Saturday, August 13, 2016

Some thoughts on how we compensate service to the academic profession and scholarship.

Russom's book, which
I exhibit here as an
additional tiny homage.
It was a pleasure, this past week, to review the proofs for a forthcoming essay of mine, a short piece written for a festschrift in honor of Rick Russom, whose own first book on Old English meter was the most influential book on my own thinking about meter. These proofs were a particular pleasure because the editors of the volume and the typesetter at the press had put the piece together so beautifully that I had only one minor request for a change. Reading the proofs hardly took more of my time than reading the essay did.

Unfortunately, this week I’ve also felt I needed to decline two recent invitations to serve as an academic reviewer, in one case for a critical edition of a short Anglo-Saxon text, and in the other as a reviewer of proposals for summer grant projects from a major national granting agency. I suppose I might have managed the smaller task, but in the case of the proposals, I figured reading two or three dozen multi-page proposals, evaluating and ranking them, and writing responses to them, would take me at least half a week to a week of solid work: 20 to 40 hours or more. I would like to feel like I can afford to give this amount of time to the grand collaborative enterprise that is scholarship, but the honest truth is that I felt I couldn’t take that much time out of my work week, even for the 250 dollar stipend I was offered.

One of my goals, when I left academic employment, was to do my best to continue to operate as an active scholar, even if not as active as when I was employed. And I have also wanted to be visible in doing this work, as a reminder to myself and to others that academic employment is only one of the routes towards being a valued scholar, and that one can write scholarship of value while engaged in other sorts of work or employment.

So I felt very much disappointed in feeling like I couldn’t afford to undertake this scholarly work, that the time I give to scholarship is now, more than ever, focused mostly upon my own writing. And I wondered, for the first time, how I had ever found the time to do this sort of work when I was working as an academic. That wondering, I must confess, got me to thinking about how the whole academic enterprise is financed and compensated.

So: let me try out some numbers. I’ll use my own examples of employment for when specific numbers are needed, but I hope my readers remember that those numbers are, perhaps, now out of date, and they might plug in their own numbers for clarity or comparison.

So I will assess how much I would have been paid (or compensated) for each of these kinds of work when I was academically employed: a published chapter; the review of an essay for a journal; the review of a set of grant proposals for a national agency.

Case Study 1: Reviewing a journal article. I don’t know how much time this takes, on average. My guess is that the very least I could spend in reviewing an article for a journal or collection would be half a day to a day: four to eight hours of uninterrupted reading, thinking, and writing (though I rarely do it all at once). In both of my academic jobs, my contracts specified 20% service, which means eight to ten hours a week, assuming I could keep my work limited to 40 to 50 work hours per week. Reviewing a journal article thus might take a full week’s worth of my contracted service, or as little as perhaps half of a week’s contracted service.

To keep the numbers simple, I’ll count my contracts as ten-month contracts, rather than nine, so that my monthly salary will be easy to calculate. As a tenured full professor, my (pre-tax) monthly salary was thus about 6000 dollars; as a non-tenure line instructor I ended up with a monthly salary of about 4000 dollars. Twenty percent of those salaries, of course, would be 1200 or 800 dollars: that’s the amount I was paid for service each month. One week’s worth of each of those would be one quarter of that: 200-300 dollars--20 to 30 dollars an hour, for 8 to 10 hours. Depending on whether a particular review took me the minimum of time or more, the range of compensation I received from my university would have been between 100 and 300 dollars, pre-tax. Calculated on a nine-month contract, of course, those numbers would go up by 11 percent.

Case Study 2: To read a full batch of roughly 30 grant proposals, I think a full month’s worth of service would be required: at the very least 15 hours, much more likely close to 30 hours of reading, evaluating, comparing, ranking, writing. Let’s call that fifteen hours, one and a half weeks' worth of service (if the work week is 50 hours); 32 hours would be a full month of service, if the work week is 40 hours. So that’s between 300 dollars and1200 dollars. This granting agency, to its credit, did offer me 250 dollars for the work, though for me that would have been my only pay. If it had taken me 30 hours, I would have been working for less than West Virginia's minimum wage of $8.75.

It is important to remember that, when I was employed academically, this was work that I always counted in my annual reviews as falling under the heading of service. That is, I was literally being paid for this work, and my universities were essentially subsidizing the publishers or granting agencies. When I undertook this kind of work while I had an academic job, and I was also paid by the granting agency, I was actually being paid twice for the same work. 

Case Study 3: As for writing an article or chapter, my goal as a working academic was always two acceptances for publication per year, plus, of course, the conference-going that would support that: usually two conferences. When I was working non-tenure track, my contract specified zero percent for scholarship, so that scholarship was work that I was literally doing for no compensation. No wonder I am willing to do such work now for the same pay! But when I was a tenured full professor, making 60,000 dollars a year, my annual compensation for scholarship (specified at 20% in my contract) was 12,000 dollars a year (plus re-imbursement for many conference expenses, of course).

Those were the days! 5000 dollars for an article, and 1000 for a conference! And if I’d published fewer articles and gone to fewer conferences, the dollar amounts would be even larger.

If you, dear reader, are a working academic with a percentage assigned to scholarship--ten percent, twenty, forty, fifty, whatever--it’s easy for you, too, to do the math. Figure out what that percentage of your annual salary that is in dollars, figure out how many articles you do (or are expected to) publish per year, and divide to get a sense of what you are being paid for that work. It seems important to understand this number, especially if it turns out you’re being paid thousands of dollars to write an article, as I was.

Somehow, in all the time I was employed as an academic, I never got around to working out any of these numbers. Now, however, I am always reminded of the value of my time, the value of my labor. The scholarly writing I do now, I am happy to say, is a work of love: I would do it for free, and I do. But how nice it was to be paid for it, and paid so handsomely, for a part of my career.

But the work of reviewing is not really done for the love of it: it is work, and valuable work, and the reliance of publishers and grant funding agencies on the subsidies of university salaries means that this work can really only be done by university employees, who are the only ones who get paid for it. I’ve recently seen on Facebook some academics suggesting that they should refuse to do reviewing work for for-profit publishers, unless they get paid by those publishers: but of course, they are probably already getting paid for that work by their universities.

And this is what’s important, in some sense: those who have academic employment (often? usually?) get financially compensated for service work, and those with a research component to their contracts get paid to produce scholarship. I don’t get paid for these things (except occasionally I do get a tiny check for royalties: probably totaling 2000 dollars or less over the last fifteen years). Grad students don’t really get paid for these things. Adjuncts don’t generally get paid to produce scholarship, and probably sometimes do not get paid for service to the profession. If we ever hope to have a more equitable and even inclusive scholarly world, finding a way to compensate those outside of academic employment for the value of their labor should be a priority.

I wish I didn’t feel like I cannot afford to include myself in the pool of potential reviewers for articles or grant proposals. I wish I didn’t worry that if the pool of reviewers includes only those in academic employment, then the process might be biased to award grants only to those in academic employment. Certainly, I felt like this granting agency’s habit of awarding summer-time grants served explicitly to identify likely grantees as those on the academic schedule.

I would like to think that my position outside of academic employment gives me a valuable perspective on the academic world: but at present I must generally be content to offer that perspective for free, though working academics generally get compensated for their service contributions. And as long as academic publishers and granting agencies—both those who operate for profit and those who are non-profit—rely upon the salaries of those with academic employment to do the work, the labor, of reviewing, I worry that they actively work to keep the insiders inside and the outsiders outside. Because no one should be asked to contribute their labor for free. Or for less than minimum wage.

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