posted 2012-03-07 18:23:56

Teaching for Liberation, NOT Profit

Adjuncts use the third floor in the West building to hold office hours. Photo by Jenady Garshofsky.
An open letter from adjunct professors in the psychology Dept.

We recently found out that our only working space (a tiny room with three dysfunctional computers) on the Hunter North 6th floor was taken away. This reorganization/removal was done without any discussion with, or even explanation to, those of us who work to organize and deliver quality teaching. Our disappeared office -- inadequate to begin with -- functions as a point of fracture from which we can view the larger issues at hand.

We are the adjunct professors in the Department of Psychology at Hunter College, the largest department consisting of 131 adjuncts among 168 teaching faculty members (78% of the total teaching faculty), we suffer drastically declining working conditions daily. Our teaching conditions are intolerable—we work with an average of more than 250 students per adjunct with some extreme cases of 1000 student “jumbo classes,” while there is currently no office space, no support network with our colleagues, and no means for effective communication with the department regarding our concerns and grievances. Our complaints and concerns are routinely met with responses that evade the real issues, providing inadequate remedies for our dire ailments. In regard to the issue of office space, we are advised to use a hallway in front of the Psychology Department, the library, or a space allocated to graduate students as our “office”— a space where each of us (131 adjuncts) are expected to meet our students on a weekly basis, hold make-up exams, talk about learning challenges and special needs, etc. These new “office” spaces do not allow for talking out loud (in the library and graduate student room, for example), much less for any level of confidentiality that students should be granted when they come in and talk about their learning struggles.

Particularly for adjuncts whom work under Graduate Teaching Fellow contracts, teaching is framed as a good way to build our CVs--a special “opportunity”- -instead of work. It is a perfect Catch-22 situation where we either teach and suck up the bad working conditions or we lose our funding and health insurance. In reality, as adjuncts, we don’t have the choice to not work.

And work we do. We review and choose textbooks, stay abreast of current research, implement new media and technologies, develop activities to engage students, and labor to craft assignments and texts that will elicit the quality of learning our students deserve. And yet, for some of us who teach two different courses with over 100 students, we are expected to invest less than 15 hours a week. There are weeks we are constrained to these inputs, but this is not the kind of rote teaching we aspire to. We do not seek to be reactionary teachers, generating reactionary students.

Here is our second Catch-22: the conditions of teaching in the Psychology Department coerce us to teach from the “banking model of education” where the role of the teacher is to merely deposit knowledge into the students who are to passively absorb the knowledge that the teacher transmits. The working conditions push many of us to conform to and reproduce the banking model, where we are supplied with over-priced textbooks and multiple choice exams to deal with large class sizes. The system is constructed in a way where the scantron becomes our only rescue!

As learning conditions decrease, tuition increases, all within an environment of surveillance and discipline. If we are to comply with the neoliberal economic model, it is a twisted logic and reality that simultaneously degrades the “product” of higher education, while demanding higher and higher costs from both students and teachers.

Our abhorrent teaching conditions are our students’ abhorrent learning conditions. We find these conditions unacceptable and demand to reclaim public education as a site for critical and transformative learning, not a place for passive transmission of knowledge and training students for future wage labor. In the midst of what we identify as an “education crisis,” we are taught to teach as if the crisis is a matter of each individual adjunct’s teaching ability. A class on teaching will not solve the challenges, constraints and contradictions we face every day. In reality, these classes systematically turn into a means for disciplining adjuncts to conform to the current conditions of teaching, while pathologizing our students as “prob- lems” or “security risks”... No amount of training can change the material conditions that we and our students struggle within.

We seek teaching conditions that exhibit and model the level and quality of education we deem fit for our society. As active contributors to the development of our society we must be treated with the dignity of consultation in the shaping of higher education and the environment in which it is delivered. We seek the cessation of conditions that coerce teachers to treat their students like human cogs in an education factory.