Peter’s Bio: In addition to being the CEO of Profs and Pints, Peter Schmidt is a freelance writer and consultant and is working part-time as a Senior Fellow for the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. He was a Senior Writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, where he worked for 21 years. Before that he covered school desegregation, bilingual education, and urban schools for Education Week. He is the author of Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action (Palgrave Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press), and his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and USA Today. He lives in Washington DC.
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[KK: Peter reached out to tell me about his new initiative, and I invited him to share his story here. If you’re an academic – especially adjunct or NTT instructor – in the DC area, talk to Peter about doing a talk!]
I’ve seen my share of economic decline and disruption. In my first job as a Detroit Free Press paper boy I routinely brought my neighbors news of the closing of automobile factories and the layoffs of their workers. After graduating from college in 1986, I struggled to find a reporting job at one of Michigan’s cash-strapped newspapers and had to scrape by on a poverty-level income as a freelancer for the Ann Arbor News. If my father had not lost our family’s appliance store to NAFTA, recession, and competition from big appliance-store chains, Walmart or Amazon almost certainly would have done it in. In seeking a career of print journalism just as the digital age dawned, I unknowingly enlisted in a fleet bound for a storm.
Despite all of this, it nevertheless came as a shock when I was summoned into a Chronicle of Higher Education office in late August and told I’d be jettisoned as part of their latest round of layoffs. In my 21 years there I had worked tirelessly, covering beats dealing with college access, academic labor, academic freedom, and education research. I had always assumed that my work ethic, expertise, and commitment to the place would give me job security. Not so.
Now here I am, a 53-year-old treading water and looking for another ship—or at least something to keep me afloat. I’m doomed if I become paralyzed by fear or self-pity. I’m having to think fast. Based on my reporting for the Chronicle, I’m well aware know that many of this blog’s readers are in the water with me, barely keeping their own heads above water in trying to earn a living off academe’s tenure track.
I also know how expensive it would be to go back to school. I’d burn through most of my savings, only to step back out into a labor market in which I’d encounter even more age discrimination than I face now. It had pained me, as an education reporter, to see how rising tuitions have rendered college unaffordable for many, while driving others to study not what truly interests them but what will qualify them for the sort of job that will pay off their student loans. I don’t want to live out the rest of my working life as a cog in some soulless corporate machine.
Such thoughts weighed heavily on me on a day when suddenly-former Chronicle coworkers had summoned me to a pub for a happy-hour sendoff. I asked myself if I would be able to draw on my experience to devise some new way to make a living. I was already encountering career-transition advice that made me cringe, such as suggestions that employers are impressed by statements like “I saved my company X million dollars by shipping Y number of jobs overseas.” I wondered if I could find an occupation that actually would put me out in front of economic trends and yet would not demand that I embrace the economic disruption that I had watched cause so much misery and send the media racing toward the bottom.
I recalled thoughts about higher education that I’d had as a Chronicle reporter but set aside as impossible to entertain seriously while working there: What if we could circumvent much of the cost of higher education by bypassing bloated college administrations and bringing people who love to learn into direct contact with instructors who love teaching? How eager would such instructors be to reach the general public? If I could revive an ancient Greek education model, and essentially sell tickets to hear Socrates, would I draw large enough crowds to make it worth everyone’s time?
I arrived early for my rendezvous at Washington’s Bier Baron Tavern, a pub known mainly for its expansive beer menu and weekend burlesque shows. I caught the attention of one of its managers and boiled my musings about a new education model into a business pitch, telling him I just might have come up with a way to make money by educating the public and fielding college instructors needed work. . His eyes lit up as he told me I just might have the answer to a problem his bar shares with most others, slow weeknights. Profs and Pints was born.
I have been working frantically since then turn Profs and Pints into a viable business with the slogan “No tuition or tests. Just lectures you’ll love.” I’ve built a Web site, learned the ropes of social-media marketing, and already staged six talks, including two by college instructors off the tenure track. All of my instructors I have put on stage have demonstrated a wonderful ability to engage the public and left their audiences pledging to come back to future Profs and Pints events. My line-up has included experts on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, gardening, the Trump administration, and the use of social-media for political shenanigans.
My initial contracts with instructors guarantee them 70 percent of the revenue from $10 tickets. The events room where they speak holds more than 160. Friends have said I’m being too generous, but I want to reward presenters for taking a chance on me, and to offer them incentives to work to draw a crowd. My intent is to alleviate—not exploit—college instructors’ financial woes. I’m confident that I’ll reap dividends, financial as well as karmic, from having a reputation for treating people fairly. The trick will be striking the right balance between offering potential presenters enough to have them knocking on my door and still earning the revenue necessary to have this business thrive and spread to other venues and cities.
I’ve found faculty members at local colleges incredibly supportive. Of the more than 20 I’ve approached, only two have rebuffed me as not offering them enough pay. (Others had short-term conflicts but urged me to get back to them later.) I’ve encountered a few bumps—my audience sizes have fluctuated wildly as I have struggled to find the right formula for drawing crowds and come up against forces beyond my control, like nasty fall weather. But I have reason to hope this thing will take off. Other venues have approached me. Journalists have begun to report on my efforts. My company’s Meetup social-networking page enlisted more than 100 members in its first day.
My biggest challenge has been reaching the population my business most seeks to help, adjuncts who don’t have a clear network or much of a presence on college Web sites. So, if you live in the Washington DC area, or come here to visit, please seek out a Profs and Pints event and have a beer with me. And if you’d like to present–please message me here or DM me at the links above! I’m hoping the room will be so full that it will be clear that I’ve sparked a new cultural trend. If so, you can join me in saying cheers to that.
Good luck! Have you seen http://www.rtbevent.com/about/ which seems to me to be non-profit, and a bit different since it has many parallel talks in different bars, on rare dates; rather than one talk at a time, repeatedly in the same place.
Peter Schmidt says
Yes, I am aware of New York’s Raise the Bar effort and very much respect what they are doing.
To clarify something, I am seeking to spread Profs and Pints to other venues and, eventually, other cities. I’m thinking that if I create a business model that enables people to earn decent money staging or giving such talks, financial incentives will cause Profs and Pints to spread to other cities and college towns much more quickly than it would if dependent on donations and volunteers. I’m happy to say that three sharp MBA students connected to George Washington University’s Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence have been assigned to help me with that task.
While I’m here, I want to encourage readers of this blog who live in the Washington DC area to consider not just applying to be speakers, but coming to events. I realize that many are financially struggling, but the Bier Baron has happy hour until 7pm and its food is both good and reasonably priced. You can have a good night out for less than 30 bucks, which is a relative bargain by DC standards. An added benefit is that you will be in a room filled with people who share your interests, providing a great networking opportunity. I have a hurricane expert speaking tonight, and my December schedule features a folklorist and an advisor to the World War I Centennial Commission.
If you truly are dealing with too much financial hardship to pay the $10 entry fee, shoot me an email and we can work something out, especially if you are willing to hang some flyers or use social media to help spread the word about Profs and Pints on your campus.