Writing on the edge of academia


I remember sitting down shortly after being accepted onto my PhD, and panicking over the expected word length of my thesis - 80,000 words. If I remember correctly, I hid under the covers of my bed for a couple of days, before re-emerging as a slightly less terrified first year student.


It's funny, how over time, that limit seems smaller and smaller. For my latest book, every single chapter could have easily been a book of its own. The topic areas of (1) psychological and psychiatric diagnoses and treatments related to gender and sexuality, (2) feminism, and (3) transgender activism and scholarship related to the 'psy' professions - are immense and complicated. As a result, the first draft of my book was over 20,000 words too long, and I was far from finished. I had to cut a lot of content to make the book as agreed, and to make the deadline (ish...).

I write because I enjoy it, but mostly because I feel that whatever I'm writing about really needs to be said.

So, I disagree with the Anonymous Academic article published late last year in The Guardian, that the only reason people write academic books is for 'vanity'. I love to write, and regardless of where I ended up in life, I would have spent my time writing (much to the surprise of my high school English teacher...). Also, some things need the space that a book offers. I initially tried publishing my work in journals and repeatedly got feedback from editors that the scope of the paper was too big. I was also told that I needed to expand each section to provide more information and background for readers unfamiliar with all the different areas that I was trying to bring together. In short, Perverse Psychology and Psychology and Gender Dysphoria were just not possible in many of the academic publishing formats available, other than books.


While there are important conversations to be had around institutions profiting over the hoarding of knowledge, producing an elitist system where papers are inaccessible to most, to assume that, "much of the time that goes into writing these books is made possible through taxpayers’ money" (Anonymous Academic, 2015) is to make several problematic assumptions - the first being that those who write books are paid to do so. This is not always the case. In fact, as is increasingly being documented, the majority of those who work at universities are on short-term and temporary contracts. They are paid by the hour, or by the course, their employment insecure, and their workload high as they continue to chase the ever-out-of-reach goal of a full time position, or dare I say it, tenure.


To disavow academic books is to continue a worrying 'norm' within academia, and education more generally, that academics and teachers will work above and beyond contracted hours on numerous tasks, that are ultimately unfunded and never reimbursed. Whether it's money for school supplies, or self-funding that conference presentation in the hopes that it will lead to a job somewhere down the line, if we actually calculate the number of hours many academics and educators put into their work, it can fall way below the minimum wage.

To assume that academic books are some kind of money making machine, is to overlook just how many hours are required to produce one, and the much smaller percentage that ends up in the author's own pocket. Writing a book is hard, it is physically painful, exhausting, and all-consuming. You have sleepless nights, aching hands from typing, blurred vision from staring at books and computer screens, and looking out of the window for hours while you dream of a future where it's finally f*cking done. If the only motivation you have to write a book is vanity, it won't get finished. You need to love writing, even when you hate it.

While you can argue that educators choose to work beyond their contracted hours, again this overlooks the current context of higher education where temporary and insecure employment is the 'norm'. This makes it much more difficult for staff to refuse to do work that is sent their way, and to look beyond the all-consuming belief that if we just do more, eventually we will land that job/position/pay/security that was promised to us years ago as an idealistic and optimistic student. To look beyond this belief, however, means risking the realisation that the dream job may not even exist and that all the time, effort, and investment in this career has been for nought, resulting in a personal sense of failure (rather than anger at an unfair system).


For those on low hours, short term, and casual contracts, payment for any additional work can be, not only a bonus, but a necessary income. Tasks such as reviewing papers, editing journals, managing email lists, and writing journal articles can take away from paid income for those in insecure employment, hanging by a financial thread within the academy.


The expectation that academics will complete these tasks without pay, assumes that everyone is as privileged as those in full time faculty positions (a particular problem when we consider the under representation of people from minoritized/marginalized groups in relation to race, gender, class, and dis/ability within academia as a whole). While we should support Open Access and anti-elitist publishing avenues, we should also support reimbursement for academic labour with the understanding that most people working in higher education are not paid for their time and simply cannot afford to work for free just because they are expected to. We should not be putting people in the position of having to choose between taking shifts at a minimum wage job to pay the rent, and taking on unpaid academic tasks that come with the elusive promise of future academic success.


Copyright © 2020 Jemma Tosh. 

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