Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa
In the months after I left teaching to blaze a trail as a “freelance academic,” I’ve been asked — and I’ve asked myself — a lot of complicated questions. Questions like: Does that term accurately describe what I’m trying to do? Can an adjunct who is still in the academy be a freelance academic, too? And is that adjunct then an employee or a freelancer? Those are all good questions. Let’s find out.
Is “freelance academic” the right term?
A reader emailed me recently to say that, while she found my ideas about my career transition to be generally strong, she did not like the term “freelance academic” at all. Oddly enough, she had no problem with the “academic” part but rather with “freelance.” She said in her email that the word freelance “carries connotations of inferiority and lack of expertise or proficiency.” It’s a word people use, she wrote, “because they simply could not obtain a full-time paying gig.”
I know that reader meant well. Generally, her tone was supportive. But she wrote an entire paragraph criticizing my chosen title, one I’ve given to a series of columns, a hashtag on Twitter, and an approach to life that I — and many others — have adopted.
Her recommended term? “Independent scholar.” I’ve seen others use that phrase often enough but it’s not synonymous with freelance academic. Independent scholar does not at all describe the work that I do. For example, I do not conduct scholarship any more. I pretty much ended my time on the academic conference circuit this past spring. I have a few lingering scholarly articles coming out, but I’m not writing any new ones. (Unless you have a tenure-track position, the pay for publishing journal articles is terrible.) Thus, while “independent scholar” may describe very well what others do, it does not describe what freelance academics do.
In general debates over self-imposed labels like “alternative academic” or “postacademic,” I’ve heard other people express dislike of the use of “academic.” Some of the arguments seem to suggest that when a person clings to the “academic” label, she is clinging to academia itself. Those arguments seemed persuasive to me, and they were made by people whose ideas I respect.
So I went to the dictionary. Oxford defines the adjective “academic,” firstly, in this fashion: "of or relating to education and scholarship.” I’ve already decided that scholarship, as such, is no longer for me.
But there’s that other word — “education.” I still do a lot with education. For example, I cover a higher-education beat in my freelance journalism (for money). I give talks that educate people about my areas of expertise, such as writing and disability studies. (I do that for money now, too, rather than just for a line on my CV.) I write textbooks to help people learn. (You can download the Pryal Certified Textbook Proposal Template and use it for your own book proposals.) I work as a developmental editor to help writers finish their manuscripts and get them out to publishers — educating my clients about writing.
I’m immersed in education, and my academic training has allowed me to do this work. It seems to me, then, that “freelance academic” is just the right term.
But what if I’ve still got a foot inside the academy?
In my last column for this series, I interviewed three people who are thriving in their freelance academic careers. All three of them, like me, have left the academy. But what if you still work in higher education in some contingent position? What are the challenges in pursuing freelance academic work if you still count on a paycheck from a college or university?
One obvious barrier: Departments and institutions may frown on your nonacademic work. They don’t want you distracted. They want you to focus on them, naturally. When I wrote my first book for money while I was a contingent academic, I was told that some members of my department were worried that my writing would “distract” me from teaching my many sections of composition — even though I was writing a textbook for the very subfield in which I taught.
But there are less obvious barriers as well.
“Megan” (a pseudonym) adjuncts at two different institutions to make ends meet. Despite her multi-campus teaching, she still ends up with a “below-poverty-level adjunct salary.” In an interview, she pointed out “one humongous issue” that “has to do with how institutions hire adjuncts and how [adjuncts] are taxed.” Megan insists — and I concur — that adjuncts “should be hired as regular freelancers, so that we can actually deduct expenses, such as partial use of home as office, since we are never given an individual office.”
Her exasperation is plain in her tone: "It is completely absurd that we are taxed like regular employees, but have absolutely no benefits, and then we cannot even deduct the costs of our own work. This is really too much.”
I totally agree. Freelancers typically lack the security of regular employment, but they have the benefit of deducting lots of expenses: pens, paper, laptops, printers, home office space. Those are all things that adjuncts use to do their jobs.
Earlier in this series, I wrote about finding work outside of the university to supplement your income. That external work is called "1099 income," and you would deduct your freelance expenses against that income. However, finding the time to pursue 1099 income while adjuncting full time on two campuses can be next to impossible. Most adjuncts are often just too busy.
Would a better solution be to classify adjuncts as 1099 independent contractors rather than as W-2 employees? Is such a thing even possible?
Can adjuncts be freelancers?
To answer that, I talked with a tax law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, Kathleen DeLaney Thomas. My first question: Under tax law, can adjuncts be classified as 1099 employees?
That’s unlikely, according to Thomas. "The IRS has taken the position in most cases that adjunct professors are employees,” she said, “and courts have generally agreed.” That classification really isn’t up to the employer. "In fact,” Thomas said, "it can be more expensive for the employer to hire [a W-2] employee because the employer is then responsible for FICA taxes, federal and state unemployment, and possibly worker's comp” whereas employers “can avoid payroll taxes and withholding obligations for independent contractors, who have to pay self-employment taxes on their own."
Because of the benefits that would accrue if they could classify adjuncts as 1099 workers, Thomas said, "My sense is that schools are classifying their adjuncts as employees to avoid challenge by the IRS."
But what about the classic “freeway flier” — the adjunct who teaches on multiple campuses and lacks almost any institutional support? While “the 'freeway flier' is a sympathetic case,” Thomas said, “unfortunately for those professors, the precedent for independent contractor status is not good.”
The problem has to do with how courts determine who is an independent contractor and who is a W-2 employee. "The determination,” Thomas said, “is generally based on a facts-and-circumstances test, where courts consider a number of factors like how much control the employer exercises, which party invests in work facilities, which party bears the risk of profit or loss, and whether the work is part of the employer's regular business.” Most of the factors in that test weigh on the side of the adjunct being a W-2 employee.
She pointed to a United States Tax Court decision that "held that an adjunct college professor teaching online courses was an employee, notwithstanding the fact that the professor provided his own computer and Internet connection and had no office at the school.” How could that be the case? "Among the factors pointing toward employee status,” Thomas said, “were that the school determined the class schedule, managed registration of students, provided the web interface for the class, and bore all risk of profit and loss, along with the fact that the courses taught were part of the school's primary business.” Those factors, she said, “are likely to apply to most adjunct professors, even those that work at multiple schools."
In the end — however much adjuncts and other contingent faculty may feel like they aren’t treated as employees — in the eyes of the IRS, they will be for the foreseeable future. Our university teaching will not count as freelance work, which means we won’t be able to deduct any expenses related to that work.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of that bad news, but Megan’s question was an important one. Those of us who are embracing the freelancer ethos need to understand the structural limitations on our freelancing work.
But we can still find freelancing work outside of our institutions. The university is, after all, just another client.