Here’s an awkward conversation I had last week:
Him: “Yes, the talk you’ve outlined sounds perfect, and of course we’re looking forward to hearing it. But I’m calling to settle another matter with you. What’s your usual speaking fee?”
Me, after picking myself up off the floor from a dead faint: “Um, err, oh, it’s, I goes … zero? I’m an academic. I’m usually just glad someone has asked me to talk.”
Him: “Okay. No. How about $250?”
Me: “Of course. That sounds great. Thank you.”
Yes, it’s a post about honoraria. Honorariums? I don’t know. The money people pay you to talk about your research, money that’s not your salary. Money that’s not your travel or food expenses. Ideas money.
It’s all very awkward. No one ever told me about honoraria when I was a grad student, just like they never told me about negotiating for royalty payments for a textbook. And here I am with both issues somehow having become current in my life. The only thing I ever remember hearing about “speaking fees” was of a Famous Postmodernist who extorted a very large speaking fee from a university I attended, and then read to the eager crowd an excerpt from a book he’d published ten years earlier. The idea I gained from that anecdote and others was twofold. First, superstars get fees, and they’re big. Like prohibitively, we can’t afford her, four digits big. Second, there’s a whiff of jackassery and arrogance about the whole notion of charging money for talking about your research.
Okay, I guess it was threefold, because I also picked up the idea that writing and speaking that paid was not real research. You know that’s true: textbooks bring their authors lots of money and monographs are often subsidized by money the author somehow finds to give to the press. Which book earns the author a gold star at review time?
Last year, I was invited to another university to give a talk in a lecture series. They told me up front that they would pay all my travel and subsistence expenses. And they said there would be a modest honorarium, but they didn’t say how much. This year, I gave a plenary address to nearly 200 high school students at a symposium, and I had written the paper before I found out that there was going to be an honorarium, and how much. I gave a keynote to a small gathering of scholars and found out after the event was finished that there was going to be an honorarium. I won’t know how much until it arrives, I guess.
I have written about social media and the professoriate for a Reader’s Forum in a scholarly journal, gratis. I have written about collaboration and the humanities for University Affairs, with Heather and Erin, for a fee. It’s all a mystery, frankly. I am making, I discover, a gagillion dollars a year from the Canadian edition of the textbook I work on, but the American author makes several gagillion more, but exactly how much is a mystery to me.
We don’t, I guess I’m saying, talk in very clear or explicit ways about money in this business. Should we? Myself, I do a lot of knowledge dissemination work, which is to say, media and public talks and such. Some of it is paid and some of it isn’t, but we never talk about it beforehand. I have been recompensed along a sliding scale from nothing (local TV, talks at the library, most academic gigs), through logo-emblazoned coffee cups (The Current), to cash money plus a bottle of wine (private high school).
I am always honoured to be asked. The honorarium is never top of mind. Should it be? Or middle of mind? What do you think about the issue? I find it all terribly awkward and perplexing, but it is nice to be paid for things, sometimes at least. I don’t know, seriously, I just don’t know what I think about the issue. You?