Getting Paid and Saying No

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Getting Paid and Saying No

People often ask me for advice about transitioning out of academic and into self-employment. My best and biggest piece of advice to newly “alt-ac” people entering into the world of small business is this:


Academics hate talking about money. Lots of academics don’t want to think of themselves as cogs in capitalist systems because they produce lofty things like ideas and knowledge. People who produce ideas for a living often believe that they are qualitatively different from people who produce any other type of commodity.  Some academics would have us believe that producing ideas doesn’t cost time and money and have economic value, as if the academic “life of the mind” is somehow exempt from larger market forces. Assuming that academic work is exempt from economic realities leads to further magical thinking where nothing costs money.

(Usual caveat: #notallacademics but #manyacademics.)

Back in reality, the dirty grease of labor exploitation keeps our academic machinery running smoothly. In this model, incredibly underpaid and underemployed people such as graduate students and contingent faculty perform the bulk of teaching labor to support the bloated salaries of upper-level administrators and the productivity of senior faculty. In addition to performing their poorly compensated part-time jobs with minimal health insurance, graduate students and adjunct faculty are also expected to render an enormous amount of entirely unpaid labor.  The problem of exploitative unpaid labor, of course, becomes compounded by gendered and racial expectations that make unpaid work the domain of women and particularly women of color.

Most academics work a massive number of uncompensated hours, including meeting with students, grading, syllabus planning, assisting with other people's research, and answering email on the weekend. Academics also perform free labor when they agree to write book reviews, organize conference panels, and write book chapters for edited volumes. Academics justify asking each other for unpaid labor by dangling the promise of “another CV line,” regardless of the value of that line. A book review, for example, is nearly worthless as a CV line apart from its function as padding in order to make a thin CV appear more serious. Academics living on the edge of precarity, such as PhD students and adjuncts, do these things to get “experience” in order to procure an ever shrinking pool of available and reasonably compensated stable academic jobs.

The idea that free labor is the expected norm makes transitioning out of academia challenging in terms of money. When you’ve been providing free labor for years without question, the concept of getting paid in the form of money and not in “experience” seems foreign. If you’re making the transition out of academia, keep in mind that your now former academic colleagues likely will not understand that you now work for money. If you decide, for example, to start a small business and offer your writing expertise for money, people will continue to contact you to request free labor. People will ask you to write book chapters, to peer review journal articles, to review (generally awful) books, comment on conference panels, or to provide them with your service for free or well below the rate you’ve decided to charge.

People will promise you things that make it seem like they’re paying you, like lines on your CV or that mythical currency of “exposure” and “experience.” Here’s the thing: none of those things are money.

You may want to try the following thought experiments to test this theory. Try:

  • Paying for your rent or mortgage with the last conference panel you commented.
  • Paying for a tank of gas with an academic book review you agreed to write.
  • Paying for your bar tab with all of the “experience” you’ve gotten lately.

When you’ve completed these thought experiments and find that your free labor or CV lines are not accepted as payment for anything, your choices get a lot clearer. Once you’ve gone off the academic grid and you’re working for money, the only thing that you should accept as payment is cash that goes in your checking account.
Your services and expertise are worth money. When people ask what you charge, you tell them your rate. If they don’t want to pay it, you can say no.

Saying no is hard. Saying no to a paying opportunity while you’re trying to earn enough money to avoid starving is even harder. When you’re feeling desperate, you might find yourself thinking about caving to a job that pays below your rate. When you start wavering on getting paid what you’re worth, try the following. Go to your nearest Costco or large grocery store. Fill up your cart with lots of things. Get in the checkout line. Explain to the clerk that you would like to purchase all the things in your cart, but you don’t want to pay what they’re worth. Instead, you’d like to pay about half of their value. See if the clerk will let you take the groceries home without paying full price for them. When you discover that you can’t purchase groceries this way, come back and keep reading.
Your work, whatever it is (academic or not) is not fundamentally different that selling any other thing for money. (Yes, academics, I can hear that your work is so different because it's about producing ideas, not widgets. I have bad news for you: We’re all living in the same economy.) You provide a service or make something. You charge money for it. People pay you for it. End of story.

