Friday, January 29, 2010

Dr. Virago: International Woman of Mystery and Credit Card Debt

I'll be traveling to three foreign countries for professional activity in Summer 2010: Canada, the UK, and Italy. The first trip, at the end of May, is for the sake of medieval drama. The other two destinations will be part of the same month-long trip from the end of June to the end of July: first, to study the early modern book in England (in manuscript and print form) at the London Rare Books School; then, to do about a week and a half of research at the British Library; and then to go down to Siena, Italy, for the New Chaucer Society Congress.

I'm very excited about all of this. The Chester production and conference will feel like the capstone of many years of work on medieval drama, and I'm looking forward to spending a weekend watching theater groups from all around North America and the UK interpret and perform the cycle, as well as to hearing people present new research on the plays at the symposium. The European trip, meanwhile, is all about new avenues of my research into manuscript-oriented studies which, like the drama, cross the medieval-early modern divide. That research is still a little inchoate, in part because I'm largely teaching myself how to work in a set of new sub-fields, including manuscript and textual studies -- hence my attendance at the LRBS. It's also a move into new genres of literature (or rather, new genres for me to do work on) and for some reason I'm presenting on that work in progress at NCS, even though, as I said, the works is still rather inchoate. Ack! But still, I'm looking forward to NCS because, well, it's in Siena! I've never been to Siena or Tuscany, and besides the usual academic conference stuff, NCS - as usual - is offering excursions to villas and castles and working Benedictine monasteries! And a final dinner at a vineyard estate in the Tuscan countryside! How fabulous!

But of course, all of this is going to cost me a whole heckuva lotta money. Mucho dinero. Mega bucks. And all this right before I take a year's sabbatical (approval still pending) in which I'll be paid 2/3 of my usual salary. I'm squirreling away as much money as possible to pay for it all, especially for my sabbatical year. I'm saving, as usual, for ordinary summer living expenses (since we're paid only during the nine months of the academic year), but not just for summer 2010, but also for 2011. And then, in addition to that, I'll be putting into savings every stipend I've been awarded, every honorarium I've been given (for example, for being a peer-reviewer for a book manuscript), every monetary Christmas or birthday present I've gotten or will get, and all of my tax refunds. I've also agree to edit a number of texts for a forthcoming largish literary anthology, for which I'll be paid a flat sum, and that will be squirreled away, too.

I applied for travel funds to cover my costs for the Canadian trip, and I was allocated what I needed as long as I can travel in our production team's van and don't have personal transportation costs (although that may not work out), but I may be chipping in to cover some of the costs of taking our cast and crew there for our play in the production. We had originally signed up for a play with a small cast, but then found out we were also being assigned an episode from another play in the cycle -- for good scholarly reasons -- which more than doubled the cast members we need to take! Our theater department is still managing to cover most of it, although we may be the only group there that uses the technique of 'doubling' (one actor playing two parts) -- we'll see how well that works in open-air performances at multiple stations! But students might have to pay for food for themselves, and I'd like us all to go out and eat somewhere cool together at least one night there; I can't really expect poor students to pay for that themselves.

I've also applied for an internal summer fellowship that will cover the cost of the London trip and give me a month's additional salary. But that fellowship prioritizes junior faculty. Tenured faculty have gotten it in the past, and I think I wrote a good proposal that speaks well to people outside the humanities (I even called manuscript research our version of "field work"), but it's certainly not guaranteed. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

And since NCS is in the next fiscal year, I can apply for more regular travel funds for that, but whatever I get will be a drop in the bucket of the total cost, even if the London portion of the trip -- including the overseas flight -- is covered by the summer fellowship. So even if I get all the funds I'm applying for, I'll still have to carry some serious costs myself. And then next year, in 2011, I'm planning at least another month or so of research in UK libraries. Again, I'll apply for all available funds -- including some external ones this time, as I hope my project will be better defined by then -- but who knows if I'll get any.

Now, I'm not complaining here. Really, all I'm doing is a little financial planning in public. Because Bullock and I are DINKs (Dual Incomes, No Kids -- an acronym that never really took off, alas) in a city with a low cost of living, and because we don't live extravagantly (well, unless you count our taste in food and drink; or my penchant for the practical-but-cute, but also expensive, La Canadienne boots for winter; or the money we've spent on training, boarding, and grooming Pippi), I can afford to take a full sabbatical year and also make multiple trips out of the country. But I don't know what I'd do if we had kids or lived in an expensive area, or both, as many of my academic friends do.

