The opinions in this article do not represent the opinions of the Excelsior.
“Oh, The Humanity!”
“How the Archaic English Department at Brooklyn College Deals with Adjunct Faculty”
By Justin A. David, Adjunct Professor of English
Published: December 14, 2015
The rallying cries illuminating the miserable conditions under which adjunct faculty work have been a consistent, yet rather monotonous song. I hope to make this rallying cry closer to a one-sided rap battle….
The word adjunct comes from the Latin, adjunctus, which means ‘joined on, or subordinate.’ Subordinate coming from subordinatus, ‘placed in an inferior rank.’ These meanings open up our eyes to the problems plaguing the higher education hierarchy of teaching. Mythology teaches us of a mortal who stole the secrets of the Gods and as punishment was forced to toil endlessly in futile work. Were the Gods tenured Professors with seemingly infinite power?
If so, Sisyphus must’ve been an adjunct professor. The endless uphill toil of teaching without a contract each semester, the rock finally balancing on the tip of the mountain, only to watch it slowly tumble back down the other side of the hill. This is what life is like for us awaiting rehire once finals week starts to loom in the distance like an ex-lover – who not only found someone else, but has managed to make themselves over so awesomely, that the whole memory of the relationship haunts you. Think of that lover as the possibility of rehire. Their coy agility eludes you, it is impossible to catch them as it is impossible to balance that rock on the top of that hill for more than half a second.
The balance is the adjunct’s stability. Is there anyone watching? Of course. Who doesn’t love an uneven fight? The Gods of Olympus sit in their back room offices in every department and in every college across the country with a cool hand and a cup of green tea, their filing cabinets acting like a fortress protecting their forbidden cities. At the end of each semester they shuffle through the files of young and old adjunct professors alike, rehiring at random and firing with even less abandonment.
But the question remains….
Do students truly know the situation of the lives of most of their professors?
A large foam finger has been pointed at the university system and its highest representatives when attacking the nature of adjunct life, while the real criminals do a drunken dance in the end zone. Who are these shadowy figures pulling puppet strings? The Department Chair and their Deputy or Assistant Chair. They are the middle managers, who have miraculously earned tenured teaching positions and have tiptoed their way out of the classroom year after year and into the main offices of every department of the higher education system.
The rule of thumb in these departments is that the rehiring of adjunct faculty is “at the discretion of the Department Chair,” according to a secretary to the President of Brooklyn College. The discretion of the Department Chair? It is actually part of the adjunct contract that, when an adjunct is not asked to return the following semester to teach, that the department does not have to give them an explanation as to why they will not be rehired. This kind of silence is not only illegal in the business world, it seems completely unethical in an education system built on the foundations of humanism and openness.
Let us look into a particular room in a particular building here on the Brooklyn College campus. The English Department at Brooklyn College is a frighteningly perfect example of this large infection spreading itself across the nation’s colleges and universities. I am a recent graduate of the Brooklyn College English MA program and have been teaching for over four semesters. Recently, I was recently let go. As an adjunct in the English department, I was well liked (I have an 88 percent rating on the BC feedback reports) and I had satisfactory reviews from all of the observations done by full-time faculty.
As this semester came to a close, I noticed that most of my colleagues (a majority of whom are still students in the graduate program), were receiving reappointment letters. I sent an email to the Deputy Chair, Elaine Brooks, asking her if I would be receiving a reappointment letter, to which she responded, “I was under the impression you were sent a letter.”
If this sounds ambiguous, the following exchange became even more mysterious. I followed up her email by asking whether the reappointment letter had been sent by mail or put into my mailbox in the department office. I had checked the office that same day and the only thing in my mailbox was an order form for my textbooks for the spring semester. Her reply was, “yes it was.”