If you’re just starting out, you may be tempted to trade your expertise and skill in exchange for a below market rate in order to get some experience. The internet is full of shady corners where freelance hacks of all stripes engage in cut-throat competition to provide substandard services for rock-bottom rates. If you haven’t lately, look at Fiverr or sites like Upwork and see what people are paying and charging. I just looked at Upwork for academic editing jobs. One person would like to pay a dissertation editor $200 to review at 114 page dissertation. By comparison, I would charge $700-$950. Another person is offering $100 to someone in exchange for editing three chapters of a dissertation. In my world, (assuming 25 page chapters), that’s $400-$600. All of these jobs have 10-15 people bidding ferociously for the wonderful opportunity to get paid pennies.

I have a PhD. I’m expert in my field. I’m a good writer and careful editor. I spend a lot of time on client materials because I care about the quality of my work. I care about helping people produce great writing. I take a lot of pride in what I do. I love helping people turn kind of meh writing into something that shines.

But I can’t do it for free. I have to work for money.

Sometimes people get roped into providing free labor because they love what they do. It sounds like this: if you love to do something, you should be willing to do it for free. As I tweeted recently, just because you love to do something doesn’t mean that you have to perform free labor for anyone.

This doesn’t mean that I have not sometimes donated my time to causes I care deeply about. I recently wrote a piece (for free, on my own time) about my alt-ac experience for some friends who were putting together a book about this. I believe in sharing my experiences and knowledges with others and I believed in their project. But I thought a lot about it. I thought about what it would mean to say yes to that particular opportunity. I thought about what I’d gain. I also thought about what I’d be saying no to if I said yes to writing for free. If I wrote for free, I’d be using my time to work for free that I could devote to paying work instead. In the end, I decided to say yes because I believed in the project and made a conscious decision to donate my time and skill to it.

It sucks that our current neoliberal system reduces everything to a monetary transaction and that our greatest freedom is essentially the freedom to sell our labor to the highest bidder. But that’s our reality right now. And charging money for my expertise is how I keep the lights on at my house and buy groceries.

I still can’t afford to work for free. But thanks for asking.

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When the State Takes Aim at Families


When the State Takes Aim at Families

This is an essay. It is only an essay. If it was an actual research article, it would contain facts and citations. Instead, it consists solely of my observations and thoughts about how and why people make the assumptions that drive destructive and violent child welfare policies.

A few weeks ago, I read this piece in the New Yorker about what happens when family court judges decide to remove children from families. The author concluded that even when done for the right reasons, removing children from families constitutes one of the highest forms of state violence against people. To date, this is one of the most disturbing articles I’ve ever read.

Thinking about the violence of removing children from families brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the surface. I couldn’t stop thinking about how assumptions about people perpetuate the violence of state-sponsored systems of all kinds, but particularly those that involve children. The people who make those assumptions and use them to direct state violence towards certain families are those we might expect: white, elite. Yet because child welfare professionals tend to be women, they become female agents of state violence, the iron fists in velvet gloves.

Adopted and foster-care kids (and adults) are two sides of the same coin, both products of assumptions about certain types of families and parents. In both cases, the state uses its power to legally destroy a family. In adoption, we assume that birth parents happily and willingly place themselves in the path of state violence. In cases of when the state forcibly removes children from parents, we’re assuming that what we see as the unseemly behavior of parents justifies state intervention and removal.

(Caveat: sometimes children face horrifying things in their own homes. Sometimes no other option but removal exists. Nevertheless, how many parents have had children removed for seemingly inconsequential reasons?)

We now talk about adoption in happy and positive language about that celebrates how mothers “make selfless and brave choices to make an adoption plan and give children a better life.” We feel good about this assumption because it hides our complicity in the necessary violence and market realities involved in adoption transactions. We discuss the forced removal of children from parents in the language of saving children from terrible outcomes. We talk about destroying families in the sanitary and neutral language of “removal.”