And I guess I'm posting this as a kind of public record of what professorial life is like for the vast majority of us (or, well, in my field, anyway) -- those of us teaching at the less-than-elite colleges and universities. Many of my students are surprised to find out I'm not paid in the summer or that the research and conference trips I undertake aren't fully subsidized. I know most of my readers know these things, but my blog gets Google hits all the time (often misdirected ones....but still). So, if you're wondering, Do professors have their travel paid for? The answer is: usually only in part, and sometimes not at all. We get partial funding for one trip a year at my university. Do professors get paid in the summers? Usually, no, unless they've arranged the 9-month paychecks to be distributed over 12 months, or unless they're teaching summer school or they're a chair or a program director or other administrator. Do professors get paid while they're on sabbatical? Yes, but often not their full salary. At my university, it's 100% for a semester, 66% for a year. Your mileage may vary. And, in fact, I'm lucky that my university hasn't cut sabbaticals entirely -- as others in the state have done recently -- although they're being very stingy with them. Anyway, all of this means that we're often footing the bill for our own research expenses, especially in the humanities and social sciences, whether that means the time we need (summers and sabbaticals), or the travel we undertake for conferences and research. And don't forget, our job performance evaluations include research -- it's not just a hobby.

So, for the record, here's what I'm estimating the major expenses of these three trips will cost all together, at current exchange rates and fares, and using government standards for mileage costs and per diem (though I spend a lot less on food and incidentals that the per diems allow):

Travel to & from Toronto (if there's not room for me in the van or if scheduling doesn't work out): $300 (using IRS mileage rat)
Lodging in Toronto: $ 250 (if I stay in the dorms, which I probably will)
Toronto per diem: $555

Subtotal: $1105

LRBS Tuition: $886
Round trip flight to London: $1200
Lodging in London: $1500 (I've arranged a cheap university dorm room already)
London per diem: $3060

Subtotal: $6486

Round trip flight from London to Florence: $220
Lodging in Siena: $370 (if I share, which I'll likely do)
NCS registration, final dinner, and excursions: $435
Meals not provided: $300

Subtotal: $1325

Grand total: $8916

To put this in some perspective, that's more than 10% of my gross income when I'm not on a reduced salary. Of course, as I said, Toronto is covered, and I'll get something for Siena. If luck prevails, I'll get that summer fellowship, too, and if not, I've got money saved. And there are my credit cards (hence my post title). I actually haven't carried credit debt for more than few months at a time -- usually after trips like these -- since the third year of being a professor, when I finished paying off the $11,000 I still had from graduate school. (Though I still have about $28,000 student loan debt, much of which was taken out originally to pay off credit cards, swapping a higher variable interest for a very low, fixed one.) But I think after this summer it may take me awhile to recover.

Anyway, we're doing a better job of letting students know the costs of pursuing academic jobs -- the real costs and opportunity costs; the personal costs, as well -- but I thought I'd throw out some more data on the costs that continue to accrue, depending on your field and your area(s) of research, even if you do get the coveted tenure-track job. I often get the "must be nice" comments from non-academics and students when they ask what I'm doing with my summer, and it *is* nice, I'll agree, to spend a productive day in a manuscript library and then to walk "home" through Russell Square, or to spend five days in Tuscany with the world's experts in Chaucer and other late medieval English literature. But it's often partly or entirely at my own expense.


Sisyphus said...

Siena! Monasteries! Gelato!!!!! (ok you see my priorities here.) What a cool summer you have planned! (We'll need some tourism pics.)

And thank you for being open and up-front about the costs (inc. numbers) of academic travel and new-prof debt. Knowledge helps us plan better, whether going into or out of grad school, and that's always a good thing.

Thorougly Educated said...

This says nothing about your larger points, but you can stay with me in Toronto!

Janice said...