A week later, I went back into the office to check my mailbox. On top of the order form for textbooks was an envelope with my letter of termination. It was a dusky December evening. I could not contain my emotions and told my class what happened. The students were dismayed. They left class that night and, of their own accord, wrote letters praising my teaching and voicing countless concerns over other professors across the campus who were not only inadequate teachers, but, more often than not, either tenured faculty immune from termination, or young grad students who are guaranteed teaching spots according to the English Department’s discretion.
“Having known him for just a few months, an Engineering student changed his major to English.” said one of the students’ letters. Why, then, would the Department let a professor like this go?
I was outraged and felt deceived and betrayed. When I confronted my superiors I was met with total detachment. The Chair of the English Department ignored all of my emails, while her Deputy Chair, Elaine Brooks, fumbled around the situation by insisting that I had been mistaken, claiming that she never told me I was being sent a reappointment letter, but only that I was being sent “a letter.” This kind of behavior is to be expected in the field of loansharking, or perhaps in other murky areas of money lending, but in higher education?
Since the hiring and rehiring of adjunct faculty is at the discretion of these Chairs and their slavish Deputies, it is safe to say that not only is their zero oversight by anyone outside of those tiny offices (the English Dept. located in 2308 fits five people, three of whom are secretaries), but that even the so-called student evaluations are disregarded, probably stashed in one of the zillion filing cabinets containing paperwork from the last ten years.
This department, instead of truly engaging the students and staff teaching them, chooses to coddle their MFA students who are often fully funded and don’t financially need to teach in the same way other adjuncts do. This results in an absurd assortment of baby faced professors who still live at home and have no direct urge or skill-set to teach, and a beleaguered set of professors who are so overworked, running from campus to campus to make ends meet, that they don’t even know where their own office is located.
The sad reality of this situation is that the students suffer. As of the Fall 2015 semester, a full-time New York resident pays around $3,165 for a semester at a City University of New York four-year college. If a student is taking four courses, it comes out to around $791.25 a course. An adjunct faculty member makes $406 every two weeks, or $812 and change a month. Simple math reveals that one student pays for the salary of the adjunct, more or less. With around 25 students in each class, where is all of this money going?
What’s more, these adjuncts are forced to spread themselves around the Tri-State area to make any kind of decent living. How are they able to teach to their complete abilities under these circumstances? If you are a student reading this and feel like any of your teacher’s are not doing an adequate job, I urge you to get together with the rest of the students and demand the department act or at least explain to you the methods behind their hiring and rehiring.
The English Department at Brooklyn College is just a tiny example of a nationwide problem. At the very least, Departments should be inclined legally (let alone through common human decency) to explain to the adjunct why they are being terminated. Before writing this letter, I waited outside the office of the English Chair, Ellen Tremper, and demanded an explanation of why I was not being asked to return to teach. She looked at me with the eyes of a tired executioner. I felt a hint of pity in her stare, but her voice resembled the absolute voice of death and in the most mechanical of tones she said that, under policy, and as stated in my semester-long contract, they “didn’t have to give me a reason.” All of this took place in a humanities department which now seems to me to be completely deficient of any humanity at all.
In the current situation, one can only assume that the rehiring methods are left to the whims and emotions of these chairpeople. The liberalism that swept across college campuses in the 1960s, revolutionizing the classroom from the lecture model, opened up the dynamic relationship between teacher and student.
But this was only a half measure. If there is to be true liberalism across higher education, transparency needs to happen at every level. If the classroom has truly been opened up to the students, and their voices are truly being taken into account in this system of learning, then they, not the discretion of the department, should have a legitimate role in the rehiring of young adjuncts.
Sisyphus found a certain solace in his work, in the moment of his rest when the rock balanced on the tip of the mountain. Adjuncts, despite their pathetic working conditions, find solace in the nature of their work. They toil endlessly, day in and day out, knowing that the rock is just going to roll down on the other side, and that no matter how hard they work, no matter how much soul they put into their classes, ultimately unemployment may await them on the other side.
Editor’s note: When asked for comment on Professor David’s claims in his Letter to the Editor, the English Department said it does not comment on personnel matters.