by Gila Berryman: My students saw me as their role model—the put-together adult. The truth? I was barely getting by…
In the first day of class in September 2014, my undergraduate students stared at me, surprised. They were expecting an instructor who looked more conventional, more white, more male. Yet there I was, a butch-of-center Black woman, with a boyish haircut and a men’s button-down shirt, teaching their first English class at New York City College of Technology (City Tech).
To my working class Black and brown students, I looked like I could be their neighbor. Very quickly, they grew to trust that I meant it when I said “we can talk about anything in this class, as long as we do so respectfully.” The literature we read became a springboard to discuss issues they wrestled with daily: economic survival, racism, sex, adulthood. They shared traumas and fears in their essays and lingered after class, divulging their personal struggles. I advised them on practical life skills such as navigating school bureaucracy, registering to vote, and managing emotional conflicts. In their eyes I had it together.
About halfway into the semester, I stopped by the supermarket to pick up dinner. I placed a roll and sandwich meat on the checkout counter and pulled out my EBT (food stamp) card to pay. Then I heard the cashier say, “Hi, Professor Berryman.” I froze for a moment. My face heated up despite the cold. I took a breath and offered a quick, “Oh hey, good to see you.” But I couldn’t meet her eyes; I was staring down at my EBT card—wishing I was anywhere else.
I was part of what the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) calls, “an army of temps.” I have a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from New York University, a novel-in-progress, an EBT card, and Medicaid. According to the AFT labor union’s 2020 report, a quarter of adjunct faculty members surveyed depend on public assistance, 40 percent struggle to pay for basic household expenses, and one-third earned less than $25,000, putting them below the federal poverty line for a family of four. As colleges and universities increasingly rely on adjuncts—with nearly two thirds of faculty members off the tenure track, according to a 2018 analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education—the vast majority of higher education instructors face alarming economic insecurity.
I wasn’t ashamed of using food stamps to afford groceries. But that day I felt like a fraud. What kind of role model was I? I was a Black woman teaching working-class Black and brown students the importance of learning to write clearly so they could get a good job, yet I couldn’t support myself on my own salary.
Aside from that grocery store incident, my students had no understanding of my reality. They assumed I made good money. A few guessed my annual salary came close to $65,000. The truth: Over the decade I spent as an adjunct instructor, I averaged about $10,000 per year on a part-time course load and $16,000 per year on a full course load. The most I ever made in a year was $23,000; that year I took on summer classes plus 12 hours of tutoring per week. This in addition to a full academic year course load which required grading roughly 600 papers per semester. I suffered a severe case of burnout.
Once, I was grading 75 assignments in my government-subsidized one-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights. Piles of student papers covered nearly every surface, teetering on the desk, the chair, the rolling file cabinet, my grandmother’s walnut coffee table, and the couch. After three days of grading, my brain verged on shutting down. I closed my eyes wishing it would all disappear, but quickly forced myself to open them again. “Come on Berryman,” I said out loud, “you can do this.” I took a gulp of tepid coffee and set the mug down; it was smack on top of a student’s paper, but I was too tired to care.
When I returned the paper, I apologized to the student for the coffee stain. She looked bewildered, and asked why the stain was there. We stared at each other awkwardly. I didn’t understand her question. “I’m sorry,” I repeated. Later I realized that the student must have imagined me sitting at a tidy desk in my office, grading papers. I did have an office, but I shared the cramped space and five desks with 74 adjuncts in the English department. Even if there was a place to sit, it was rarely quiet enough to concentrate on grading.
Most adjuncts must hustle to survive. I met an adjunct who worked the night shift at Trader Joe’s in Manhattan, because they provide part-time employees with health insurance. In the morning, when his shift ended, he commuted more than an hour to get to campus. My particular hustle involved housesitting during the summer so I didn’t have to pay for rent and utilities.
I housesat for a couple—two tenured math professors—while they vacationed in Spain with their school-aged children. They lived in a pre-Civil War era house in Western Maryland; it was surrounded by flower gardens that twisted with the contours of the landscape, and a pasture that gave way to rolling hills. The architecture was fascinating and quirky, and the setting was idyllic, but what I loved most were the living room walls that were lined with books. I’d run my fingers along their spines and whisper their titles to myself. Cavedweller, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Song of Solomon. I’d move along the bookshelf this way, reading first paragraphs and author bios, until I found a book that I couldn’t put down. Then I’d plop on the couch and lose myself for half a day. I coveted this kind of space for myself, where I could be surrounded by books in a room that wasn’t a living room, dining room, and office all in one—somewhere without piles of papers about to topple to the floor.
Back at home, I woke up one morning, spit something into my hand, and stared at it. I was looking at half of my back molar. I was mortified. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a dentist, and I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, “You have to take care of your teeth.” I stared at the bizarre-looking chunk of tooth that was supposed to be anchored into my jaw, and called my grandmother who agreed to pay for my $600 dental work.
When a friend and fellow adjunct had tooth pain, she had to choose between paying to see a dentist or putting gas in her car so she could get to work. She couldn’t afford to have her tooth fixed. Instead, she used tea bags to draw out the infection until she could save enough money to have the tooth extracted.
In time, I got tired of not making a living wage. I wanted to stop worrying about my teeth falling out. I wanted to say yes to my friends’ invitations to writing conferences in far-flung destinations. I wanted to work, but I also wanted to live. So, last summer, I stepped away from the classroom and supported myself with a combination of pandemic unemployment and freelance writing and editing jobs. I also moved from Brooklyn to Durham, North Carolina, where the cost of living is more affordable.
Adjuncts teach over half of all college classes, yet institutions treat them as if they’re expendable. According to College Factual, at City Tech, a 49 percent minority faculty serves an almost 90 percent minority student body. Research conducted on the subject as well as other studies show an increase in minority students’s performance, and retention rates when they see themselves reflected in the body of the faculty. Students need instructors they can relate to, and who can relate to them; people of color, working class people, and openly LGBTQ people, so they don’t feel alienated within a strange and vast institutional system. But if the policies that created the deplorable treatment of adjuncts persists, minority instructors like me will continue to leave academia.
Toward the end of the last semester I taught in New York, a young Black man lingered in front of my desk after class. He was the kind of student who sat sideways in his chair during class, feigning inattention, but offered a thoughtful analysis when I called on him. As soon as the other students were gone, he blurted out, “Do you think I should join the Marines or become a mechanic?”
I was used to students confiding in me; I often walked them to the counseling center if they needed more than just a sympathetic ear. This was different. Signing up for the military is a serious commitment; it’s the kind of decision to discuss with family. I was humbled by his trust in me. But as much as I wanted to, I wasn’t going to tell my student what to do with his life.
I looked up from where I sat, behind my desk, at the bright young man towering over me waiting for an answer. You can do this, I thought. And I could. I could ask the right questions—guide him through parsing fact from perception, I could help him distinguish his own values from societal expectations, so he could reach his own conclusion. It was how I conducted my classes.
I took a deep breath.
“Come,” I said, “Pull up a chair.”