A Manifesto for the Freelance Academic: A Response

Last week, Associate Professor of Law Katie Rose Guest Pryal posted A Manifesto for the Freelance Academic. Her five-points are excellent tips both for academics thinking about leaving the Ivory Tower and for those of us who have already transitioned out of Higher Ed. At the risk of riding her eloquent coattails, I want to expand on a few of her points here.

First, this column reminds us that we should Get Paid for our Work. The pattern by which we academics are asked to do work for free and then feel compelled to do so to get our names “out there” starts at least in graduate school. In my case, the tasks were often program notes. In fairness, I DID receive season opera tickets to the marvelous Indiana University School of Music’s opera season when I wrote program notes. And that’s how I got paid. It was tangible, and I enjoyed the productions I attended. But the expectation that resident musicologists supply program notes for…whatever…never goes away. In the first year of my tenure-track position, I was asked to write on-going program notes for a chamber music series at my university. The music that was programmed that year was quite interesting. I learned new repertoire writing those notes. But I spent far too much time making sure the notes were perfect, to the detriment of writing projects that would actually have a bearing on my tenure case. I was not paid for the notes. It was “service.” And while “service” is also an important part of an academic job, it can swallow you whole. I declined after the first year.

Established scholars are also asked to do review work for journals and academic presses. The remuneration for these jobs varies widely. Reviewing a prospective journal publication (which takes hours if done well) is unpaid “service.” Reviewing a manuscript for an academic press can bring you a whopping $75-$200 for 20-30 hours of work (my own averages; may not reflect the experiences of others). Writing an official book review for a journal is also unpaid service, but does result in a publication (albeit a publication not taken seriously by tenure committees). I’ve had to change my thinking about review work since I  went rogue left my academic position. Since I have no other salary, I cannot “give” my time away for unpaid service work. I’m happy to do review work, but my time is precious to me in a new way. You can one up me and begin to value your time without leaving the academy!

Live in a place you love with the people you love. And frankly, this one means considering jobs outside of academia (which A Manifesto for the Freelance Academic also addresses), particularly for double academic couples. This is a big reason for my exodus from my tenured position. I could not be with my family if I stayed. And I would add to this: live with the people you love in the way you want to live. When I applied to graduate schools, I remember receiving advice about taking geography into account: “don’t apply to grad schools in areas of the country/world where you won’t be comfortable,” my professors told me. Why are we so willing to do this with jobs, even though we are likely to stay in a job location much longer? (Yes, I know the answer: we go where the jobs are.) A permanent position in Minnesota will suck for you if you hate snow. Tenure in Miami will be unbearable if you need autumn leaf color. If you are particularly liberal, you might find living in a red state unbearable. If you need to have a certain kind of spiritual congregation close at hand, ensure that your prospective community has such a congregation. Underneath all of this is an important point: please remember to be a human being, complete with wants, needs, desires, and preferences. Once we forget these facets of ourselves, we become soulless automatons.

And my own addition: recognize but then squash the guilt you feel when/if you make decisions you feel are the right decisions for you, even if (especially when?) these decisions take you off the beaten academic path. You may, indeed, find a happy ending in Academia. But it is also true that creating a life outside of the typical academic path is not failure. Carving out a new future for yourself shows bravery, honesty, and creativity. Create a world in which you can be happy, whatever that means for you.

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