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The Secret Life of Assistant Professors


On the first day of class in September 2014, my undergraduates looked at me in surprise. They were waiting for an instructor who looked more conventional, whiter, more masculine. Yet there I was, a butch-of-center black woman, with a boyish hairstyle and a men’s button-down shirt, teaching their first English class at New York City College of Technology (City Tech).

To my black and brown working class students, I looked like I could be their neighbor. Very quickly they got to believe I meant it when I said “we can talk about anything in this class, as long as we do it with respect”. The literature we read became a springboard for discussing the issues they struggled with on a daily basis: economic survival, racism, gender, adulthood. They shared traumas and fears in their essays and lingered after class, disclosing their personal struggles. I counseled them on practical life skills such as navigating the school bureaucracy, registering to vote, and dealing with emotional conflict. In their eyes, I had it together.

Around halfway through the semester, I stopped by the supermarket for dinner. I placed a roll and a meat sandwich at the checkout and took out my EBT (food voucher) card to pay. Then I heard the cashier say, “Hello, Professor Berryman.” I froze for a moment. My face heated up despite the cold. I took a breath and said quickly, “Oh hey, good to see you. But I couldn’t meet his eyes; I looked at my EBT card, wishing I was somewhere else.

I was part of what the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) calls “an army of temps.” I have an MA in Creative Writing from New York University, a novel in progress, an EBT card and Medicaid. According to AFT union report 2020, a quarter of adjunct professors surveyed depend on public aid, 40% have difficulty paying basic household expenses, and a third earn less than $ 25,000, which puts them below the federal poverty line for a period of time. family of four. As colleges and universities increasingly rely on annexes — with nearly two-thirds of faculty members disabled the tenure track, according to a 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education analysis, the vast majority of higher education teachers face alarming economic insecurity.

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

Other than this grocery store incident, my students had no understanding of my reality. They thought I was making a lot of money. A few have guessed that my annual salary is approaching $ 65,000. The Truth: In my decade as an assistant instructor, I earned an average of about $ 10,000 per year for a part-time course load and $ 16,000 per year for a teaching load. full course. The most I ever made in a year was $ 23,000; that year, I took summer school and 12 hours of tutoring per week. This is in addition to a full academic year course load that required the grading of approximately 600 papers per semester. I suffered from a serious case of burnout.

I placed a roll and a meat sandwich at the checkout and took out my EBT (food voucher) card to pay. Then I heard the cashier say, “Hello, Professor Berryman.”

I once marked 75 homework in my government-subsidized one-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights. Piles of student papers covered almost every surface, teetering on the desk, chair, filing cabinet, my grandmother’s walnut coffee table, and sofa. After three days of scoring, my brain was about to stop. I closed my eyes wishing it would all go away, but I quickly forced myself to open them again. “Come on Berryman,” I said out loud, “you can do it.” I took a sip of the lukewarm coffee and put the cup down; it was right on a student’s paper, but I was too tired to care.

When I returned the paper, I apologized to the student for the coffee stain. She looked stunned and asked why the stain was there. We looked at each other awkwardly. I did not understand his question. – I’m sorry, I repeated. Later, I realized that the student must have imagined me sitting at a tidy desk in my office, jotting down homework. I had an office, but shared the cramped space and five desks with 74 assistants in the English department. Even though there was a place to sit, it was rarely quiet enough to focus on scoring.

Most auxiliaries have to scramble to survive. I met an assistant who worked nights at Trader Joe’s in Manhattan, as they provide health insurance for part-time employees. In the morning, at the end of his shift, he commuted for over an hour to get to campus. My particular hustle and bustle involved keeping the house during the summer so I didn’t have to pay rent and utilities.

Getty / Design by Leah Romero

I stayed with a couple – two full math teachers – while they were on vacation in Spain with their school-aged children. They lived in a pre-Civil War house in western Maryland; it was surrounded by flower gardens which twisted with the contours of the landscape and by pasture which gave way to hills. The architecture was fascinating and original, and the setting was idyllic, but what I liked most were the living room walls lined with books. I ran my fingers along their spines and whispered their titles to myself. Cavedweller, their eyes looked to God, Song of Solomon. I moved around the library this way, reading the first few paragraphs and author biographies, until I found a book that I couldn’t let go of. Then I would drop onto the couch and get lost for half a day. I coveted that kind of space for myself, where I could be surrounded by books in a room that wasn’t both a living room, a dining room and an office, somewhere with no piles of papers on the point. to fall to the ground.

Back home, I woke up one morning, spat something into my hand and looked at it. I was looking at half of my back molar. I was mortified. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a dentist and could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head: “You have to take care of your teeth. I looked at the weird looking piece of tooth that was supposed to be anchored in my jawbone and called my grandma who agreed to pay for my $ 600 dental care.

If the policies that created the deplorable treatment of auxiliaries persist, minority instructors like myself will continue to leave academia.

When a friend and auxiliary colleague had a toothache, she had to choose between paying to see a dentist or putting gas in her car so she could get to work. She couldn’t afford to have a tooth repaired. Instead, she used tea bags to clear the infection until she could save enough money to have the tooth extracted.

Over time, I got tired of not making a living. I wanted to stop worrying about my teeth falling out. I wanted to say yes to invitations from my friends to write lectures in faraway destinations. I wanted to work, but I also wanted to live. So last summer I stepped away from the classroom and supported myself with a combination of pandemic unemployment and freelance writing and publishing jobs. I also moved from Brooklyn to Durham, NC where the cost of living is more affordable.

Auxiliaries teach more than half of all university courses, but institutions treat them as if they were consumable. According to Factual college, At City Tech, a 49 percent minority faculty serves an almost 90 percent minority student body. Research on the subject as well as others studies show an increase in minority student performance and retention rates when seen reflected in the faculty. Students need instructors who they can relate to and who can relate to them; people of color, working class people and openly LGBTQ people, so that they do not feel alienated within a strange and vast institutional system. But if the policies that created the deplorable treatment of auxiliaries persist, minority instructors like myself will continue to leave academia.

Towards the end of the last semester I taught in New York City, a young black man lingered outside my desk after class. He was the kind of student who would sit sideways in his chair during class, feigning inattention, but offering thoughtful analysis when I called him. As soon as the other students had left, he blurted out, “Do you think I should join the Marines or become a mechanic?” ”

I used to have students confide in me; I often accompanied them to the counseling center if they needed more than just a compassionate ear. It was different. Joining the army is a serious commitment; it is the kind of decision to be discussed with the family. I was touched by his confidence in me. But as much as I wanted to, I wasn’t going to tell my student what to do with his life.

I looked up from where I was sitting, behind my desk, to the bright young man towering over me, waiting for an answer. You can do it, I thought. And I could. I could ask the right questions – guide him in analyzing facts from perception, I could help him distinguish his own values ​​from the expectations of society, so that he can draw his own conclusion. This is how I conducted my lessons.

I took a deep breath.

“Come on,” I said, “Pull up a chair. ”

This story was supported by the nonprofit journalism the Draft report on economic difficulties.

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