CUNY Runs in My Family and I Support #7KorStrike

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By Elise Engler

I am a child of the City University of New York.

My mother and father both attended CUNY schools, both were the children of immigrants, both were the part of the first generation in their respective families to attend college. My mother, Rosalind Elowitz graduated from Hunter College in 1944. I wear her college ring. My father, Robert Engler, worked through his undergraduate courses at City College quickly so he could go off to Europe and fight in Patton’s army in World War II. Upon return he attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin where he was granted a PHD in political science. He taught in many places: Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, and Princeton. But he ended up at CUNY, at Brooklyn College, Queens College, and the Graduate Center. His seminars there were legendary; his guests ranged from government officials, to scholars of all stripes, to poets. I still run into people who remembered his classes with awe. He returned to CUNY and ended his career here because he strongly believed in public education and appreciated the range of students who attended this giant urban institution. Today I teach at CUNY’s City College, continuing this legacy.

I graduated from Hunter College with a BFA, before going on to graduate school on a full fellowship. I am an artist. My work has been shown nationally and internationally and has been featured regularly in print and broadcast media.  I am also a teacher. I have taught as an adjunct at City College since 2009, after having been a teaching artist in the New York City Public Schools for many years. I teach Inquiry in Education to undergraduate education students and art education to graduate students. I love the students, I learn from them. They come from all over, are hungry for stimulation and are open to new ideas.

Unless I tell them, they have no idea how poorly I am being paid. In the past I have been too embarrassed to admit my salary, although it is public knowledge. My students, mostly future educators, see teaching as a way to lift themselves out of hardscrabble lives. They definitely want to teach, but also see teaching as a practical way to make a decent living. It is difficult for me to admit how little I earn as an adjunct. Maybe the hourly wage looks okay to the uninitiated—since they only count the time spent in the physical classroom–but when I add the hours and hours of planning, reading papers, writing recommendations and regular emailing, that hourly rate drops down to a pathetic amount.

Like many adjuncts, I teach at two other institutions while making art and managing the professional aspect of being an artist. I don’t want to disillusion my students, but I’ve begun telling them how little I am being paid. They need to know that the system is broken, that 60 or 70% of their teachers are part-time, and are dramatically under-compensated. They need to know why we don’t have offices or aren’t always available. I never deny my students the education they deserve. It’s not their fault that they are part of an exploitative system. They deserve the best and I give them my all. But they need to know.

$7K per course is the minimum we should be paid. In fact, we deserve much more. We are professionals living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The low wages we receive are disrespectful, and are indicative of how little education for working-class people is truly valued. The system needs to be repaired, and we need to have the dignity and income we deserve. This begins with a minimum of $7K per course for adjuncts now.

I hate the thought of going on strike, but it feels as though our concerns are falling on deaf or disinterested ears. If no one is listening and no one is acting we are left with little choice.  If my father was still alive he would be horrified at the current state of the school where he studied, and gave many years of his working life.  He would not approve of a two-tiered system that cheats its students and its teachers. He would be out there with me.

The attached artwork is part of the author’s First Radio Headline Heard of the Day Drawing Project, an ongoing daily series, presently 1,045 drawings strong. It can be viewed College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY from January 18 through February 25 (including a reception with artists January 25), and New York City’s Frosch and Portmann Gallery, beginning April 11. Elise Engler is also on Twitter: @Drawitall.

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