How much of the state violence we direct towards families comes from flawed assumptions that certain types of parents, particularly poor parents, can’t possibly be good parents? We do not trust them or believe in them as parents. Our assumptions about poor parents lead us to believe we are using state violence for a higher and more noble purpose, regardless of the level of violence involved or its consequences.

Confronting the ways that we personally help create the ideas that fuel the day to day machinery of the violence of child welfare policy feels incredibly uncomfortable. No one wants to feel complicit in participating in systems that oppress people and hurt children. Nevertheless, when we assume certain things about other people, we’re building new machines designed for violence. It has been my theory for quite some time that deep, deep down, people know that removing children from families is morally wrong. Because we know this (even if we won’t admit it), we have to go to extremes to convince ourselves that we use state violence for the noble purpose of saving children from their families.

 Our assumptions about people and families help shape our understandings of what passes for the right kinds of families. On the flip side, we also shape ideas about which families aren’t appropriate for children. Social workers actually use language that classifies parents as “appropriate” or not. Together, teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and others define the boundaries for acceptable and proper families, according to hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, and able bodies.

Many people don’t ever have to think about whether they have a family that conforms to certain ideas about what passes as an appropriate family, the privilege of having a family that will probably never be targeted for state violence. What we think of as appropriate and inappropriate families for kids is, of course, historically and socially constructed. It changes over time.  In times past, only white, married, heterosexual, middle-class families were the right kinds of families. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, people believed that white single mothers were absolutely inappropriate as parents. The Moynihan report of 1965 depicted poor single black mothers as a product of a peculiar pathology inherent in African-American communities and the 1980s hysteria over the fate of “crack babies.” On the other hand, we’re increasingly more open to the idea of LBGTQ parents and families that buck the extreme conformity of decades past.

Adopted and foster kids, on the other hand, are the negative images of social beliefs about appropriate familiesThe original families of adopted and fostered kids represent a wide spectrum of family structures: female-headed households, single mothers, poor mothers, mothers of color, young mothers, parents with criminal convictions, families that live in poverty, families in which the father is raising the kids, families in which parents are in jail, and homeless families, just to name a few.

The families that we define as inappropriate for children now become targets for state violence.  Our assumptions about them show us precisely where to aim the terrible power of the state.

Once marked for state violence, two things may happen: if the family is white and the mom is still pregnant, we direct combined state and private violence towards her in the form of coercive adoption marketing that informs her that she’s not good enough to be a mother. If the family is of color and/or lives in poverty and the kids are older, we direct state violence towards the family in the form of coercive practices that involve child protective services and case workers and safety plans and family courts and summonses for child abuse and supervised visitation and foster care placements. We insist that poor families cannot have their children back until they conform to middle-class norms of proper social behavior despite the fact they have no resources to do so. We require that they jump through hoops of different shapes and sizes to appease the people with the power to return children.

We use state violence to destroy inappropriate families and remake them into the image of families we find acceptable. Our assumptions about what constitutes proper families become evident in the market costs to adopted children and those in foster care. The market value of adopted children creates Domestic adoption of white newborn babies (with a preference for white girls over white boys) still costs the most, as those kids are still a hot commodity, fetching thousands of dollars and inspiring weird crowdfunding efforts. Depending on the sending country, international adoption costs around $30,000. Black babies, on the other hand, come at discounted prices. Foster kids, most of whom are older kids and kids of color, come cheapest of all. Sometimes it costs nothing to adopt foster kids.

Despite our best efforts to direct state violence only where we deem necessary, outcomes for adopted and fostered kids are pretty dismal. Even in what are often considered poor families or bad families, children seem more traumatized by removal policies than by their family situations.

 Nevertheless, the logic of the state and social control mandates the use of state violence to control people, regardless of how poor the long-term outcome on people and families.

How can we, as individuals and communities, move people and families out of the path of state violence?



How We Remember Terrible Things


How We Remember Terrible Things

I've been thinking a lot lately about memory and history. I took all of those thoughts, wrote some short historical snapshots, and wrote a long-form blog post tied together some creative non-fiction and some photos. All this to say, here is a writing experiment. I can only hope it makes sense.

