Take me away from the dreaming spires

Universities are dusty places for the modern academic,
says free-range historian Amanda Foreman

A couple of months ago, Sophie S, an Oxford undergraduate, wrote to me saying: “I plan to do a masters at the LSE next year. I am also keen to embark on research for a book, which would be an extension of my undergraduate Russian history thesis …. I would be extremely grateful for any advice or recommendations.”

I have avoided replying for several reasons, not least because, as my tutor once said to me, an undergraduate thesis is the academic equivalent of a first novel. But even if the thesis turned out to be a masterpiece, I would still feel ambivalent about giving advice. In either academia or writing, the potential for a life of misery is so great and the rewards so uncertain, no responsible person could honestly promote them as careers.

But for what it’s worth, Miss S, this is what I can tell you. There are two routes open to modern academics. There is the traditional teaching and lecturing route at a university or, like me, you can work independently as a professional historian and author.

I made the decision to work outside the system last year, shortly after finishing my doctorate at Oxford. I felt guilty about leaving, but I love the freedom of being able to live where I want, rather than having to move with each job. I suppose it came down to being my own master, with all the attendant risks of self-employment, or answering to an institution, with its rules and hierarchies.

There was a period, back in the 1950s, when academics enjoyed rising prestige and salaries to match. Thanks to an enormous influx of intellectual refugees, both the United States and Britain had the benefit of being able to pick and choose from the cream of the world’s academic talent. In those days, it meant something to be a professor or don. Those who tried to earn a living by writing on the outside languished in relative poverty.

The practice of paying non-fiction writers a “gentleman’s salary” continued until the late 1970s. Paul Theroux, for example, received only £250 for “The Great Railway Bazaar” despite being a famous author. Fortunately, it went on to sell 1m copies.

Morale in the academia today is so low that all the dons I spoke to on both sides of the Atlantic asked to remain anonymous. Even “L”, an Ivy League social studies professor who enjoys her job, did not want to be named in case something she said affected her chance of tenure.

A particularly vicious system now operates in America. Academics who have tenure can say, write or do anything until they die. They are also in charge of hiring, firing and awarding of tenure. The non-tenured generally anyone below the age of 40 are therefore entirely at the mercy of their tenured colleagues. for this reason, American campuses can foster some of the most craven and anti-intellectual behaviour known to man.

There is no such collegiate tyranny in British universities. Academics complain of the stifling bureaucracy, of classes filled to bursting and of the relentless pressure to publish. However, disillusionment is the greatest enemy, not fear. Nor is there the pernicious “star system” that has created such enormous pay differentials in America. It is the state, not the individual university that decides academics’ salaries. For that reason, academic pay has declined by 20% in real terms over the past 20 years.

A 30-year-old lecturer in history, such as my friend “H”, earns £22,000. Unless she wins a chair or professorship, “H” will never earn much more. It does not compare well with the £28,800 starting salary for a junior professor at the State University of Mud-bucket, Nowheresville, USA.

When I spoke to “H” last week, she was at home on account of a one-day pay strike called by her union, the Association of University Teachers. “Instead of reading in the library, I get to do it in my sitting room and not be paid.” She would happily move to Mud-bucket, only current hiring practices are against her. The trend in both countries is for universities to offer part-time and single-course contracts. It is called the “adjunct system”, a fancy name for something that is little more than a glorified form of share-cropping. This has resulted in thousands of “gypsy scholars”, who shuttle from campus to campus, books stuffed in a knapsack, selling their services for about £50 a day.

The question has to be, then, why does anyone stay? Because they love what they do. Pure research is more like a vocation than a career and its practitioners will put up with almost anything. Although, as one former academic said to me; “It’s easier to suffer privation at 25 than 45.”

Publishing, of course, has its own constraints. The good news is that advances have sky-rocketed since the mid-1980s some call it the “Waterstone’s effect”. A middle-ranking author who sells 10,000 in hardback and, say, 40,000 in paperback, will earn roughly £50,000 per book. That is not so good if you remember that a book takes an average of three years to write. I know several authors who will never earn enough to be eligible for a mortgage. But, after a few years, when the royalties from several successful books kick in, annual earnings from them alone can be anything from £40,000 to £75,000.

The bad news is that a full-time writer, unlike an academic, cannot afford to do specialised research on narrow topics. The trick is to be able to combine original research with a subject that has natural, broad appeal. If your thesis is about the growth of literacy among Ukrainian women, Sophie, you will not find a publisher.

Furthermore, with the rise of global publishing giants, the definition of broad appeal now includes Europe and America. It helped Stalingrad, written by the independent historian Antony Beevor, to be published. As he says himself, no academic could have afforded to do the kind of archival research that his advance enabled him to do. On the other hand, international publishing has its own problems. The French, for example, are fiercely opposed to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of general history. Citizens, Simon Schama’s monumental work on the French Revolution, a classic combination of cultural, political and economic history, was a huge international bestseller. It has yet to be published in France.

I miss certain aspects of my old life at Oxford. I know that I will not do that prosopography (historical analysis based on statistical evidence ) on female participation in the 18th-century local elections. My constituent audience has changed for ever; I ignore its demands at the risk of my livelihood.

Full-time writing demands a certain amount of entrepreneurship and, like all authors, I worry that every commission will be my last. But a quick straw poll of my writing friends confirmed my feelings. None of them regrets his choice whereas all the dons I spoke to, except for “L” at her Ivy League institution, are disillusioned about their prospects. I wish this was not so, for their sake and for the sake of the humanities. There will not be any non-fiction writers if there is nobody left in the universities to teach them.

There you have it, Sophie. both careers entail sacrifices and only you know which ones you are prepared to make.

If you choose the commercial route, remember that without our underpaid, undervalued and overworked dons, who shaped us, we would be nothing.

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