A letter to the president of the university where I'm teaching, and his response
Dear Dr. Krislov,
I’ve always taught in school communities that were beautifully diverse—in race, identity, class, learning profile, politics and more. Pace is no exception. What an honor and satisfaction it is to teach first gen students at a university ranked number one for intergenerational economic mobility; to teach students poised to high jump over trenchant, systemic hurdles; to teach young people coming to our city to fulfill dreams of filmmaking and business and, really? You want to be a divorce lawyer?? You gotta love them, and I do.
I am an Oberlin alum (1980) and xxxxxx and xxxx’s cousin. [Krislov is a former president of Oberlin and good friend of my ex-hubby's cousins.] You and I had the pleasure of meeting at a luncheon in 2011, when my son was an incoming Oberlin student. I’m also a new adjunct in the English department at Pace.
I’ll forgo sending along my lengthy CV, but in a nutshell, I have taught reading and writing to students from 8 to 80, in public schools, independent schools, and out-of-school time programs. I founded and direct an organization that runs writing retreats and workshops for educators. I am a Pushcart Prize-winning writer, the author of thirty novels for young people, and numerous short stories, essays and articles for adult readers. I have two masters degrees and am working on a doctorate. And… I earn $6,050 for a four-credit course at Pace. The university affords me no health benefits, though I am teaching in person during a pandemic, in a small, poorly ventilated room. Some of my big adjunct paycheck is held back for taxes, social security and adjunct union dues, that currently seem to be going toward bitter infighting over small amounts of money and power, rather than toward an effort for living wages—or even wages in line with, say, CUNY’s. Hence my appeal directly to you, and my shameless name drop of your friends, my cousins, in hopes that you will read my plea.
I know I don’t have to school you about your adjuncts who shuttle between multiple jobs, and qualify for food stamps. We are academia’s dirty not-so-secret, your essential workers, eating in the kitchen when company comes, and wiping our mouths with our degrees from Harvard and your alma mater, Yale.
Why would anyone in their right mind do this job? Well, I’m loving my work at Pace. First, last, and everything in between, there are the students. It’s great to be back in person. To be able to have students move around the room, brainstorming literacy narratives on chart paper, doing guided visualizations while lying on yoga mats, comparing annotation techniques in small groups, and to watch them—all of them, and not just their heads in squares on a computer—scribbling ferociously in notebooks about a complex, peer-reviewed journal article, while wearing a Tweety-bird mask or a pair of shorts and fishnets, engaged in ways that they just aren’t, after the hundredth class on Zoom.
And what I’m teaching—the power of language and stories and rhetoric—well, it can change lives.
I promised myself that since teaching this course and this age group is new for me, I would allow myself to do it full out, best practice, as if I were being compensated for it. And that once I had it under my belt, I would look at where I could cut corners to make it sustainable. I spent the month of July reading and creating a syllabus (OER and other free resources, only). I’ve attended a couple of department meetings. I’m not required to because, well, I’m not being paid for it. I’ve created thoughtful lessons and materials. I’ve arrived early to move furniture around in my classroom, for a more student-centered discussion. I’ve retaught a class on Zoom for a kid who had to take his pet to get stitches and another who was waiting for PCR results. I’ve stayed after class to support a student whose work is sometimes late because she pays her own tuition and expenses with four part-time jobs in three different boroughs. (Good training for the life of an adjunct, though.) And I teach writing. So there are forests of papers to read and comment on, day and night.
My hourly pay rate is running about what it would have been if I’d taken that job at Trader Joe’s, which I applied to at the same time as Pace. TJ’s would have given me medical benefits, which I need for another year, until I turn 65. I would have accrued vacation pay. And been able to get a raise. Employees at TJ’s are largely happy. They get a discount on the delicious vegetarian chorizo and other products. It’s closer to home than Pace. And I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night worrying, because the guy in aisle six can’t read or write.
Dr. Krislov, didn’t it feel great to be the number one college in the Equality of Opportunity Project’s study on student economic mobility? To be up at the top of the list published by the Chronicle of Higher Ed? Do you remember what you said? “This list reaffirms Pace’s commitment to successful outcomes for our students and that education is the path forward.” Thank you for taking care of our students. It’s why you and I are in this business. Please don’t forget the people who teach and care for our students. 63% of the teachers at Pace are part-time, non-tenure track faculty. Dedicated, overeducated and experts in our fields. And we aren’t earning a living wage.
And his reply. To his credit, he wrote back, politely, within 12 hours. This and a metro ticket will get me on the subway:
Subject line: Thanks for writing/Glad you're here
I'm glad to know this. (Hope your son had a good experience at Oberlin!). I am also glad to know you're enjoying your experience at Pace.
Salaries for adjuncts are part of a collective bargaining process, so can't really discuss that. But am copying Matt Renna, head of HR, if he can be helpful.
Happy to say hello sometime. Best, Marvin
I've been blogging since 2010. When I've got writer's block in every other way (frequent), this low stakes riffing to think has been a constant. Over the digital years, I've had a half dozen or so blogs including a travel blog and a reading blog, both on Blogger, and an all-purpose blog on tumblr where I wrote about education, social equity and anything else that sparked me. I also posted some of my published print work on my website. My shit is all over the internet. I'll be using this space for the occasional blog post, now.