Monday, May 7, 2012

It would be an honour

Here's an awkward conversation I had last week:

Him: "Yes, the talk you've outlined sounds perfect, and of course we're looking forward to hearing it. But I'm calling to settle another matter with you. What's your usual speaking fee?"

Me, after picking myself up off the floor from a dead faint: "Um, err, oh, it's, I goes ... zero? I'm an academic. I'm usually just glad someone has asked me to talk."

Him: "Okay. No. How about $250?"

Me: "Of course. That sounds great. Thank you."

Yes, it's a post about honoraria. Honorariums? I don't know. The money people pay you to talk about your research, money that's not your salary. Money that's not your travel or food expenses. Ideas money.

It's all very awkward. No one ever told me about honoraria when I was a grad student, just like they never told me about negotiating for royalty payments for a textbook. And here I am with both issues somehow having become current in my life. The only thing I ever remember hearing about "speaking fees" was of a Famous Postmodernist who extorted a very large speaking fee from a university I attended, and then read to the eager crowd an excerpt from a book he'd published ten years earlier. The idea I gained from that anecdote and others was twofold. First, superstars get fees, and they're big. Like prohibitively, we can't afford her, four digits big. Second, there's a whiff of jackassery and arrogance about the whole notion of charging money for talking about your research.

Okay, I guess it was threefold, because I also picked up the idea that writing and speaking that paid was not real research. You know that's true: textbooks bring their authors lots of money and monographs are often subsidized by money the author somehow finds to give to the press. Which book earns the author a gold star at review time?

Last year, I was invited to another university to give a talk in a lecture series. They told me up front that they would pay all my travel and subsistence expenses. And they said there would be a modest honorarium, but they didn't say how much. This year, I gave a plenary address to nearly 200 high school students at a symposium, and I had written the paper before I found out that there was going to be an honorarium, and how much. I gave a keynote to a small gathering of scholars and found out after the event was finished that there was going to be an honorarium. I won't know how much until it arrives, I guess.

I have written about social media and the professoriate for a Reader's Forum in a scholarly journal, gratis. I have written about collaboration and the humanities for University Affairs, with Heather and Erin, for a fee. It's all a mystery, frankly. I am making, I discover, a gagillion dollars a year from the Canadian edition of the textbook I work on, but the American author makes several gagillion more, but exactly how much is a mystery to me.

We don't, I guess I'm saying, talk in very clear or explicit ways about money in this business. Should we? Myself, I do a lot of knowledge dissemination work, which is to say, media and public talks and such. Some of it is paid and some of it isn't, but we never talk about it beforehand. I have been recompensed along a sliding scale from nothing (local TV, talks at the library, most academic gigs), through logo-emblazoned coffee cups (The Current), to cash money plus a bottle of wine (private high school).

I am always honoured to be asked. The honorarium is never top of mind. Should it be? Or middle of mind? What do you think about the issue? I find it all terribly awkward and perplexing, but it is nice to be paid for things, sometimes at least. I don't know, seriously, I just don't know what I think about the issue. You?

3 comments:

  1. It makes me uncomfortable. I sometimes think to myself that the 'be the assertive and ambitious female academic!' argument is to consider it part of a market demand - ie. if they want my services, I should be willing to discuss compensation, because surely the leaders of our fields do, I can't imagine my male colleagues having this internal debate, etc. etc. Adam Smith and all that.

    But - and here's the discomfort - while I like money as much as the next shoe-loving girl, I don't ever feel I should receive an honorarium, even for new work. Because to my mind this - outreach based on my teaching, my position in Canadian Studies, or my research - is just part of my job, and I'm already paid for my job, and partly/largely by the taxpaying public.

    Besides, I do profit from it: reaching an audience outside the classroom is a (paid) service, but it also brings a certain prominence and distinctiveness to my scholarship, intellectual "territory," and reputation. "Knowledge dissemination" is SSHRC-sexy, but I never present myself in those terms (except on forms!); I much prefer the model of public intellectual (although I'm hardly at that stage). I just like talking to people, and I get that a lot of academics ... don't, necessarily. So I already find it "rewarding," both emotionally and professionally.

    (That said, while it's ostensibly valued by our employers, the university could be much, much better at recognizing especially humanities initiatives in this regard.)

    A nice compromise is coming next month: I'm keynoting at the Canadian Univ. Environmental Science Network, and they donate money to an environmental charity of my choice. I love this idea.

    Also, the bag of Just Us! fair trade coffee I got at Acadia a few weeks ago was pretty sweet :)

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  2. The core of this is value and recognition. Within academia the currency of recognition is not necessarily money for specific work. You are paid a salary for work which includes doing research and publishing. You are recognized by your employer for some kinds of publishing and some kinds of presentations with promotions. Your scholarly community might also recognize those activities with prestige.

    Some of the work you do is not really recognized in this system. This is one of the things that gets talked about a lot when we talk about knowledge mobilization and speaking to wider audiences. (As Rohan Maitzen recently pointed out in a blog post: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/novelreadings/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-academic-blogging)

    In other realms, the medium of recognition of the value you provide is money. Some organizations don't have the money and feel bad about not offering it to you. Others do have the money and offer a reasonable price. Others are similarly confused and don't want to insult you by offering money but are prepared to recognize your value with money.

    Even those of us who are self-employed and thus need to get paid to do things find it hard to figure out what our value is in money terms. It seems to be even harder for women. And this connects to other realms in which even the employed (and academics) need to think about their value in money terms -- like negotiating salary when offered a position.

    It's hard. And I agree that we need to talk about it more.

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  3. btw, you are correct--honorarium is the singular and honoraria is the plural. We had the honorariums vs honoraria debate while I was working on GSA policies back in 2010 ;p Maybe I did actually learn something from the experience!

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