I'm gearing up for my third sabbatical (I know that I'm fortunate) and the second that I'll take as a semester-only sabbatical. That's partly for financial reasons as I'm the only one with a full-time job and partly from parenting concerns. I cannot uproot special-needs youngest easily, nor can I leave her for long.

But it took us five years to pay off the debt accrued from my first sabbatical (full-year, reduced salary with a further furlough bite, two small kids) as savings proved inadequate to cover living costs, let alone some modest research and conference trips.

Good luck! I might see if I can wing a trip down to Toronto, my alma mater, for the cycle.

Erick said...

Thank you for talking publicly about the real financial costs of the parts of our jobs that make us better in the classroom. I have noticed that if you scratch many of the most successful academics, you find someone else's green not very far under the skin -- parents, grandparents, spouse. I have one friend who was able to quit a job he hated (wrong part of the country for him) and work on his book without taking another job only because his grandfather died and left him a sizable chunk o' change. How many worthy academics have left academia because they just couldn't afford to stay?

medieval woman said...

I, too am going to NCS! In fact, TD and I are going together and we'll stay in Siena for just a few days (not the whole conference, probably, but a god chunk) and then on to ROme for a week - can't wait to see you there!

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the post--your honesty about these topics is very refreshing. But in addition to the issues of leave, travel, and funding, you also hit on the very touchy issue of the balance of research and teaching.

While I appreciate the value of research, I do worry that the demand for research in universities is overshadowing the need for good teaching skills. Dr. V., you seem to be a very thoughtful, interesting, and effective instructor in the classroom--and research certainly has a hand in that. However, I have to wonder if professors like you are becoming extinct, if the demand for research (which is quantifiable, hard evidence of success, unlike teaching) is having a negative impact on the universities.

Undergrad students (and even some grad students) care very little about their professors' publications-they care about what happens in the classroom. Perhaps the drop in the number of English majors is more than just the economy--perhaps it is also linked to the push to publish. Students might not be lucky enough to have a professor like Dr. V.--many have ones who are so consumed by the need to research and publish (whether of their own making or through pressure from their institutions) that they forget that they are teachers.

Long post...touchy subject. Any one else want to chime in?

Dr. Virago said...

Anon at 7:36am -- that *is* a bit off topic. Do you mind if I save it for another day and another post? I promise to write a post on the topic next time I post.

Dr. Virago said...

Erick - In grad school I definitely had help from my parents and from the fact that I'd owned real estate with my oldest sister and we made a little (but not a lot) on the sale. And she sometimes gave me money, too. It wasn't a *lot*, but it helped -- Mom funded one of my summers, Dad paid for my auto insurance, Virgo Sis gave me furniture, etc. So certainly in my case I had a safety net. And if I were the sole bread earner or Bullock and I had kids or we lived in an expensive city, or all of the above, I might not have applied to present at NCS this time around, and I might have gone to RBS in Charlottesville, if at all. So the choices I'm able to make have *everything* to do with my personal financial situation. And that's messed up, especially since many of the students I teach have none of these safety nets. And when they hear about the financial and opportunity costs of becoming a professor -- or heck, when they hear what my salary is after 8 years in grad school and 7 years of being a prof -- they often choose to investigate other careers. And our profession and future students lose out because of it.

And TE -- cool! Thanks! Are you near the campus? Let's talk later off line. Part of me feels like I should be with the cast and crew, but part of me already feels like an interloper anyway!

Oh, and to all: I have to say I'm probably over-estimating actual costs of these trips, since airfare may go down, exchange rates may change, and I *definitely* do not spend the standard per diem on food!

Anonymous said...

One response to the anonymous comment on the balance between research and teaching. Research and teaching are linked. If one wants to teach promising students how to be excellent, one needs to teach attitudes and habits as well as individual bits of knowledge -- and perhaps the two most important are the willingness to question and the willingness to work to answer the questions. Researchers demonstrate this in their own lives, because they are still actively pursuing answers to their questions. Teaching without research leaves students one step further removed from active participation in their field, without the model of actively pursuing questions, researching because it matters, writing as part of a public, ongoing research effort. Research isn't the only part of teaching -- there are certainly researchers who are bad or indifferent teachers -- but when done right, research and teaching are complementary and not antagonistic, and whether or not students think they benefit from their professors' publications, I am convinced that they do. In a department where some professors are active in their research and some are not, I can see the difference in the syllabi and the attitude toward student work.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I was going to say what Anonymous 2:21 said. What undergraduates see happening in the classroom is the tip of the iceberg. A lot more goes into the teaching and learning experiences than simply the conveyance of existing knowledge. I don't understand the denigration of research. How do people think professors acquire the information, and arrive at the conclusions, that we present in the classroom---let alone learn, as Anonymous 2:21 so eloquently put it, to model the questioning that is the base of true education?

