admirer at St. Joe's.
"She embraces the class in a way that makes each student feel like she's teaching him personally," explains Matthew Schneck, a playwright and actor who took Ready's science fiction course at Villanova in 1991. "Cecilia has an indomitable spirit. I was so entranced by her."
A Deadhead who incorporates music in class, Ready lectured after a mastectomy in the 1980s and again during treatment for uterine cancer. She faced her latest diagnosis with typical aplomb.
"After her lumpectomy, she said we had to do something fun," recalls pal Phyllis Ianniccari. "So we saw Magic Mike."
Digging deep to work less
After a slew of tests, Ready learned that she'd had two mini-strokes at the start of our interview. That's a first for both of us.
"Thank God I have cancer," she says in mock appreciation. "If I didn't, I would have been by myself. Who knows what would have happened?"
The stroke scare won't change Ready's plans to spend the fall juggling chemotherapy and classes at Widener and Villanova. But thanks to professors, priests, former students, and strangers who've put $7,000 in an online fund (http://ceciliareadyfund.chipin.com), she's teaching only three courses, not five. "I'm supposed to be able to do words but I can't," Ready says, struggling to show appreciation from a hospital bed.
"Think of it as a bonus," offers Parker, "for all the good teaching."
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @myantkinney on Twitter.