The politics of remuneration are always fundamentally messy. Jake Rosenfeld reminds us as much in his You’re Paid What You’re Worth. The payment for our labor reflects not some objective evaluation of our individual performance (though many seem to think so), but structures of power, inertia, and mimesis that shape employment and society.

Discussions about payments are, then (and as is obvious to any social scientist), about these structures of difference. This matters to us, academics, as ever so often the value of our work is rendered numeric through citations and other metrics, but also through the amounts of payment given for our labor. We can think of these payments in various ways. Mirroring myths of meritocracy, we can see these as reflecting the value of individual scholarship, with larger payments accruing to those who do more and do so better than the rest. We can see them, too, as partly shaped by the politics of visibility—with more prominent scholarship receiving greater rewards, independently of evaluations of quality. We can also think of it as reflecting the political economy of a very unequal industry, where resources are heavily lopsided. We can see it as a crapshoot or a product of individual negotiating skills.

Gifts and Honoraria Overview

How we frame discussions about remuneration reflects what we believe is at stake in these structures of difference. Studying pay gaps may imply, for example, an assumption that all people with the same skills should receive similar rewards (this is, indeed, the mainstay of the literature). But depending on how the conversation is framed, it could involve emphasizing the need to pay for otherwise unpaid work, as a way of valuing labor that is taken for granted. Or it could have assumed the principle that, independently of the nature of work, employment should guarantee basic and egalitarian life chances for all. These three conversations are not the same: one hints at a sense of formal equality, the other at a sense of being included, the last at generating dignity, despite a person’s position in the world.

A recent debate in academic Twitter was exactly about what is at stake in remuneration in academia. The debate was substantively about a form of special money—honoraria given by institutions to speakers at departmental colloquia. Honoraria are not intended to operate as sources of income (they are, rather ‘nominal amount[s, …] payments made to individual guest speakers or lecturers as a “thank you” gesture of good will and appreciation’). They are also not to be confused with speaker fees, often arranged through independent agents not affiliated to the institution of employment of the scholar and which attract much larger payments. They are also not reimbursements of expenses. They are tokens of appreciation for sharing knowledge with ostensible peers.

Like most forms of remuneration, honoraria are unequally distributed. (The fact that there are so very few studies about honoraria speak to their opacity). As in employment, race and gender skew the rewards towards certain types of academics (white, male, mobile and prominent). Like other forms of unpaid academic labor, women and minorities receive fewer (and potentially smaller) payments for their talks. More importantly, perhaps, the treatment scholars experience around honoraria is uneven. Some scholars can curtly deny invitations to speak if no honorarium is paid without facing repercussions; others are scolded for stating their boundaries. This is partly what sparked this most recent round of public discussions: the experience of Ahmad Greene-Hayes, an exceptional Black scholar who, upon asking if an honorarium was available, was treated aggressively by the institution (and the public; I openly apologize for having jumped into the conversation without full knowledge of the facts).

Let’s be completely clear: what Greene-Hayes faced was entirely inappropriate. Scholars should have the right to decline invitations without the risk of reputational consequences. (In effect, scholars routinely get invitations to speak, and decline them if they so wish). That these consequences are shaped by race and gender is, of course, problematic and something we need to address.

The debate around honoraria didn’t take this shape, however. Rather, it became a call for institutions not to expect us to “work for free”. Academic talks at departments were rendered equivalent to “academic hazing”; the honorarium became “the floor. The bare minimum”.

The historical context of this call for scholars not to “work for free” is important. As the honorarium discussion trended on Twitter, higher education and its professionals were under siege throughout the country (indeed, the world). Professors were declared “the enemy”; academic freedom was under threat at the University of Florida and elsewhere; tenure protections had been recently dismantled in Georgia; poorly-designed financialized buildings were planned in California; women academics with childcare responsibilities have had their careers upended, often with little institutional support; budgets were being slashed; enrollments were down; salaries were stagnant; the list goes on. The lifeworld of the (American) professors—an increasingly diverse group—is definitely in danger.

Rather than focusing on honoraria as connected to these problems, the “don’t work for free” framing foregrounded a different, and in my opinion troublesome, economy of scholarly production. Uncompensated administrative burdens, undervalued service work, discretionary pays, overzealous administrators, stagnant compensation, unequal childcaring responsibilities, and stressful work environments are endemic to our profession. They shape the lives of most of us. They are collective problems. Lost honorariums for giving the occasional talk are simply not: at a reasonable 2 external talks per year, a $200 honorarium would represent less than 0.5% of the annual income of the average assistant professor in 2018. Honoraria may affect those who, in their good fortune, enjoy repute, who are frequently invited to speak about their work, to communicate their findings. Foregrounding honoraria as a critical problem does not address the strife of the vast majority of scholars who, in their increasingly precarious forms of employment, are simply not invited to give talks, are largely invisible; it does little to speak to the collective problems of our profession, placing instead overwhelming focus on the experiences of a relative visible few. And, unfortunately, it too often speaks to the worst parts of our vocation in its focus on prestige and recognition: it is, in many ways, like opposing tax cuts for the very rich because one day one might find themselves in that situation. Solidarity, but for the stars.

That this discussion highlights a concerning lack of unanimity around common problems among academics is further made evident by the underlying assumption that external talks are somehow “gigs” that must be recompensed at whatever cost (even if involves squeezing more from the already scarce). In addition to the moral ambivalence of placing tenured academics in the same category as very precarious gig workers (which some could read as a dishonest claim that does not reflect material differences between these groups), this imperative confuses our forms of work and employment—making practical discussions about workplace solidarity even more difficult. “We are not salaried employees”, wrote one defender of the necessity of honoraria; but in a very practical and legal sense, we are: for at least nine months of the year (when department colloquia happen), tenure-track are on their institution’s payroll, and if invited to a talk, they do so without taking leave or sacrificing salary. “This is not work for our institution”, argued someone else, although it very tangibly is. Our appointments and periodical reviews depend on the type of intellectual activity that takes place in departmental colloquia and invited talks. The University of California’s Academic Personnel Manual explicitly notes that scholars are to be evaluated through “(1) teaching, (2) research and other creative work, (3) professional activity, and (4) University and public service.” Giving talks constitute professional activity and public service. In effect, external talks are part of our standardized biographical forms. They are consequential lines in our CVs. And insofar as they are tied to our salaries through practices of institutional review, they are compensated (in the long-run, a large and very prestigious talk may be much more valuable through its effects on salary than the honoraria associated to it). It is telling that some of the most vocal voices in the debate have double lives as consultants and speakers (in one slip, a tweeter asked people why they didn’t direct their “animus against the tenured white guys who get the highest fees (sic)”). Public intellectuals are essential and deserve recompensing. But most of us, alas, are neither consultants nor speakers. We are public sector employees. This is our job.

This decentering of the problem and artificial partitioning of our working lives confuses what is at stake in these pressing times. The fact of the matter is that, in our daily strife, the unequal service burdens at public universities, the ballooning of administrative expenditures, the precarization of our academic workforce, the difficulties faced by our staff colleagues, the inequalities faced by women and underrepresented minorities in their sites of employment and the disciplines they inhabit, and the mountains of debt carried by our students, are what should be paid attention to. Radically transforming these structures of difference for the collective good, however, requires solidarity towards collective causes, a distinct formation of discourse and action that cannot emanate from catering to the problems of stardom and prestige.