CUNY Professor Throws Shade on the Whole Damn System, Man

Epic resignation letter from a very disgruntled teacher

(Photo via Creative Commons)
School or jail? (Photo via Creative Commons)

Robert Moses never thought that one day someone would have to actually travel from Manhattan to Queens to go teach at Queensborough Community College. Queens residents have to take the bus since there is no subway route in the land of aluminum siding and queen-mattress-size, front-porch-spangled banners. In order to get to the Q27 bus, the 7 train is the only economical means. Built on three lanes, its express schedule works only if you were never caught walking clockwise around the reservoir in Central Park. For all of us who have always hated that there is an 18th Street stop after 14th Street on the tomato red line, a trip to Flushing Meadows at the end of the 7 line might as well be a journey down the ninth circle of Inferno.

The art department on top of a hill looked everything like Michel Foucault had imagined when he compared jails with schools: a cell block of cement bricks completely waterproof except when it rains, barely covered with thick urine-yellow industrial paint. My interview with Bob Rogers, the chair, and Kathy Wentrack, his main professor, went well. I was hired on the spot probably because a professor had just found a better job at a Kinko’s. Mr. Rogers was playing WQXR on his office radio in the background, which was akin to listening to J.S. Bach blasting while driving a convertible down La Brea Avenue. I showed them an article I had written while teaching at another New York diploma mill, and they seemed confident that I would fit the bill.

The mill was LIU, a private university, with Rachel Baum as director of the art department. She had asked me in emails to inflate the grades and give every student an “A” since the administration had the motto, “The customer is always right.” The fact that she wrote this in an email is a testament to her solitude. Always on a diet to squeeze into her tight jeans, which made her look like a bicycle customized with Michelin tires, Ms. Baum was furious against such a state of affairs, having lost all faith in her colleagues’ basic sense and aptitude, electing to write the LIU federal and state grant proposals since, she felt, “nobody can write here.” Someone had to do it. And why not her, since she had a shrine to Foucault in her bathroom and couldn’t help punctuate every two sentences with “I went to Harvard”? For years, she had been shopping around a book about Andy Warhol and was dumbfounded that no editor had yet jumped on the marvel.

My new chair at Queensborough Community College, Mr. Rogers, was a very jovial and personable character. Five minutes into our first meeting, we were sharing our passion for Luis Buñuel’s movies. He built his own house upstate, Thoreau-style minus the mother, and spends his summer making a photo printing press following blueprints he found online for $75. His daughters go to Purchase College, and out of nowhere in a meeting, he never fails to remind you that a Syrian princess attends one of his classes. I noticed that a comment I made against President Barack Obama’s economic team didn’t go over too well. Chairman Rogers told me how highly he thought of one young white female adjunct after he attended one of her classes and observed her using Eminem’s album covers to explain baroque to her students.

Something told me that our story was about to encounter a more ominous phase.

Ms. Wentrack, the top professor who seemed to make more sense, asked me how I would be dealing with QCC’s specific student body, Orwellian doublespeak for poor, colored and dumb. This is the moment when you lie about the number of times that you masturbate each day while wondering why you are having this discussion in the first place.

Ms. Wentrack lives above her means in a lottery-won affordable housing unit in a West Side Trump Tower behind Lincoln Center. Her wealthy neighbors are trying everything they can to have her thrown out using the excuse that her husband was caught smoking in their apartment, which, contrary to her wealthy neighbors, has synthetic carpet instead of distressed hardwood planks, Formica IKEA closets for cherry paneling and Insignia appliances for Miele washers, Sub-Zero fridges and Viking ovens. She never fully opens her door for fear that a neighbor might catch a glimpse of the stigmatizing carpet that would give away the whole scheme. At least she is happy that her family can use the front lobby and doesn’t have to use a service entrance like the development company a few blocks south plans to ask its 20 percent Dickensian tenants to use. She is fighting the building in court and her husband in the street but not in front of the twins, who attend the right schools thanks to Donald Trump’s address. The husband is a high-ranking financial executive who lost his job in the 2008 crisis and now annoys all of his captains and mates at Trader Joe’s at 72nd Street with his managerial suggestions.