How do we remember terrible things?

History and Memory

Though related, history and memory are not the same. History is the study of change over time. Memory is how we remember the past. People interpret history and create memory of it. Both subject to changes in interpretation.

The Legacy of Slavery in Brazil

We remember terrible things by excavating memories of the past.

People in the United States remember the stain of slavery in a different way than people in other places. Public monuments in the Caribbean and Latin America celebrate the end of slavery, suggesting a landscape of liberation, a reckoning with an ugly and violent racial past that has no place in the present moment. Monuments to commemorate the end slavery in Latin America look nice, but Latin America isn’t the mythical “racial democracy.” One doesn’t have to look very far to find evidence of deep racism throughout the region. Monuments of liberation haven’t shifted underlying systemic structural violence towards people of color.

If slavery is the original sin of the United States (in tandem with dispossession and genocide towards native peoples), we might think about about how nations like Brazil have remembered their long histories of slavery. (To be clear, comparing public memory in Brazil and the U.S. is not a perfect comparison. Nothing like the Confederacy existed.)

Slavery was a crucial part of colonial projects in the Americas, beginning with the enslavement of indigenous people. Because disease killed many native peoples, colonial powers imported millions of enslaved Africans. Scholars estimate that between 10 and 16 million enslaved Africans imported to the Americas. Brazil received four to five million slaves, around 40% of the total estimate. The U.S., in comparison, received 6%. Eventually, 60-70% of enslaved people ended up in Brazil or the Caribbean.

Most enslaved Africans brought to Brazil came from West Africa. Many of the enslaved people who arrived in Rio came from what today is Angola. Possibly as many as 900,000 people passed through the Cais do Valongo in Rio de Janiero. Slave markets and mass graves were located nearby. The living were bought and sold, the dead thrown into mass graves.

 African slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888. Brazil was the last Western nation to do so.

In the wake of the horror of the Holocaust and Nazi violence, the United Nations formed UNESCO in 1945. UNESCO set out to understand the concept of race in a new way to prevent future horrors. UNESCO’s 1951 statement of race rejected the racial thinking and biological determinism of the past. It proclaimed

“From a morphological point of view, moreover, it is impossible to regard one particular race as superior or inferior to another.”

Because of Brazil’s long history of slavery and miscegenation, the nation became the focus of post-WWII race studies. UNESCO sponsored race studies in Brazil in the 1950s, operating on the assumption that a place with such a complex racial composition had mastered the art of racial harmony. What researchers found, however, was a much more complicated problem than they’d assumed. Race studies began in Bahia, the state with the most evident African influence and blackest population. The scope of the investigation widened as researchers confronted several problems with the project, as their research showed entrenched patterns of structural racism.

Cais do Valongo was rediscovered in 2011 during the public renovations to the city of Rio for the 2016 Olympic games. The Cais do Valongo is one of the few tangible remnants that reminds us of the magnitude and unspeakable cruelty of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017. A research center and museum now stands there. A proposed memorial at the site includes native African plants and public spaces where slaves might have perhaps practiced capoiera.

Not many slavery memorials exist in Brazil today.

City Beautiful Movement and Denver

We remember terrible things through things we build.

The City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century sought to use monumental architecture to not only beautify cities, but also to instill certain civic values and a sense of moral virtue in the residents of cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. The City Beautiful proponents favored monumental neoclassical architecture because it emphasized harmony and dignity, but above all, social order.  The people, of course, targeted by the City Beautiful movement, were the people city planners thought needed to learn these things: women, people of color, the working class.

Fears of losing control over established social order framed the world’s fairs of the 19th century that inspired the City Beautiful movement. The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893 provided a watershed moment for city planners. Known as the White City, the fairgrounds featured neoclassical buildings, thought to inspire symmetry and balance. The manicured lawns and beautiful architecture of world’s fairs reflected an imaginary vision of the world, one in which people behaved according to racial, classist, and gendered social norms.

