The Professor vs. the Performer: Undercutting

Jeana performing at a 1st Friday street festival in Kokomo, Indiana.

One of the perspectives that I bring to my academic blogging is that of a professional performer: in addition to having a PhD and teaching at the college level, I teach and perform dance. In this blog post series, I would like to highlight some of the marginalization practices in academia by comparing them with practices in performing arts communities. My hope is to illuminate problematic expectations that often go unnoticed because we have become accustomed to them, although they are precisely the kind of thing we should be challenging and changing.

What Is Undercutting?

This post is about the practice of undercutting, or charging a lower-than-average fee for your services. It’s not a term I hear very often in academia, but I’m starting to think we should be more attuned to its implications for us.

Talk to performers in your community—whether they’re jugglers, fire-eaters, or burlesque dancers—and you’ll hear about the horrors of undercutting.

Professional performers are often asked to teach or perform for free. This is a common woe that you’ll hear us gripe about. But then there’s undercutting, wherein someone charges less than the going rate, either in a conscious attempt to screw over other professionals in the area, or for some other reason like an attempt to compensate for lack of experience.

One of my friends, a juggler, told me that when he first started doing paid performances, he wasn’t charging very much. After all, he was pretty new to performing, and while he was good at it, he didn’t want to overcharge his clients. In part, it was so much fun that he felt guilty asking for money to do it. It wasn’t very long before some of his more experienced circus performer buddies took him aside to have a talk — a “we like you a lot, but you’ve got to stop undercutting us” talk. Because he was doing it as a hobbyist, and they were doing it professionally, needing to pay bills and feed their families with that money, it became problematic when he accidentally started to take their gigs. After that conversation, he kept in mind that he was helping set prices in his town, and raised his rates accordingly.

Valizan, a dancer I know, talked to me about the effect on the community of charging too little for classes:

When new teachers feel they must charge less because they don’t have the experience or the same amount of training, I often think, “then why are you teaching?”  To me they are saying they are not up to snuff. If they aren’t, they should teach for free or do the community centre gig until they ARE up to snuff.  Integrity is the difference between a professional and a hobbyist. If you put out a shingle, you should charge the proper area rate and not drop the price to try to attract students. Because that eventually brings it down for everyone. And FEH [exclamation of disgust] on that!! 

In dance and other art forms, there’s not always a credentialing process to make sure that performers are qualified to teach. So when a dancer decides to begin teaching, often she’ll just go for it and start charging some arbitrary amount, or an amount that’s deliberately less than the going rate…but this has a definite effect on the other teachers in the community, which is where we get into trouble.

The Consequences Of Undercutting

One of the results of undercutting is that the people hiring performers have come to expect people to work for little to no pay. Another of my contacts said, “I gave a speech recently to a group of high level professionals. They explained I should be honored because the previous speakers included Fortune 500 executives, university presidents, and top state officials. And that they had no budget for speakers.” When I asked him to comment on this event, he said: “The point is that people should pay you for your work. And I hate accepting non-paid work or cut rate but I have to.”

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to creative types, either. I asked Robby Slaughter, a workflow consultant, about his views on undercutting. He said: “Charging less (or nothing at all) for your expertise as a speaker, writer, or artist not only makes you seem unprofessional and unworthy of compensation, but contributes to an ever-growing lack of respect for your profession. Undercut your price, and you’re cutting down everyone who does what you do.”

Slaughter linked me to a blog post he wrote on whether to pay speakers. I gravitated toward this quote from it: “On the one hand, it seems unethical to offer work for free. You depress the entire market. You force other customers to pay those costs. But on the other hand, speaking for free does provide access to audiences. And all speakers and consultants need audiences in order to find future success.”

Undercutting In Academia

So, how does this relate back to academia? We don’t call it undercutting, but we (institutionally) ask people to work for little/no pay, and we (individually) will offer to work for little/no pay. This, like undercutting in the artistic community, has the effect of dragging down the entire academic community, instilling unrealistic expectations in the people who are in positions to pay us.

