City University of New York adjunct Steven Taylor has worked in the English department at Bronx Community College for nearly 10 years. He taught courses this summer and received training for online instruction, but, on June 30, he received notice that he would not be returning in the fall.
Taylor had a three-year contract, which is longer than the standard one-year contract. He feels it put a target on his back. He knows of some English adjuncts with favorable reviews and longer contracts who were not renewed, while some with only one-year appointments and less experience who were extended. In his department, the adjuncts who weren’t renewed all had three-year contracts.
“Where are we going to get people in offices who are competent and highly literate and able to do the jobs that are needed at the most basic level of our society?” says Taylor, who has helped his students learn computer skills too. “I’m the guy that trains those people.”
Taylor, who now spends his time chronicling his Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park in the pandemic, is one of nearly 3,000 adjunct professors who did not have their contracts with CUNY renewed for this school year.
The upheaval has left many adjuncts – both those who were let go and those who remained – having to adjust to their new realities. Those left jobless have had to consider their next moves. Others who continue teaching have struggled with their situation due to the trials of online classes and an increased sense of precarity. However, some others have made peace and found silver linings in their new normal.
The decision also affects the university and students. It damages CUNY’s education by increasing class sizes and reducing the number of instructors, says Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s union.
“That’s a recipe for failure,” says Bowen.
CUNY declined to respond to repeated requests for comment other than with a press release that emphasized that no contracts were broken.
Like many other universities, CUNY is contending with major economic and enrollment issues wake of the pandemic. The institution received some funds from the federal CARES Act, which was used primarily to provide resources for students, according to the press release. CUNY plans to rehire as many adjuncts as it can, “if the fiscal and enrollment situations become more favorable.”
The situation remains tough, even for adjuncts who retained their teaching contracts. Carol Lang, an adjunct professor of history at Bronx Community College, worries that the lack of renewals is a sign of worse things to come for CUNY.
The school’s desire to record lectures and have automated quizzes on Blackboard, the site used by professors and students to communicate with one another, concerns Lang. She believes that Bronx Community will someday replace adjuncts with the pre-recorded lectures and quizzes of past adjuncts as a way to save money.
“We’re very insecure,” said Lang, who has some protection since she’s in the midst of a three-year contract. Typically, part-time adjuncts have contracts that last one term. “From semester to semester, they can get rid of us.”
Also, educating online is causing quality to suffer, she says. When she taught courses in person, Lang could look her students in the eye. She could see whether they understood the material. Now, on Zoom, she can no longer tell if her students are following along, especially since some don’t want to turn on their cameras and share their homes.
But some adjuncts have found their new reality to be beneficial. Dainy Bernstein, who uses they/them pronouns, works as an adjunct in the English department at CUNY’s Lehman College in the Bronx while working on their dissertation on Modern Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children’s stories. They are in their eighth year of their graduate program at the CUNY Graduate Center and had planned to take this semester off to finish their dissertation. They had taught multiple classes last year to save up money to travel abroad and write this semester. Around April, Bernstein realized that this plan was not feasible.
Bernstein, in contrast to many peers, has found this semester manageable. They received online teaching training over the summer. While the first few weeks were overwhelming as they adjusted to their new schedule, Bernstein has found a rhythm where they can devote time to both teaching three classes and working on their dissertation. Bernstein was allowed to teach more classes at Lehman College than normal this year due to openings with fewer professors teaching classes. But the load is easier to manage because they no longer have to commute two hours by bus, ferry and train from their home on Staten Island.
“That leaves me enough headspace and enough time to write my dissertation, and I actually have been writing more,” said Bernstein, who has stopped feeling the pressure to replicate a normal school year. “This pandemic has actually been good for me in a weird way.”