The City Beautiful movement also reflected the aims of the popular eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Eugenics seemed like cutting-edge science. Many world’s fairs featured exhibits fairs provided an opportunity for scientists to teach the public about eugenics. In 1920, the world’s fair in Kansas City held a Fitter Family contest to measure the eugenic fitness of entire families.

The City Beautiful movement influenced city planning in Denver, where I now live. Enacted under the leadership of Mayor Robert Speer (1904-1912), the architecture of the Civic Center park reflected the City Beautiful movement’s goals.  Denver of the early 20th century was a rapidly changing city. In particular, the Labor Movement threatened to upend established social norms.


Efforts to stamp out the labor movement culminated in the 1914 Ludlow massacre, when the National Guard massacred striking coal miners and their families. Ludlow itself has been abandoned, but a small memorial marks the site. A Woodie Guthrie song also commemorates the strikers.

By the mid-1920s, the KKK controlled most government functions and offices in Denver. Much like mayor Speer, mayor Benjamin Stapleton sponsored many architecture projects, including the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Denver Municipal Airport.The airport became known as Stapleton. When the airport closed in 1995, the neighborhood was renamed Stapleton and redeveloped into subdivisions. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to change the name of the neighborhood. BLM suggests Justina Ford, the first African-American woman licensed to practice medicine in Denver.

Political power, racial oppression, and public space merge together in memory.

The Oppressive Beauty of Memory

We remember terrible things through beautiful things.

Material culture (for non-historians: stuff) that seem to celebrate culture can also be used to create historical narratives that erase history.   Things that sometimes seem to celebrate racial difference are often complicit in reinforcing it.

One of the stories that I tell in my book manuscript is about a New York fashion designer named Ruth Reeves. She traveled to Guatemala to collect textiles for the Carnegie Institute.  

Ruth Reeves took the Mayan textiles she created and produced textile designs for the Macy’s department store. Her show opened to rave reviews. People admired the timelessness of the traditional designs and marveled over how a people so far from modernity could possibly produce creative designs that seemed so fresh and vibrant. In doing so, she shaped the idea of the material culture of native peoples as artifacts of folklore. She helped to create in public imaginations what Peter Nabokov terms the cute ways of brown people.



Vibrant indigenous culture is often the result of brutality, violence, and exploitation, not centuries of unbroken pre-Hispanic rituals. Reeves helped create a story in which native peoples produced beautiful and authentic textiles just like they did at the time of the Spanish conquest. The story she helped create papered over a long history of oppression, racism, extermination, and discrimination. Nostalgia for an invented and romantic past oppresses people as much as Confederate monuments.

Tourists today often talk about the beauty of indigenous textiles in Guatemala.

The Vietnam Wall

We remember terrible things differently.

The Vietnam Wall sends no heroic message. A wall, by definition, has two sides.

 I had students once do oral history interviews with family and friends who had living memory of Vietnam. Their interviews showed families often torn apart by the war.

It is still divisive, a scar on the national psyche.

There is also a wall to the South, divisive in other ways and a reminder of injustices there.

Remembering terrible things in Guatemala: (no) hubo genocidio

We remember terrible things when people will not let us forget them.

The armed conflict in Guatemala, stemming from the 1954 overthrow of democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz, claimed around 200,000 lives. Another 40,000 were desaparecidos.

Rios Montt was tried and convicted in a national court for the crime of genocide in 2013. His conviction was overturned shortly afterwards.

In 2014, the Guatemalan congress adopted a non-binding resolution that denied any state attempts to commit genocide.In 2015, then president Otto Perez Molina affirmed: “No hubo genocidio.”

Turns out, a lot of people agreed with this statement. Many people rejected the genocide label; they felt that genocide was not something that happened in civilized nations like Guatemala.

The pillars that surround the main Cathedral in the plaza in Guatemala City bear the names of the victims of the conflict that the government insists was not genocide.

The community of Rio Negro still remembers the massacres, including the one on March 13, 1982. Surviving community members established an educational center to remember the victims of violence. They now walk visitors up the path to the summit of Pa’koxom, where 177 women and children were murdered by government forces.

A small memorial now commemorates the site.


We remember and yet forget terrible things.



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