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 here.

I'm not arguing that search and teaching are antagonistic. Research is a necessary part of what we do. It's the balance that I am concerned with (as well as the fact that we can go into some serious personal debt trying to do something that is required for the job).

I'd love to see a longer discussion of this in another posting, Dr. V.

Susan said...

Thank you for posting this; I have only just got a job where I have funds to cover travel etc, but until now, I've covered most research and conference travel out of pocket. And I'm shocked by colleagues who don't think they can go to a conference unless it is paid for.

On a different matter, you have almost certainly overestimated the per diem in London. I'd also suggest that if you don't already have one, you get a Capital One credit card: it's the only card that does not charge an extra transaction fee when you use it overseas.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, I *know* I've over-estimated the per diem for everywhere, as I was using the US gov't standard, and I never end up spending that much. I think they assume a 'wining and dining clients' model. But I just wanted to throw up some figures for reference. I can imagine *some* people might spend $3000 on food and incidentals in London for 21 days, however!

And yes, I've heard that about Capitol One. Good idea!! Thanks!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This post in many ways sums up the problem I've had for years now with my credit cards: every time I start to make some progress on that immense debt load, something else comes along. I've been lucky enough to be in reasonably good health, so most of the time, it's a professional expense: a conference, a research trip, all these set me back thousands of dollars a year. This year, I also am buying my own paper for my office printer, and paying for photocopies.

And to the idea that I can write these off on my taxes, I offer you exhibit A: two colleagues of mine are facing an audit this year. The red flag for the IRS? Thousands of dollars in unreimbursed work expenses. Their main hurdle was to convince the auditors -- even with receipts! -- that they *really* had to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket every year in order to do their jobs.

Feirefiz said...

Interesting post. I'm one of the cheapskate academics unwilling to "invest" in conferences. I'm lucky I've never yet had to pay for my own plane ticket to Europe, despite numerous trips. It's because I don't come from money. To put it in perspective, your budget for the trips was my parents' combined annual income when I was applying for college and filling out financial aid forms.

Your university is more generous than mine--we get only 50% pay for a full-year sabbatical with 50% benefits, which means a further cut in the actual salary.

Sounds like a very full and interesting summer ahead of you. Have fun!

Alexandra said...

Thanks for this post; maybe the general public will stop thinking "professor" is a glamorous job! I for one am abandoning the professorship for full-time blogging. The Region of Tuscany actually allows me to write their official arts blog. Take a peek and you might find something of use for your trip to the conference in Siena. The blog is

Anniina said...

Keeping my fingers crossed that the monies come through for you! While in Siena, make sure you visit the mummified head of St. Catherine at the Basilica of San Dominico. It's a wild sight :)

Steve Muhlberger said...

This all sounds about right, but I am stunned that a tenured professor isn't paid during the summer months. For you, like me, summer is when a lot of the research gets done, maybe 90%. I am expected to put about a third of my efforts into research -- which takes place in the summer. I don't think that's at all unusual. So are you paid more because you don't get anything in the summer? I'm thinking that's not very likely.

Dr. Virago said...

Anniina -- I will definitely try to check that out!

Steve -- We're on a 9 month contract here at RBU, unless you're a chair or other administrator at that level or higher. You can choose to have some of your salary withheld for summer, but I save it myself so that it at least earns some interest (very little these days, of course). Plus it's a strange amount -- it's not equally divided -- in part because we're paid biweekly instead of monthly. At the university where I did my grad work and where I worked as a lecturer for a year, when you asked for your salary to be spread out, it was at least divided evenly across the 12 months of the year and you got 12 paychecks a year, on the first of every month. But technically, you were a 9-month employee there, too.

I think it's largely a bookkeeping thing at both places.