I have, despite my best efforts, fallen completely head over heels in love with teaching again. In January, I began teaching art history at the Bronx Community College and at a high school in Harlem that has partnered with CUNY to bring in adjunct professors.
And as a result, I’m holding my breath each month to make rent. Because there is zero incentive for educators to give a shit about their students in our dystopic educational system.
My first day of class teaching art history to high schoolers started out with a discussion of a tabloid photo of Rob Kardashian and his baby-mama Blac Chyna (for those of you who are unfortunate enough to not know the background: Rob is the black sheep of the Kardashian Klan and Blac Chyna is a model/influencer/who knows why she’s famous who briefly dated Rob. They had a daughter together in 2018, following a very public and very scandalous break up that is the stuff reality TV dreams are made of).
I usually start off teaching art history classes with a tabloid photo to illustrate to my students that they already have the skills and ability to analyze and interpret visual art. Also, it’s fun and hilarious to see what the students come up with, which is an added bonus for me.
My high school muffins (students) gleefully joined in on our visual analysis (or what I also call “social media stalking skills”) of the infamous duo. They were eager and engaged, and that energy carried all the way to the much dryer topic of Paleolithic art and cave paintings, which I swiftly moved on to after delighting in a class-wide drag of celebrity culture. I left class with that teacher’s high you get only when you, a complete stranger, convince a room of distractible high school students to be stoked to look at Paleolithic art by way of the Kardashians.
Since, the class has gone splendidly, even though I have had to continually adjust the course to best serve the educational needs of my students, at much additional time and effort on my part. As I was #humblebragging to my friends about this amazingly hilarious (probably not to my students) 10 step guide to writing a research paper that I wrote to prepare them for their research papers, one of my friends sagely interrupted me to point out that I was spending a large amount of my free time teaching these students, and that perhaps I should direct that energy into my book and growing my freelance writing thing. She was not wrong.
Whatever effort I put into the classroom will not even be noticed by higher ups, will not affect my pay, and will not earn me a full time college teaching position. Other than giving a shit about the success of my students, I have zero incentives to be a good teacher.
Recently, the PSA, which is the professional staff union for City University of New York (CUNY) college system, has begun to fight for adjunct faculty to get paid $7,000 a class, rather than the current rate of $3,200.
If this seems like a big jump, let me remind you that teaching 3 courses a semester is full time, and if you teach full time at adjunct pay, your yearly salary hovers just above the poverty line at $20,000. A year.
Further, most of the time, you have to have a PhD or be in the process of getting one to be qualified to teach those college courses at this miserable and exploitative rate.*
In order to convince CUNY that they should maybe pay their adjuncts a living wage, the PSC has asked existing adjuncts to log the hours that they spend teaching, preparing, grading, and meeting with students. That this process began just as I had resolved to spend my free time (I only get paid for the hours I am in the classroom) re-designing my high school and community college class to focus on building their essay writing skills (in the context of art history), is timely.
Keep in mind that despite my eagerness and love for my students, I’m also pretty lazy. I could, and probably should have spent more time than I did on class prep. I am currently paid for 7 hours a week. 6 of those hours are spent actually teaching, and I generously get paid for 1 office hour to meet with students outside of class.
But, the time I have actually spent outside of these 7 hours that I am paid for, is an additional 20 hours a week. This time is spent preparing lectures, assignments, and grading. This brings my total weekly hours that I spend on teaching to 27 hours.
I am paid $71.59 an hour to teach. But only for those 7 hours. Meaning that my monthly income from teaching two courses, which take up approximately 2/3 of my work week hours, is $1,600. For some New York city context, I live with 3 other roommates and pay $1,300 a month in rent. And that’s actually about as low as you can go when you’re a grown ass adult and humbly require your own bathroom and to not live in absolute squalor in New York, unless you are super lucky and have a mythical rent controlled apartment. (and no, haters, I do not want to move someplace cheaper because I am gay and need a community and I love NYC so please refrain on judging how I choose to live my life).
So, with 27 hours a week spent on teaching, my hourly rate of $71.59 an hour drops drastically to $19.88. I literally made more money as a temp receptionist at a corporate law firm last fall. A position, I might add, that required no advanced educational degree and largely consisted of looking attractive and friendly while you escorted egotistical corporate lawyers into conference rooms.
As I sacrificed my time that I probably should have spent earning money elsewhere, I have really felt the financial crunch. It feels like I am being financially punished for spending time to ensure that I deliver a quality education to my students.
Under these conditions, it is a goddamn miracle that any adjunct spends the time to design a relevant and engaging class. The smarter financial decision for adjuncts, who teach 75% of college undergraduate classes, is to phone-in teaching, recycle syllabi from year to year with zero adjustments, and assign as little as possible to reduce grading time. And that is precisely the advice I have received over and over from professors and adjuncts over the past 8 years about how to teach. Welcome to Higher Education.
I don’t think I need to point out just how much the quality of undergraduate education suffers from this. It’s not teachers or adjuncts’ fault, we are just trying to survive. To give a shit about your students is to suffer financial repercussion.
But sure, go ahead and try to tell me that this is not a crisis that will have profoundly negative repercussions for our country’s future. While you work on trying to make a case for that, I’m going to be busy designing classes that give my students the best possible education I can give them. Because that is teaching for the resistance, and I am but a humble devotee of bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, and in (Audre) Lorde’s name I pray.
As always, I’m listening. So get in touch.
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*(For some comparison with K-12 teachers’ salaries, the average to teach elementary school in the U.S. is 60k a year, which is more than I have ever made in a year and I’m 32 with a PhD and have been teaching for 8 years. So, here’s looking at you CUNY).