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The Privilege to Write

Girl and boy writing on Blackboard

[This article is co-authored with Chris Gilliard.  Chris (@hypervisible) has been a professor for 20 years, teaching writing, literature, and digital studies at a variety of institutions, including Purdue University, Michigan State University, the University of Detroit, and currently Macomb Community College. He is interested in questions of privacy, surveillance, data mining, and the rise in our algorithmically determined future.

The article is also inspired by public and private conversations we have had with Kate Bowles, Sherri Spelic and Melonie Fullick (that's a conversation across 5 countries and 4 continents!). Also, this article by Lee Skallerup Bessette and an early guest Prof Hacker post by Lee before she became a regular blogger here.]

It’s one thing to recognize, to acknowledge our privilege, and another thing completely to act on that knowledge. This is an article that acknowledges the privilege to write, and aims to open a conversation on how best to act on this privilege.

In academia, if you write for a peer-reviewed space, you do it for free, and the output counts towards promotion/tenure at your institution, or having publications helps you get research funding in future. Which is a reproductive cycle that makes it harder and harder for adjuncts and alt acs to ever get secure academic jobs… But this article focuses on writing for trade journals and magazines. Why do some academics and alt acs write for those?

  1. Pay

  2. Exposure/reputation

  3. Both

  4. Something else completely (which we will come back to)

There is potential for exploitation in there: what happens when academics agree to write for free for larger commercial for-profit entities? What does it mean that some people can afford to write for these spaces for free? How does that shift the privileged voices in these spaces? Some academics may benefit from the amplification of their voice and not care about the pay because they have secure jobs that pay well enough (here’s looking at the mirror, Maha thinks). Others may need the amplification, but have a greater opportunity cost – the unpaid time spent writing these articles could have been used for a paid consulting or teaching gig to help pay the bills. Bills that weren’t going to pay themselves. Chris recently found this tweet/meme on how you can’t pay bills in exposure dollars.

Some people don’t even have the privilege to write, with or without pay. They don’t have the time. They don’t have the outlets. They aren’t able to express themselves clearly enough in writing. Their ideas don’t get the exposure they deserve because they don’t have the privilege to write in the first place.

If someone is a better teacher/researcher/practitioner than writer, they may not be able to disseminate as well as someone who is average at their practice but able to write well.

Writing is labor. If someone could spend an hour doing something that would add much-needed income, or spend that time writing for a commercial entity, then it seems unimaginable to ask them to write for free. People who are not on low incomes can afford that. And therefore can afford to write for exposure rather than money, reproducing a cycle of privilege – whose voices get heard? When these are students: think about which student voices we read?

On the other hand, there are privileges we lack that are not financial. I (Maha) recently wrote something for free that got republished in a widely-circulated space. I don’t mind that I didn’t get paid because I cared about the cause for which I was writing, and having it republished meant more people got to read it. This isn’t the same as exposure/reputation in the usual sense of it helping my own reputation as a scholar. This was exposure because I want more people to know about this cause. If I had published it on my blog, it would have reached fewer people and audiences that already know me and my work. If I had published in spaces I am already known (like here), it would have reached mainly edtech folks and at best academics. This one reached an even more public audience I could not have reached on my own. So it was worth it, for me, to get my voice in there (and for the first time in a long time, similar to what Lee mentioned, my mom, husband, non-academic friends, read my article – and my university included it in their daily newsletter. Because they know the widely-circulated space where my article got republished). But what if something we write gets republished (because it’s CC-licensed or our original publication space has that right) in a space whose values we disagree with? It hasn’t happened to me yet, but even my blog has a CC-license (albeit Non-Commercial).

Chris’s perspective is that it is an unjust model for many of these (large, for-profit- magazines) to operate the way they do, especially in cases where they are looking for student contributions. Also, although these things are not necessarily looked at in terms of solidarity or group interest, it devalues our labor as a whole when we work for free. This has ramifications beyond just writing.

What’s your view on writing for free? Tell us in the comments!

Wikimedia Commons image Blackboard Laos by Masae shared under Public Domain License.

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