As an adjunct, I have to face the unpleasant reality that I am part of the problem. If I were to refuse to work for such ridiculously low wages, and if enough people would follow suit, then maybe we’d be able to make an impact on the system. I’ve been following the news about unionization and strikes with great interest, for this reason.

However, there’s one big disconnect between the artistic and academic communities. In these artistic communities, there’s explicit dialogue about undercutting and how it’s bad for everyone (except, temporarily speaking, for the people making a quick buck). A local dancer shared with me this anecdote: “There is an event I chose not to teach at for this very reason…They are not covering travel, hotel, or conference registration for ANY of the instructors. I think instructors who teach there are undercutting other artists and event organizers. I won’t participate in that type of undercutting. It’s bad for the art.”

In academic communities, on the other hand, I never hear about undercutting. It is as though we simply don’t have the language or concept to apply to our situations, though—as I’m arguing—it should definitely apply.

Take, for instance, a colleague of mine, a PhD student who has repeatedly been asked to teach at a prestigious summer institute. He has taught there for free, knowing that others get paid to teach there. (He asked me not to name him in this post for obvious reasons.) It’s a great networking opportunity, and it goes on his CV, and it’s fun, and so on. But working for free, and potentially undercutting other colleagues, makes him uneasy, and he’s not sure if he’ll keep doing it.

Perhaps tenure-track and tenured faculty don’t think in terms of undercutting because they’re not directly affected by it; one could even argue that it (in the form of adjuncting) benefits those holding TT positions. However, I would argue that this is on the whole a devaluing phenomenon, one that has long-term consequences for academics of every stripe, and higher education in general.

If undercutting were regarded in academia like in any dozen other communities, people who did it would be taken aside and given a stern or at least concerned talking-to. Imagine if our mentors told us that it was “bad for the field” to accept a job for less than we’re worth. Think about what it’d mean for colleagues to tell us not to agree to work for free, because it demonstrates that we think our work has no value. Because, with the way things are going, how could we be receiving the message that our work does have value?

6 thoughts on “The Professor vs. the Performer: Undercutting

  1. Agreed, and not just because I was quoted.

    I think it’s an economic problem. If there are people willing to work for less—even if they aren’t as skilled—the market will tend to employ them.

    Institutions have the opportunity partially disengage from the brutal realities of the free market. At times, setting aside supply-and-demand has a tremendous benefit. When universities issue grants, fund scholarships, or provide tenure, they are often presenting a gift without a clear expectation of a return. This benefits academia and society as a whole. We want people studying and learning without feeling they are under a threat.

    Not everything can be underwritten, of course, but I think there’s an obligation to attempt to support what is valuable for everyone.

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    • Thank you, Robby, for commenting and sharing your views. I agree that it’s very important for our society to fund intellectual endeavors, and I wonder how long it’ll take for more institutional policies to reflect this in fact as well as in idea.

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  2. As social workers, we often volunteer with organizations and causes that we care about. A few of my professors emphatically and repeatedly encouraged us not to volunteer to use our social work skills. Too often our skills are undervalued simply because it is hard to concretely demonstrate their value.

    Community organizing is an area of expertise and particular skill in my field. It’s also an easy one for a well-meaning social worker to volunteer without reflecting on the consequences. If we accidentally provide our expertise as volunteers, we undercut the market for those focusing on it professionally. And we undercut the value of the profession as a whole.

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    • Thank you for chiming in, Kathy. I find the parallels between our professions really fascinating… though, of course, none of my professors ever said, “Don’t adjunct, it’s lead to undervaluing the entire profession.”

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  3. As a performer and an adjunct, I completely agree. I think the sticky part of this is that some of these “free” things have been a part of the tenure pay package, so many administrators have trouble seeing them as truly free or as something that ought to be explicitly paid for. Hopefully more of us can keep this discussion moving forward.

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    • Thanks for commenting! Always good to hear from another academic/performer. I agree that a lot of labor freebies have been built into the tenured professoriate, but that’s all the more reason to have an honest evaluation of these topics so we can, as you say, move forward.

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