This winter break has been a bit of departure for me.
See, this is my first semester as a full-time professor in the CUNY system. I was very honored and excited when I got the call last Spring, and in August of last year, I taught my last course as an adjunct.
For those who don’t know, an adjunct lecturer is a part time position. A college will offer you a course or two and pay you around $70 an hour to teach a course. Doesn’t sound bad, right?
Except they usually only pay for the hours you spend in the classroom. A few schools will give you one paid office hour a week if you teach two 3-credit hour courses. So, let’s do the math: 7 hours a week X $70= $490 a week. In essence, over the course of a semester, an adjunct gets paid about $3,200 per course taught. In order to make a living in New York, I had to work for 3 universities a semester just to make ends meet. Teaching five classes a semester meant that I was pulling in about $16,000 between September and December and then another $16,000 between January and May. This is not enough to live on. Many adjuncts take on second and third jobs. The hours we spend out of the classroom — grading, course planning, going through training, writing letters of recommendation, corresponding with students — that’s all on us. We do it out of obligation and belief that we’re doing the right thing.
And when there are no classes, there is no paycheck. Many outside of academia express jealousy that we get the winters and summers off but the flip side of that is no income. A few teachers have figured out ways to get unemployment but the state works really hard to avoid that, so in my case, I taught one course over the winter break and three over the summer. So, going back to the math, this means that over the year, I was making $44,800 for teaching 42 credit hours. For comparison, as a full-timer, I make 25% more than that and I only have to teach 24 credit hours.
And pay isn’t the only major difference. As a full-timer, my contract is renewed each year and I make salary. An adjunct has no job security at all. Sometimes, even if you are offered classes as an adjunct, you can have that offer removed if your enrollment is low. Even if you get enough students signing up for your class, there is always a chance that a full-time professor didn’t get enough students in their class, so the college gives them yours. Imagine planning the next several months of your life only to find out that the job you were counting on doesn’t exist anymore.
Last year, when I applied for the full-time position, I realized that working as a part-time teacher, I would never be able to climb out of debt. I still have student loans, I have credit card payments, health care cost, rent and bills. When my dog, Bagel, blew a disc his back, I faced a choice — try and finance a surgery I couldn’t afford or put him down. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know how low a person can feel for thinking that they have to kill their beloved pet because they are poor, but that was where I was at in life. I got lucky. The non-profit hospital I brought him to offered a grant for people with low enough income to get care.
But here is the other thing: I am a good teacher because I am passionate about the things I teach. I am a writer and scholar, but I was working so much, I couldn’t do either. It takes a toll, emotionally and professionally. When you get to the college level, you want teacher who also practice and work in their discipline, but for many adjuncts, there just are not enough hours in the day. So, teaching suffers. Teachers burn out. Education gets worse.
I am in a position of privilege now because I was hired in a full-time position. It was a bit unheard of since I had only been an adjunct for five years. Many teachers think of the adjunct phase as a try-out for a full-time position, but I can’t think of any other profession where one tries out for that long — except maybe baseball players and surgeons. This winter is a departure for me because I am able to use the winter break to plan my classes, work on my personal projects, and take advantage of educational opportunities to improve my teaching. This just wasn’t possible when I was running non-stop as an adjunct.
The PSC Union at CUNY is protesting right now to offer adjuncts a living wage. Instead of paying adjuncts poverty wages, they are demanding they make $7,000 a course. Schools like Fordham, a short train ride away, already do.
But here is the thing that drives me crazy. The school where I teach now, BMCC, has the ability to become a leader in the country for remedial education in English. CUNY’s programming is consistently some of the best in the world, and the reason is our faculty, adjunct or full-time. If these schools were enabled to provide teachers with a living wage and resources in classrooms, there is no telling what could be accomplished across all disciplines.
Advertisements across New York brag that CUNY colleges are statistically proven to enable more people to rise above poverty and into the middle class, with the irony being that few faculty will ever be able to achieve the same thing. Adjuncts make up over half of all CUNY faculty, and this two-tier system is upheld across the country. The talking point from the libertarian side argues that if it’s not their personal education, they shouldn’t have to pay for it, but state and federal dollars going to colleges is better for a person’s earning potential over a lifetime which means a healthier economy. It means better trained doctors, nurses, scientists, investigators, reporters, inventors, business leaders, and, in general, a more informed and capable electorate. No one loses when education is funded well, and teachers should be rewarded for making society more livable.
When I was witnessing the testimony at the Board of Trustees meeting where they proposed the budget, I entertained a brief fantasy of what life would be like if that board and the government didn’t have an antagonistic relationship with teachers. What could our schools do then? How much more could the brilliant minds who teach at these institutions do if they weren’t worried about if they could make rent or pay their bills? The fact that this seems farfetched is sad.
Tonight, I will go and protest this budget again. I’m in a position now where I have time and bandwidth to stand up for others, and I plan on doing that. I urge you, let your governments know that colleges and universities are important to you, your family, and to the well-being of your communities.