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City College Adjuncts Stage Grade-In to Protest Proposed Pay Cuts

Harlem’s public university seeks to shrink English teacher pay to close a $10M budget gap — and that’s before looming City Hall spending reductions.

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City College adjunct instructors protested budget cuts by holding a “grade-in,” as hours spent on grading are not compensated, April 4, 2023.

Stephon Johnson/THE CITY

Teaching staff at City College in Harlem are protesting plans to cut back instructors’ pay for a core English composition course that all students must take — a reduction that school officials say is necessary to grapple with a $10.3 million budget deficit. 

On Tuesday, 16 adjuncts and six full-time faculty members, all of whom teach composition, held a “grade-in,” sitting in the hallway in front of the dean’s office grading student papers. With the support of close to a dozen undergraduate students, the protest aimed to show that the writing classes require intensive time from instructors, much of it outside the classroom, that is already uncompensated and would become more so.

“It’s like the canary in the coal mine. We’re first and we won’t be the last,” English Adjunct Assistant Professor Pamela Stemberg told THE CITY, speaking of the larger City University of New York (CUNY) system. “So much of the time, City College is on the bleeding edge of all of this stuff.”

Stemberg added that the last batch of papers she’d graded, for a class of 28 students, ran between 10 and 20 pages. “You have to give extensive feedback and try to work with students and really help them understand what academic writing is. It’s a very labor-intensive class.”

City College adjunct instructors protesting a proposed pay cut lay out the problem, April 4, 2023.

Stephon Johnson/THE CITY

The protest comes as Mayor Eric Adams asks city agencies to propose budget cuts — including a 3% cut for CUNY, which is jointly funded by New York City and state. Uncertainty about the past-deadline state budget is only adding to tensions.

City College administration plans to reduce the teaching hours credited for English Composition courses from four hours each week to three, matching the number of hours students and professors work together in class. 

The result, according to English faculty and their union, will be a roughly 20% pay cut for adjuncts, who are paid per class — a loss of about $1,400 per course (dropping from $6,900 to $5,500). Meanwhile, salaried lecturers who are paid to teach a certain number of credits will have to teach more classes to fulfill their obligations.

Adjunct professor India Choquette told THE CITY that the composition classes involve multiple drafts and rounds of editing for each essay.

“Rather than just having them submit assignments into a black hole, where the person [teaching] either skims them, or doesn’t actively engage with them, or doesn’t have them write multiple drafts. We do [those things] in a composition class,” said Choquette.

Meanwhile, she said, a pay cut would force her to look for other work — and dedicate less time to composition classes if she chooses to teach them at all. 

“If they’re going to decrease our pay for this, where’s the rest of my income gonna come in?” she said. “And how am I going to make this class possible for me to actually teach if I have so much more going on?”

Cutting a Needed Class

City College has until May 1 to hand out appointment letters, where faculty will find out what classes they’re teaching in the fall and how much they will be paid.

The Professional Staff Congress, the union covering CUNY faculty and staff, informed professors about the proposed cuts last week, after English Department Chair Elizabeth Mazzola forwarded them an email sent to her by Provost Tony Liss.

In response, English full-time and adjunct instructors signed a petition to express their disapproval of the proposed cuts. In response to the petition, Liss sent a letter on Monday explaining that City College had to get its expenses in line with resources.

“To meet this budget cut, we have reviewed expenses in every category, and in reviewing adjunct expenses we uncovered a mismatch between classroom contact hours and workload credit for English Composition, which we are now correcting,” wrote Liss. “By reducing the number of teaching contact hours we are aligning the allocated workload credit with the actual number of classroom hours per week, that is, 3 hours of classroom time.”

He added: “It is true that a number of colleges give 4 hours of workload credit for English Composition, but for nearly all of those colleges, the classes meet for 4 contact hours per week.”

CCNY and CUNY officials declined comment.

Missy Watson, 39, director of first-year writing in the English department, said that even with the composition course she hears complaints from professors in other departments about how their students lack the ability to write structurally and that, if anything, incoming students needed more writing support, not less.

“What we’ve come to know is that what students need is much more time and practice reading and writing,” Watson told THE CITY. “What we tend to think is if we just dissect writing into these little digestible units of nouns and verbs we can teach students how to write perfect sentences, but that has actually not been shown to work at all. And what instead works is much more reading, much more writing and really specific guidance on really specific feedback on a one-on-one level.” 

At the grade-in, several students walked by and, once they learned of the situation, grabbed a few union buttons to put on their shirts in a show of solidarity with the professors. Doughnuts from Tim Hortons were on offer to both teachers and students.

Students will also feel the impact of the reduced paid hours. Choquette told THE CITY that she taught two classes in the fall and was “concerned about being able to handle the workload … I want to be able to give the work the time that it deserves.”  

Iris Peña, 18, a first-generation college student and Bronx native whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic, had just found out about the cuts from her English professor on Tuesday morning. She told THE CITY that she doesn’t understand why a class this important is where City College is looking to save money. 

“I’m somebody who has ADHD. So I have a lot of trouble focusing,” Peña said. “I need a lot of help being able to focus on my assignments and all my papers. I’m a sociology major, so I have to do a lot of papers. So if you’re stripping away that help that I need, then I’m not getting the quality of education that I should be getting.”

As it is, class sizes are too big, says Corinne Sheare, who’s 28 and teaches composition along with teaching in public schools, writing for a literary magazine, and working for a nonprofit called Notes in Motion that provides dance education for public school students. Sheare is also working on her graduate degree in literature. 

In addition to all that, she says, she has to track down students who might be missing work or need extra help. “It gets kind of unmanageable,” Sheare said. “There are like 30 students when 15 would be more suitable for them. We’re already kind of underpaid.”

Liss indicated in his letter that adding more students to each course section is also under consideration: “the alternative is cutting sections for an equivalent amount of savings and increasing class size so that students can still find seats.”

Stemberg said that raising awareness is the first step in a multi-pronged effort to fight the school over these cuts.

“There’s a lot of things to do,” said Stemberg while talking to a few adjunct faculty members at the grade-in. “Public shaming is the best.”

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