Who Pays for Free? When Universities Give Our Work Away

September 17, 2013, 8:34 am


David Delgado Shorter

In today’s Wired Campus, Hannah Winston reports that the chancellor’s office of California’s community college system will make materials that they have funded available for free under a Creative Commons License. But as today’s guest blogger, David Delgado Shorter, a film maker and professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles asks, aren’t faculty ultimately paying for these generous policies?

I received a nice note the other day from one of my University’s librarians alerting me to the good news that they had purchased a licensing agreement with a company that would give any UCLA student free access to my book as an e-edition. This news, she informed me, would mean that more colleagues on campus could assign my book more affordably. Well, not just affordable, but for free!

I was facing a conundrum that I felt might be instructive to other professors. I had foregone any financial profits from the first, hardcover edition of my book. I wanted to demonstrate my commitment to my press, University of Nebraska Press, since they have long been supporters of indigenous studies and indigenous authors. Also, I wanted a large number of free books to give out to community members among the tribe I had written about. By giving back the profits from the first edition, I could ask for forty or fifty free books, a value then of $2,500.00. Plus, I figured that the first edition would sell out and I could take the standard 15% profit on future editions.

I had been happy these last few months because my press has moved forward to start production on the second, paperback edition of my book. I have a lot of respect for my editor, Matthew Bokovoy, and his support of a book series I co-edit with UNP about indigenous films and filmmaking. But getting this supposed good news that my book would be free to UCLA students made me pause and ask larger questions about scholarly labor and our supposed contemporary moment of free culture (free downloads, open access, etc). Particularly, what did this “free e-books for students” contract say about the general declining appreciation for academic work as seen in the attacks on tenure, the cutting of departmental status in universities, and the increasing gap between administrator and professorial pay? Let me cover a couple points, personal perspectives at least, and see if the conversation might help us all out.

I learned this last week that my Press entered into a bargain with a company that would make electronic editions of their books and then sell license agreements to institutions. I learned that the publishing company takes a one-time fee for this service, but that they have no control over what the digitizing company charges institutions. I learned that UCLA libraries paid a one-time fee of $67.80 for their user license. And now, the exact year that a soft-cover edition of my book will be made available, UCLA students will not have to pay anything for the electronic version.

You can easily see how someone just took a bite out of my profits.

Hearing my gripe about this, a colleague told me that this concern for “profit” makes me sound like the issue is about money. I am not only okay with that; the money/compensation/profit is exactly the point. Why is scholarly labor not like any other that deserves to be recognized? And more importantly, how do we pay attention to the industry’s standards (publishing and promotion) and how they are playing a role in devaluing our labor?

But who goes into academia to make money, right? As I was told by senior scholars when I started out, “You write a book to get tenure, not to earn a profit from that book.”

How about we stop believing this bullshit?

Who has determined that my labor should go uncompensated? I went deep into student loan debt and spent thirteen years in classrooms to become an expert in my field. I became a neurotic and overworked junior faculty member to fight my way through the pre-tenure years. Not in small ways, my personal relations suffered for these decisions. Now the other side of the coin: I helped correct the scholarly misrepresentations of the tribal community I see myself as partially serving. I wrote an award-winning book and secured tenure at one of the best universities in this country, if not the world. But somehow, all my knowledge and my struggle to craft my writing is not to be rewarded with a couple thousand dollars in book royalties? (And that’s at best!) Isn’t this part of the larger devaluing of what I do as a teacher, and what we do in education? (For those readers unfamiliar with academic publishing, only a small handful of scholars receive advanced contracts (which mostly go to researching the materials), and a smaller handful goes with trade presses and write crossover books that are popular.

The same thing goes for your academic writing and your academic publishers. Scholarly writers have come to believe their knowledge is not worth compensation. Nerds. Why are we so willing to let them get our books, often with no advanced contract, AND give them such sweetheart deals that allow them to make a one time profit with a digitizing company that cuts us out of future profits?

I can see the comment section to this blog post already. “Doesn’t this idiotic professor think students are already paying too much for education!!!??” “So this guy has tenure and probably lives in a big home and wears tweed jackets and travels to Europe and wants to make 15% profit off of the books assigned in college courses?!!!” “Free P3N1S Enlargement Pills Click HERE!”

Allow me to respond pro-actively to the non-spambot contributions to this conversation. I do think students are paying a lot for their education, just as I did. I saw my education as an investment that would enable me to obtain my life goals of being a college educator. I bought all the books assigned. I wrote in those books. I still have many of them and almost all of them in my major fields. I think education, particularly graduate education, should cost money because it almost always leads to the student earning more money after graduation. But I also think education should cost, including the cost of books, because I support labor. I have the radical notion that the people who manage our institutions should get paid for their labor, as should the people who clean them, and the people who administer our departments, as should the maintenance crews, adjuncts, graduate assistants, technology specialists, librarians, and so on. And a key point here is: I do think our states should assume these costs as part of their societal burden to create an educated public, a citizenry that can better discern information in all of its forms. Cathy Davis has written a timely piece on this issue just last month.

But although I have tenure at a great school, I will never be able to own my own house (unless we have major student loan repayment act, such as this one). Barring marrying rich, I won’t for probably another decade afford a trip to Europe, or even to visit my family in New Mexico on a regular basis. The student loan industry has a large percentage of my monthly income tied up for the next fifty years of my life, preventing me from being a good consumer of other products such as cars, homes, and even basic cable. Without student loan forgiveness or reform, I will be one of thousands if not millions who make a devil’s bargain as such: eternal indebtedness in exchange for an education. (Fodder for another guest blog: I was convinced by my school’s financial aid offices to just keep borrowing to reach my goal. “You can’t beat these interest rates!”)

I keep hearing how academic publishers are going out of business. Perhaps they should. Warner Bros, Disney, and Sony have figured out how to repackage and distribute content in a digital age while still making money. They never lost sight of the listener, fan, and viewer as customers. That seems like a plan our book publishers should have strategized about twelve years ago. The struggle seems located in our desire not to think of college students as consumers. And rather than an answer, I simply propose that we consider an actual survey of the situation: your legislatures think of university education as a product and college students as consumers, as do your campus administrators, your regents, the companies that run your bookstores, as do your lenders. Allysia Finley covers this fairly succinctly in the Wall Street Journal here. How much longer should we believe there is a reprieve from this free market approach to education? There is none. You can’t be the only one playing a different sport on the same field as everyone else, thinking you’ll somehow win the game.

Our college administrators tell us that we should think more like profitable corporations. We should monetize our work. We should centralize services. We should export our product (MOOCapalooza). We should respond to the demands of the free market. But then across campus, another administrator signs a deal to give our work away for free.

Loving what we do does not necessarily mean that we should labor for free. We are allowed to have both a profession, and a profession that enables us to make a profit for our labor. In that way, are we not like any other laborer? We need to be smarter about the contracts with our academic publishers. We also need to have conversations with our librarians and library administrators. We need to ask them how they will defend not just the book and book culture, but our value as intellectual laborers. Can they show you how they will do so the next twenty-five years, including all forms of the content? If not, they are a good fifteen years behind the times. So, don’t sign that contract. It’s not easy to say because I have tenure. It’s easy to say because this is a logical möbius strip. How our society values what we do begins with how we value what we do. You cannot complain that you get no respect from administrators or the general public, much less our students, when you agree to give your labor away for free to publishers. You are literally teaching your students that what you say has little value.

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