Queens Community College art gallery of the City University of New York. (Photo courtesy QCC, CUNY)
Queens Community College art gallery of the City University of New York. (Photo courtesy QCC, CUNY)

On my first day of class, Aaron Slodounik, who was teaching in the next cell, said, “The students here at QCC are the worst of the worst, the dumbest of the dumbest.” He knew this since he got a grant from the New School to study the best method to teach this particular demographic. Mr. Slodounik is the typical tête à claques, a Ph.D. candidate at the graduate center for the last 10 years who has found the thesis niche of all theses: Paul Gauguin, not the painter but the epistler who, by professing his carnal love for the symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, left posterity the key that would help explain the totality of the Synthetist’s oeuvre.

After I told this dangerous case of arrested development that one of my students regularly arrived late to class, he told me exactly what to do. In his spare time, Aaron the Narc scrutinized the F.B.I.’s stolen art Web pages ad nauseum. “If you were to see one of these paintings on a friend’s wall one day, would you report them?” I once asked for bait. “Depending on how good the reward is, of course,” came the arriviste’s answer, proving that you can be corporate and dweeb.

Finally, I was able to see the student body. My students and I were sweating profusely in our classroom. The QCC administration had spent a fortune on state-of-the-art iMacs for full-time professors only while the rest of us adjuncts had to fight over one circa 1982 Dell. Evidently, no money was left for an air-conditioning system.

Why do Ph.D.s subject themselves to such degrading and depleting work conditions? With no union representation, no job security (indeed, a chair can, in total impunity, terminate the contract of a 20-year adjunct veteran) and no benefits to speak of, adjuncts, who cover 70 percent of the workload, have their classes capped in the CUNY system and can only hope to reach $25,000 per year if they agree to crisscross the state from college to college.

Viewed from the American caste system, this insane dedication could be understood as paying dues. But most adjuncts are physically ugly, and nothing could compare to the ego boost received upon starting a class. Hubris for sure, but most likely pure vanity. As someone, who according to the QCC librarian doesn’t exist, once said, “Socrates was wrong because he was ugly.”

I decided to fight this avalanche of hypocrisy with the weapons of indifference. These kids, some of them fresh out of high school, would be exposed to the best I could give them. I would not water down post-modernity or spare them a discourse on Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and Beautiful. It became apparent to me that they knew the administration despised them and that they had decided to live up to it. I told them one day: “This school thinks of you as the scum of humanity.” The shock on their faces was actually extremely moving.

I was surprised to see how quickly some of them were able to fall asleep and how surprised they were when I expelled them from the class. Someone cared. The next day, a post on my “rate my professor” page lamented my rude behavior since it became known that if you were to text or sleep in my class I would kick you out.

Diane Call. (Screenshot)
Queensborough Community College President Diane Call. (Screenshot)

I spent months telling them about Plato, Saint Augustin, Saint Thomas of Aquinas, Plotinus and Michelangelo. When I noticed on the midterm that some of them thought I was talking about Play-Doh, I decided to double down. Our class on Banksy and his painting The Banality of the Banality of Evil would refer directly to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The only problem is that on this day, Anissa Mack, another professor, was in the classroom and was evaluating me. Ms. Mack, a mediocre artist, decided that this was the time to stop my élan. She wrote in her report that the Arendt reference was rolling way over my students’ heads and, in a conference a few days later, told me in no uncertain terms that my “teaching was way up there” when their level, in a yard’s-length hand gesture, “was way down here.”

“Are you asking that I dumb down my classes?” I glibly asked. “Oh, no, not at all,” she coyly answered.

Mr. Rogers counseled me, “You must find a bridge between your vast knowledge and these students’ abilities.” He was always quick to remind me how many diamonds in the rough had enrolled this year, just as Pat Buchanan is always fast to point out how many Jewish friends he has.

Ultimately, Mr. Rogers decided that I could not understand what was asked of me at QCC. He made sure that, when time came to recommend me to another chair for another job, I would not get it. Then the logic of office war began its unstoppable crushing roll.

His secretary and personal bodyguard, Maria Palacio, a short Imelda Marcos doppelgänger who spent her days looking for bargains on trips to secluded islands and never missed a chance to remind you of her belief in the benefit of high tuitions for elite education, would have been perfect as a guard on Rikers Island. The day my console went down, I asked her on four occasions to send an I.T. person who, of course, in a sign of the first salvo, never showed up and left me stranded with a sabotaged class. QCC III had started.

