Why do the rich think I'll work for free?

They ask me to speak as if the honor should make me happy, and it burns me up!

Published July 9, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Note to readers: I will be going on vacation soon and so the column will appear sporadically during that time. I'll write when I can. -- CT

Dear Cary,

I am a Ph.D. candidate living in a large city. A major advertising and design agency has asked me to speak to one of its teams about my area of expertise. This invite was extended to me because I was at a barbecue and mentioned to one of its employees (who helps arrange for enriching speakers for teams focusing on particular projects) about my work, and she helped arrange for me to give a talk at the agency later this month.

This is exciting, as they're well-known for working with Ph.D.s in many fields on philosophical problems of advertising and design. They employ a lot of doctorate-level researchers and my students and colleagues dream of getting a job at this place. The problem is, they seem to be assuming that I will speak to their team for free. I did some hedging in some emails ("Just checking to see what paperwork you need from me -- an I-9 for an honorarium, etc.") and they've assured me that all I need to do is show up and give my talk on the specified date.

I'm confounded and a little annoyed, Cary. They are a very high-grossing agency with more than enough money to compensate guest speakers. It will take time to organize the lecture, and money to travel to their office, and after having worked hard in graduate school for low pay, I'm really disinclined to do this speaking engagement for free. I want to tell them, "Sorry to make waves here, but for guest speakerships, I request an honorarium of $150 to compensate for the time it takes to put together the lecture/activity." What's more, I feel that the expectation that people work hard for little to no money is one of the most damaging in our culture. The idea of speaking at this wealthy ad agency when I have student loans and holes in my socks makes me ill.

If I do this, I risk alienating the agency. It's a good line on my CV for numerous reasons and I want to continue to be friendly with my contacts there. Any recommendations as to what to do? Thanks so much in advance.



Dear K,

The practical solution is to reply to them as you propose, but say "require" instead of "request." Say that you require an honorarium of $250. (I increased the amount, rather frivolously, just for you.) Then, if they are "unable" to supply what you "require," then unfortunately, you will be "unable" to appear.

That being your policy and all.

It's so much fun to say that! You have a policy! When you put your wishes into a policy, they no longer look like wishes.

Something puzzles me, however. Though you say that expecting people to work for free is damaging to our culture, you put it so nicely that I'm not sure that you actually have any deep-seated, gnawing, grinding, seething contempt for the rich.

If you have no seething, grinding contempt for the rich, I suggest you acquire some. You can do so free of charge.

The rich won't mind. They will respect you for it. They understand contempt. Besides, if you do not acquire this contempt, they will take from you everything you have. They will walk all over you. How else do you think they got so rich?

They may not realize it's insulting and demeaning to invite penniless scholars to entertain them for free so they can watch your PowerPoint slides and think about hiring you for future consulting jobs. It's possible that no one has raised a stink about the practice, or that whoever does raise a stink is just not invited back. From the agency's  perspective, they probably see boring salespeople and freelancers with substandard hygiene traipsing in and out all day long, grateful for the chance to make presentations, trying to get work. You're not selling gadgets. You didn't approach them with a business proposal.They may not see the distinction between a salesperson and a scholar -- that you are in possession of hard-won knowledge that they don't necessarily get to just have for free.

Academe may appear to be an escape from the dirty business of money but I hope for you it is the opposite: an opportunity to study how people use money to maintain class privilege and national hegemony. Who pays the salaries of academics? Why, it seems to me, mainly the rich do. And what do the rich expect in return? They expect professors to teach their children how to maintain their privilege and status.

So I'm with you -- I do not think you should make it too easy for the rich and powerful to treat academics as their virtual vassals and mouthpieces.

You have to decide which is more important, your principles or your CV. If it is $150 worth of free publicity, or a good move for the future, then perhaps go ahead and do it. But if your soul cringes at the thought, then how can you?

I will admire you more if you side with your principles, but you must decide.

By Cary Tennis

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