*This is an unhappy post about happy endings.*
I read an intriguing article the other day which I forgot about and remembered today. It’s a touching life story with a happy ending. I automatically sneer at happy endings because I find them out of touch with reality, however, the story looks legit. Should you so desire, you can examine the original article, but you’ll need Google Translate to assist you with the Czech. (On a tech note, if you translate often, like me, you could make use of this nifty extension for Chrome.)
The article describes the downward spiral of a professor and faculty dean, who lost his job after his faculty was dissolved and proceeded to lose his wife and home, ending up a homeless alcoholic. This seems to be a rather typical academic career. What’s different here is that the man’s students found him, got mobilised and helped him back to a non-boozer life with a home and a job. The recovered man started running and finished a marathon this month.
This relates to me on a personal level and poses a few questions, such as whether any of my students would be so kind, for old times’ sake, as to throw me a coin when I end up on the street. I don’t think so really, which increases my wonder at the professor’s story. I didn’t imagine these things—someone helping someone else—could actually happen. Of course, I’m cynical and I have no imagination.
Another point is the heightened vulnerability of academic personnel, or anyone who has spent a prolonged period of time in the academic environment. Academia is a strictly closed system which does not operate on capitalist principles, hence the difficulty of academics to come to terms with functioning outside of their natural habitat. I’ve spent about a third of my life half-way in academia, mostly as a student, not as an employee, and I was marked for a lifetime. This shows in my confusion about how basic things work—especially the how-to-pay-your-bills kind of things.
While I have myself to blame, the academic system significantly contributed in conditioning me to a behaviour when I don’t expect to get paid for my work. Here is, in brief, what academics do:
- We write articles/books for publication. An administrative fee for publication might be involved. Our university, when state-subsidised, gets points for our articles which then convert into money for the university budget. The author of the article is not paid and does not draw royalties.
- We present at conferences. The conference fee, travel, accommodation and other costs might be fully or partially covered by our university, provided that there is a suitable grant project running to claim the expenses from. The presenter is not paid, unless it’s a top-ranking academic invited to give a plenary talk.
- We teach classes, mark essays, provide consultations and do the rest of the workload proper for which we are paid, provided that we are employees, not doctoral students (the latter are free workforce). Salaries for academics are regulated and are somewhat above the wages for unqualified labour and slightly below the salaries of schoolteachers (who typically also have lower qualifications).
I don’t think there is another working environment where, in the extreme, people pay to work rather than to be paid for work.