by Joe Fruscione
After my most recent piece on academic editing, a reader asked a valuable question: Can anyone comment on the fear that establishing a website advertising editing services will negatively affect your chances of getting a tenure-track job?
I was curious about this issue myself, so I crowd sourced it. A handful of tenured and other full-time, experienced faculty responded in ways that should be helpful for editors, consultants, and other freelancers applying for academic jobs. The common denominator in the answers I received is this: the value (or lack thereof) of your freelancing experience depends on (1) the job you’re applying for and (2) how you frame your extra-academic skills. According to a Dean of Arts & Sciences at a school in the Midwest, a sustained, active publishing record and teaching experience ultimately matter most for tenure-track positions, but freelance experience should not necessarily weaken a job candidate.
These answers from my colleagues should help you get started framing yourself as an experienced, versatile job candidate. As always, use your common sense and best judgment based on the specific department and job ad when deciding how—or whether—to share your freelancing experience.
Dawn Fels (Writing): I wouldn’t consider that experience as bad, especially for a compositionist. To borrow from Victor Villanueva, we “do” writing, so I can’t imagine how doing writing (as an editor or writer outside the scholarly realm) makes one less scholarly. To write outside the scholarly realm shows someone to be a writer with a wider and deeper understanding of audience, genre expectations, and one’s place in that mix. As a compositionist, I know I’m teaching students to write for much more than scholarship, so I’m only going to be better at doing that if I bring more diverse writing experience to the table. I had a professional life before becoming a teacher and wrote a lot of what is now considered professional writing, which is valuable to students’ experiences and success.
Robert Tally (English): We’d view such freelancing as valuable practical experience that could be passed on to the students, possibly in formal classes (editing, professional writing) or in service projects. It’d be considered a plus…once all other job requirements were met, of course. Such work may not “count” as scholarly (unless it’s peer-reviewed), but it would still be valued as experience. A lot of scholarly things I write—e.g., book reviews—also don’t “count” for things like Tenure & Promotion, but they are generally celebrated by the college.
Seth Kahn (Writing): It would depend on two things: (1) what the position is and whether the freelance work had anything to do with the specialty and (2) if it didn’t, whether the candidate was trying to make a trumped-up case that it did. In other words, freelance experience could help if it’s connected to the specialty, yet it could hurt if it’s disconnected but the candidate overplays or otherwise embellishes it. Here’s a hypothetical example of what I mean: a candidate for a position in Professional Writing has no scholarship in that area but has been teaching it successfully for a while. Since the work needs evidence of scholarly potential, the candidate claims that, say, a self-published coffee-table book about a relevant topic shows research ability and publishing experience. I might be inclined to give that person the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t think most committees would. The question is how the applicant claims the freelance work; simply having done it wouldn’t hurt.
Patricia O’Connor (English): The applicant could pitch his or her experience as part of being versatile or as part of a public intellectual role. Several of my colleagues have done consulting on writing with government agencies or other organizations.
Mark Mullen (Writing): As always it would depend on how you pitch that experience. For a position in writing studies, I would see it as a distinct advantage to have experience writing in a wide variety of contexts. Indeed, the more academic “scholarly” writing I have to read, the more I think that academia would benefit from people with experience writing for non-academics. However I suspect that if someone was applying to, for example, a literature position this would be seen as a liability. Definitions of what counts as scholarship can be a lot less fluid there, and there’s also a lot of resistance to writing for a living.
Sara Kosiba (English): It would depend a lot on the job description and department. On my campus, it would be a bonus since we have a technical writing/editing minor, so even if the job wasn’t a specific hire in that area it would be great because we would still have someone with extra skills who could help with those classes. If you don’t have that, then some may write it off based on wanting a candidate to have more experience in other areas. The only way it would be a true disservice is if the experience was in unrelated or irrelevant subject matter, or in an area that would raise red flags with a committee. So if the experience was in proofreading for businesses or writing advertising copy for local events, it simply is just bonus experience that candidate brings to the table.
Given the state of the academic job market and continuing cuts to full-time positions, freelancing outside academia while still working inside it is increasingly common. (At least two editors I know are still teaching and seeking full-time professorships.) If you’ve done work as an editor, consultant, or something else not directly connected to an academic position, think about how you can connect your freelancing and teaching skillsets. Perhaps you teach writing-intensive undergraduate courses while working part-time as an editor: conceivably, your editing work informs or improves your standing as a writing teacher, mentor, and versatile job candidate. Or, as Mark Mullen and Dawn Fels said above, having experience writing or editing in a variety of contexts could be an asset to an interdisciplinary department.
If you’re not sure about mentioning your freelance experience for an academic position, ask a trusted colleague who’s been on a search committee for a similar job. A website and other aspects of freelance experience—regardless of whether they’re related to editing or something else—is part of your evolving digital identity. Curate it for academic jobs in the same way that you would for alt-ac or post-ac jobs.
I don’t mean for this post to be the last word on the subject. I’d love to hear more perspectives on or experiences with this issue—especially from people in STEM or Social Sciences fields who can complement the English and Writing perspectives shared above. If you’ve been on a search committee and evaluated an applicant’s academic and freelancing experience, or if you’ve successfully highlighted your freelancing experiences for an academic position, email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet at me.