Academic Work for Free: It’s Indefensible and Exploitative, but We Continue to Do It

A professor at a major university wants me to contribute a chapter on critical theory to a new, academic-press book about progressive rock. That sounds great, right?! However, are you aware that I would be paid absolutely nothing for what would probably end up being several hundred hours of research and writing? [Update, March 16: The editor of a scholarly journal, who is a professor at another university, similarly wants me to do numerous hours of additional research work and writing to update my article about parody and intertextuality in the music of The Simpsons. I already researched and wrote that article and did numerous hours of revisions to satisfy the relevant journal issue’s editor and peer reviewers. That journal article would also pay me absolutely nothing.] You read that correctly: academia frequently does not pay anything for substantial work that is done.

My progressive rock colleague says it’s “somewhat defensible” that people with academic positions write for free. However, that work is actually considered essential to their full-time positions and to their salaries that are around three to five times more than mine as a full-time, computer technology, e-commerce, order support specialist. I earn $15 Canadian per hour, which works out to about $11 U.S. per hour. If I had my Ph.D. in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math), there’d be other places to use my knowledge and abilities in a well-paying, full-time job–other than just in universities. I don’t, and there aren’t.

Scholars with academic jobs seem to think it’s reasonable for scholars without them to do the exact same level of work for free, because it might increase interest in their earlier work–such as my published books on the music of Rush and of Peter Gabriel. If it’s already merely “somewhat defensible” for full-time academics to do work for “free,” it seems indefensible–possibly even exploitative–to expect scholars without academic positions to do the same. In fact, in the sciences it is now usually the case that for-profit, largely-paywalled publishers expect scholars to pay hundreds–sometimes even thousands–of dollars upfront for each and every article they publish. However, doing hundreds of hours of work for free is arguably at least as bad as that, especially if you have no income related to it.

Book publishers, as well as the organizations and societies that run conferences and publish scholarly journals, should find ways to pay those authors who don’t have academic positions. It doesn’t make any difference if I would enjoy writing a new book chapter or journal article, or another conference paper or book or two, for that matter. I would, but I shouldn’t have to do it for free, just like musicians, artists, and student interns shouldn’t have to do work for free just to get their names out there. No-one went to graduate school for up to a decade to end up not getting paid for the work they do.

[Update, March 18: I have agreed to research and write the book chapter and to revise the journal article further. I have most of a year to do the former and about a month to do the latter. I still think it’s indefensible and exploitative to expect anyone without an academic job to do this type of work for free.]

Performance Studies conference

I’m interested in proposing a paper for the 2016 Performance Studies Network conference at Bath Spa University. However, would the subject matter of my forthcoming listener’s guide to the music of thirty-year Bath area resident Peter Gabriel actually count? His “diverse, interdisciplinary developments,” “global perspective,” and so on certainly do seem to fit the themes of the conference, even though all of the confirmed activities are so far restricted to contemporary art music and world music. How could I afford to go, though?

Letting Academic Things Go

Kelly J. Baker just posted an article called “Goodbye to All That,” about abandoning her recently-contracted plan to write an academic book on the cultural history of zombies. I have very similar feelings about my work on music in The Simpsons, including my proposed academic book, related possible journal articles, and already-presented conference papers (e.g., 20062013). Without a tenure-track, professorial context, I have to let those types of academic things go and possibly reimagine them as public music history projects instead. I’ve already made that transition from my dissertation on the rock band Rush to Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion (2014) and am currently working on Experiencing Peter Gabriel: A Listener’s Companion (2016). So, I don’t see why I should stop now. Maybe, I’ll be able to get to the point of making a living wage at it!

“Public Musicologists” Ignore Public Musicology

Institutionally-unaffiliated PhDs in my field are routinely swept under the carpet. Amanda Sewell’s report in the August 2015 newsletter of the American Musicological Society about an early 2015 conference on the Past, Present, and Future of Public Musicology confirms this by not bothering to mention my paper.

My contribution was called: “The Untapped Doctoral Majority of Potential Public Musicologists.” The paper begins by covering such things as:

  • the over-supply of musicology PhDs for the number of academic positions
  • what some musicology PhDs actually end up doing outside of academia

It continues by covering my:

I also then explain that I created music history instructional videos and that I adapted my dissertation on the Canadian rock band Rush for a public book called Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). I end the paper with an example from Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book in the same series: Experiencing Peter Gabriel: A Listener’s Companion.

I have done almost all of that work outside of conventional institutional contexts, so does that mean it doesn’t qualify as “public musicology”?! The Musicology Now (blog) version of the report is only slightly better, with one, highly-misleading sentence about my work: “Durrell Bowman (independent scholar) spoke of the challenges he has faced in the decade-long search for an academic position in musicology.” Both my assigned title of “independent scholar”–which I loathe, in favour of “public music historian”–and the falsely-reported subject matter of my paper–which is actually a whole bunch of things I have done in Public Musicology–may explain why the editor of the AMS newsletter decided to exclude it. Not surprisingly, the newsletter version of the report also excludes the following sentence: “Felicia Miyakawa (academic consultant) explained why she left a tenured position and chose to pursue public musicology.”

I can’t speak for Miyakawa, but “we” are not amused.

Academia

Recent thoughts about Academia:

  • Here’s an example of how silly academic music job postings can be: “Primary responsbilities include teaching music theory, musicianship, composition, musical instrument digital interface, and low brass private lessons.”
  • Academia in the humanities exists so that many of the 50% who are lucky enough to get “permanent” jobs can move around to better jobs, whereas the other 50% never get to have permanent jobs at all.
  • On the other hand, a dissertation is an elaborate information system, developed through an iterative and incremental life cycle. In other words, that’s pretty similar to what systems analysts do! So, maybe there is hope for me in my new proposed career in computer applications development.