I was by no means professor John Keating from Dead Poets Society. In the student evaluation of faculty forms, although some of them said that I was the best professor they ever had, many complained that it was a shame to have me teach in such a prestigious institution of higher learning and that I was intolerant of other peoples’ beliefs. (I had created a mutiny by explaining that the 25th of December had little to do with Christ’s birth as it was a former pagan celebratory day politically altered as the Roman Empire saw its dominion taken over by Christianity.) Indeed a pimply-faced kid fresh out of high school has the power to weigh in on the contract renewal of a Ph.D. professor.

I encountered an enormous resistance to my “biased” teaching. Discussing Keith Haring’s Crack is Wack mural in Harlem, I explained that Mr. Haring had been condescending and self-righteous to wag his finger in the face of upper Manhattan minorities, when a little research on his part might have revealed that the majority of crack users in the ’80s were white. I pointed out that the Rockefeller Drug Laws had precipitated the incarceration of so many black and Latino drug peddlers—some of them my students’ siblings—who had been caught with a few grams of crack, while a huge number of Wall Street cocaine snorters had been let off scot-free. Nevertheless, a very smart student who decided to take on the street artist as a final paper topic not only ignored my remark but also went out of his way to mention that he didn’t believe any of it.

Another very tightly wound and patriotic white student, this one a real moron, revisited Washington Crossing the Delaware by the foreign artist Emanuel Leutze. In our field trip at the Met, I pointed out to him that in his final paper he should look into Napoleon Bonaparte’s iconography and how it related to Mr. Leutze’s treatment of the first president. Little did it matter, as he was the same student who had previously corrected me when I said that rap music had its roots in the blues and Africa and had told me, as you would expect from a suburban kid from Denver, that rap was a purely American invention.

Crack is Wack (1986) by Keith Haring. (Photo via Creative Commons)
Crack is Wack (1986) by Keith Haring. (Photo via Creative Commons)

If students at NYU choose the Bobst Library for their final plunge, those at the QCC’s library use its floor as a paper-littered beach chaise lounge, and if one has the misfortune of asking the librarian for a book on Friedrich Nietzsche, she will raise one eyebrow and indignantly ask, “Who?”

At some point, I had had enough. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “Enough with the expressing, time to start printing.”

QCC’s internal community email server was replete with daily discussions ranging from unspeakable to insufferable, with enlightening topics such as what to do about our students texting and which faculty should have a say in the next CUNY chancellor’s reform (code for “how can we possibly keep our faculty immaculate until we finally get our pension”). Obviously, an intruder would be the fly in the milk with the potential of disrupting such a wonderful career plan. My time had come to open up my grievance to the entire QCC community and write an open letter to President Diane Call.

I described how some of my students had been forced to open their private email accounts in Mr. Rogers’ office in order to spy on their communication with me. How Ms. Mack had heard from one of my students during her evaluation how much he enjoyed and learned from my class and how she lied about his words and made him an example in her report of how confusing my class was. How I had been repeatedly told to dumb down my classes and adapt to the “mediocrity” of the student body. And how idiotic professor Javier Cambre had the audacity to observe my three-hour-long class for 30 minutes and question its structure. He could not possibly understand what I meant when I told my students that Filippo Brunelleschi had invented a political form of perspective, not the perspective.

It didn’t take long for this coterie of cowards to run for cover in the first foxhole they could find once my open letter hit the QCC server. I received a huge number of private emails of encouragement and solidarity, but very few joined the public fray, so terrorized they were of losing their shitty jobs. A few months prior, Phillip Pecorino, a racist philosophy professor and PSC representative, was made to apologize on the general server after he blasted an email written Ebonics style in a delicious attempt to showcase QCC students’ bad grammar. President Call put it very simply to him: Apologize or be terminated.

Ms. Call who, hiding behind the bureaucratic obligatory armor of silence, never found the time to answer me, though she seemed to have found plenty of time for a plastic surgeon, as her face was now so rubbery that you could not point her out in a Muppet lineup. She is so proud of her gold-star Harvard “certificate” that she recently felt emboldened enough to threaten to sack the whole English department in a fit of rage after faculty refused her plan to reduce course hours for literature and composition classes, exactly what QCC students desperately need.

