Historians and the Do-It-for-Free Trap

its a trap!

By Colin Woodward

It’s commonly said that teachers don’t “do it for the money.” But, actually, teaching can result in a very comfortable living. And if you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the salaries that even a gym teacher makes at a public high school in central Massachusetts. A professor with an endowed chair at even a state university can make upwards of $200,000.

In one of the many, many Republican debates, a candidate–in a pandering statement typical of a politician who hasn’t done his homework–said that plumbers make more than philosophers. Some people quickly corrected that claim by providing statistics about what a philosophy prof with an endowed chair makes vis-a-vis a plumber. And philosophers get paid more, because they know stuff like what vis-a-vis means.

Teaching can be a very rewarding job–financially and personally. Unfortunately, however, many academics, especially aspiring ones, do far too much for free. Often, it’s part of their job. Other times, it becomes a kind of borderline bad habit. And yet, it’s easy for historians to get into the habit of writing or talking too often for free.

Perhaps the best example of the do-it-for-free trap is the book review. A book review is usually the first thing a scholar will ever publish in an academic journal. It is good to get a few reviews on your CV before you hit the job market.

Once you have made it, it’s good to stay current on the literature. It’s also good to help out a friend who wrote an academic book by writing a positive review of it. But by the time you have 10-12 book reviews to your name, you have proven you got chops. At that point, reviews start to feel less like an opportunity than a chore. Relax, it means you’ve made it.

Academics are pressured to write books, either for tenure or to prove they are capable of matching the people in the top of their field. The process of going from first day of dissertation research to published book can take 10-15 years. And unfortunately, those thousands of hours of work will result in very little financial gain. It might take a year or more before you see a single dime from a book you slaved over.

In some cases, you can make more money from a 2,000 word online encyclopedia entry (at, for example, Encyclopedia Virginia) than for your copiously footnoted and well-argued book. For most of us, there is little-to-no money in academic punishing–I mean, publishing.

In Arkansas a few years ago, I moved from writing book reviews to writing encyclopedia entries. It was fun to write these entries, and while hardly lucrative, it was it was nice to get a check for writing something that was 3-4 pages. These entries could take many hours and involve significant primary research. But after laboring over an entry, it feels good to get enough money to pay for a cheap night out.

After years of being in the game, you might still like writing things for free. That’s fine. But don’t feel like you need to. When you have a full-time job, it’s tough to read as much as when you were in grad school, let alone write about what you’ve read. We are not writing machines. We are humans with limited time resources. It’s a a fine line at times between being active and being vain, between wanting to stay relevant and indulging your intellectual ego/insecurity.

Being a scholar or academic, as is true of all professions, entails a certain amount of one-upmanship. Why have a ten page CV when it can be 20 pages? Why write 3 book reviews per year when you can write 5? Writing one monograph might be fine, but my second book? That’s when things will really start happening!

Maybe. Maybe not. Do what you want to do, not what you feel you should do, especially if you don’t really have to do it. There will always be someone who knows more about your subject, who writes more, who has taught more classes. To use a baseball analogy: hitting homeruns is great, but sometimes hitting a triple keeps the rally going.


Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He works at Stratford Hall in Virginia and is writing a book on Johnny Cash.

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