The Secret Lives Of Adjunct Professors

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tags: academic labor, faculty labor, adjunct instruction

Gila K Berryman received her MFA from New York University. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Lilith Magazine, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Stitch, and Transition Magazine. She is working to finish her first novel. 

On the first day of class in September 2014, my undergraduate students stared at me, surprised. They were expecting an instructor who looked more conventional, more white, more male. Yet there I was, a butch-of-center Black woman, with a boyish haircut and a men’s button-down shirt, teaching their first English class at New York City College of Technology (City Tech).

To my working class Black and brown students, I looked like I could be their neighbor. Very quickly, they grew to trust that I meant it when I said “we can talk about anything in this class, as long as we do so respectfully.” The literature we read became a springboard to discuss issues they wrestled with daily: economic survival, racism, sex, adulthood. They shared traumas and fears in their essays and lingered after class, divulging their personal struggles. I advised them on practical life skills such as navigating school bureaucracy, registering to vote, and managing emotional conflicts. In their eyes I had it together.

About halfway into the semester, I stopped by the supermarket to pick up dinner. I placed a roll and sandwich meat on the checkout counter and pulled out my EBT (food stamp) card to pay. Then I heard the cashier say, “Hi, Professor Berryman.” I froze for a moment. My face heated up despite the cold. I took a breath and offered a quick, “Oh hey, good to see you.” But I couldn’t meet her eyes; I was staring down at my EBT card—wishing I was anywhere else.

I was part of what the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) calls, “an army of temps.” I have a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from New York University, a novel-in-progress, an EBT card, and Medicaid. According to the AFT labor union’s 2020 report, a quarter of adjunct faculty members surveyed depend on public assistance, 40 percent struggle to pay for basic household expenses, and one-third earned less than $25,000, putting them below the federal poverty line for a family of four. As colleges and universities increasingly rely on adjuncts—with nearly two thirds of faculty members off the tenure track, according to a 2018 analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education—the vast majority of higher education instructors face alarming economic insecurity.

I wasn’t ashamed of using food stamps to afford groceries. But that day I felt like a fraud. What kind of role model was I? I was a Black woman teaching working-class Black and brown students the importance of learning to write clearly so they could get a good job, yet I couldn’t support myself on my own salary.

Aside from that grocery store incident, my students had no understanding of my reality. They assumed I made good money. A few guessed my annual salary came close to $65,000. The truth: Over the decade I spent as an adjunct instructor, I averaged about $10,000 per year on a part-time course load and $16,000 per year on a full course load. The most I ever made in a year was $23,000; that year I took on summer classes plus 12 hours of tutoring per week. This in addition to a full academic year course load which required grading roughly 600 papers per semester. I suffered a severe case of burnout.

Read entire article at Elle

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