The thing that could finally convert everyone to Ronald Reagan’s political arc is the PSC, the main professor’s union at public universities in New York City. Everything I was saying to its director of contract enforcement, Debra Bergen, was instantly repeated to Mr. Rogers, the one who appeared in many children’s nightmares. It is a little-known fact that professors’ unions also represent chairs at universities, a conflict of interest that only a former communist could understand and a testament to the sham that unions are. When I met with one of PSC’s representatives, Ruben Rangel, I expected a sorry-sack dust bunny, dragging his savates under the weight of failures accumulated in the dirty hallways of government buildings. Indeed, the BMCC adjunct, who teaches writing and composition at QCC, was a wilted sycophant wearing a clip-on tie on an Old Navy shirt, clutching a bundle of useless papers ready to stand to attention at the first sight of any administrative representative.

The first canon powder on the community server was heard from, of all places, Mary Anne Meyer, a former QCC student herself who took nine years to complete her B.A. in English and does not even have a masters “yet.” She is now President Call’s good friend and, therefore, the frumpy director of College Now, a program meant to ease high schoolers into college life. She called me a knucklehead, which instantly reminded me that this was no Ivy League school, and she volunteered, in a wonderful act of bravery, her complete and total support for Mr. Rogers and Ms. Call.

But the crown jewel belongs to Nataliya Khomyak, a hysterical professor in the department of mathematics who objected on the general server to my questioning the pertinence of Ms. Call’s letter to the entire university after the passing of Nelson Mandela. That letter read more like a diplomatic cable from a head of state than an informative and historical perspective on the South African president. I pointed out that, although many saw Mr. Mandela as a father figure, his policies while in office were pretty much aligned with the devastating dictates of the South African white supremacist neo-liberal financial community, the IMF and the World Bank and that, as a result, the financial apartheid in yesteryear in South Africa is pretty much still in play today, which could in part explain Mr. Mandela’s half-full commemorative stadium.

But all we got from Ms. Call was a vapid “we are the world” condolence statement as if it had been written by a P.R. firm, since it came on the QCC network a few days after I blasted the community with my allegation of blatant racism in this taxpayer-funded educational institution. When she joined the slugfest, Ms. Khomyak came to the desperately needed rescue of the president and accused me of cyberbullying. Citing my martyrdom, she asked me to reconsider my polemic since she knew about real persecution (her grandmother, who had “kicked a woman when she got off a train in Ukraine,” had almost been shot by the Soviets). Ms. Khomyak had known the starvation of the workers in her mother’s factory and, therefore, following a logic only Vladimir and Estragon could comprehend, said my complaints should be expressed with more restraint. But in a post-modern ironic pastiche that would have delighted Jacques Derrida, Ms. Khomyak, who was prompt in trying to inspire pathos when evoking her ordeal under the Soviet regime, at the same time rushed to defend Mr. Rogers, the unabashed Marxist, and his panoptic tactics.

In a move to corporatize its universities, CUNY’s board of trustees has just launched the Pathways Initiative. A cost-cutting, racist power grab, Pathways is ready-made for the next chancellor, James B. Milliken, who can now decide at will who teaches what, where and when by slashing hours in math, science, English and liberal arts courses.

In which real-life community or corporation would such an Iceman Cometh cast of characters not only receive compensation for their work but be allowed the responsibility of training the new recruits of life? I’ll tell you where: CUNY. After having been let go of her position as director of the art department at LIU over the grade-inflation scandal, where was Ms. Baum’s relativism running rife? CUNY Hunter. Like a bad apple priest moved from parish to parish, she is now teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

After I broadcasted my philippics network-wide to QCC, I still had to go and teach a few remaining classes.

I noticed upon arrival up the hill that a public safety car was parked for the first time outside the art building. Apparently, many in the QCC administration believed that the public hearing of my grievance necessitated an armed defensive response before I took up a Kalashnikov, as is expected of every “conscious pariah” in America. Now, the tableau was complete but with a New York twist: A school as a jail had produced a bully with weapons.

Jacques Hyzagi is a writer who taught art history at Queensborough Community College.

CUNY Professor Throws Shade on the Whole Damn System, Man