Clarion Masthead

The email I will not send

When I tell people how much I’m paid, they usually tell me I’m a fool. As a CUNY adjunct faculty member, I make $3,500 for every class I teach, about $25,000 a year. When I tell someone that, they usually say: “Well, why don’t you get a different job? You’re an educated, ambitious guy. Why don’t you just quit? Why work at Brooklyn College?” After all, in America, anyone who works or performs labor for less money than they’re worth is a sucker. And maybe I am.


Maybe every day I come to work at Brooklyn College, every paper I grade, every conference I have with a student, every time I stay up past my bedtime, nodding off over a novel I’ve read three times just to make sure I know it front to back so I can teach it the next day, every time I go out of my way to track down a source that might illuminate a comment one of my students has made in class, I’m making a fool of myself. In short, every time I provide what you might think of as the “professor experience,” I am impoverishing myself.

But the requests from students don’t stop coming. Already this semester, I’ve written three letters of recommendation for students applying to law school, graduate school and scholarships, and fielded desperate midnight emails from students looking for clarification before the midterm.

Maybe I should start replying like this:

“Dear Student,

Look, I made $25,000 last year. It doesn’t make economic sense for me to help you with this request. Really. It simply does not. Despite how I might seem in class, how passionately you say I talk about literature and the life of the mind, this college is a business, and your request is cutting into my bottom line. Please do not email me again with these kinds of questions. Just come to class and write the papers and take the tests. If you really wanted some kind of deeper intellectual engagement, the stuff you saw in movies, what your teachers and family told you to expect from college, you should have gone to a school that pays their instructors a living wage. I’m truly sorry, but that’s how the world works. It is best you learn that lesson now. I wish you luck.”

Of course I don’t send that email. Instead, I give my students as much help as I possibly can. And so do CUNY’s 12,000 other adjunct instructors.

After years of underfunding by the state and city, CUNY balances its budget by relying on part-time faculty – adjuncts – to teach the majority of its courses. We continue to do our utmost for our students, however economically irrational that may be. And our dedication, despite poverty wages, is one of the reasons CUNY is such a ladder to a better life for its mostly low-income student population.

But how long can I go on? And how long can New York educate the next generation while paying thousands of their professors near minimum wage? Something has to give. Some CUNY adjuncts will decide finally to get a higher-paying job. Often these are the adjuncts with years of experience, and they take that institutional knowledge and subject-matter expertise with them when they go, to the detriment of our students and the larger university community. There’s something very backward about this. Others will decide that between running from campus to campus, class to class, they don’t have time to answer every email. And the people who will suffer are our students.


There is a solution: stop devaluing CUNY students and the people who teach them. My union, the Professional Staff Congress, is demanding $7,000 per course per semester for adjunct faculty so that CUNY students don’t have to suffer – and adjuncts like me are no longer exploited. It’s time for the administrators at CUNY and the politicians in Albany and City Hall to do the right thing and pay adjuncts what we are worth.

Tom Watters is an adjunct faculty member in the English department at Brooklyn College. A version of this article originally appeared at AFT Voices, and was also based on testimony presented to the CUNY Board of Trustees.