Sometimes academics ask me to come and speak to their students. The conversation often goes like this.
Academic: Hello, please will you come and speak to my students about creative research methods?
Me: I’d be happy to. My minimum charge for work outside my office is a half-day rate.
A: But it’s not half a day, it’s just an hour.
Me: It’s never just an hour, which is why my minimum charge is a half-day. If that’s not acceptable then it’s not going to happen.
A: But we only want you to speak for an hour. In fact maybe only 45 minutes and then some questions.
Me: *deep sigh*
Here’s why an hour is never an hour. For a start, the initial conversation takes time, whether it’s done by email or by phone. Then there are arrangements to make. I have to figure out where the university is and how to get there. If I’m driving, I have to find out where I can park, whether I’ll need to pay for that and if so how much. If I’m going on the train, I have to find out how to get from the station to the university. And then I have to figure out how to find the room. All this requires much trawling through maps and timetables online.
Then there is a bunch of bureaucracy to go through to reach the point where I can get a purchase order so I can invoice. This is different in each university, but generally there is at the very least a form for the academic to fill in. If it’s a university I haven’t worked for before then we’ll both have to fill in forms and there may be much more to do. The academic I’m dealing with may or may not know how the system works, so sometimes I need to coach them through the process. The finance department may try to treat me like a salaried academic by deducting tax at source and demanding original receipts, which requires time spent in argument. Once or twice I’ve met an immovable department and ended up refusing the work because it’s just not worth the end-of-year accounting hassle. With one regular client who I’ve been working with for some years now I have to send an email every time to explain why I can’t send in original receipts (because I am self-employed so I need them for my business accounts, and HMRC trumps a university finance department).
Once I’m sure I’ll get paid, I prepare my talk. This requires finding out what kind of people will be there and what the room is like. That last part is because I always want to include some kind of interactive element and there are different options for that depending on how people are seated. Students may be in ranked cinema-style seating in a big lecture hall, theatre-style in a classroom, in a boardroom arrangement around one big table, or cabaret-style in groups around smaller tables. I also need to find out how the academic wants my talk to fit into the students’ learning programme. Once I’m clear about all that, I can plan a talk and prepare some slides.
By this point I’ve already put in a couple of hours of work. There will be more correspondence as time goes by: how many students are expected, where and when I’ll meet the academic, and so on.
Then the day itself arrives. Before I leave, I make sure I have everything I need: maps, change for the car park, a drink and a snack, business cards. Travelling takes up a fair amount of time: at least an hour’s round trip to my nearest university, sometimes much longer. If I’m travelling by train I can use some of the time to work on my laptop (if I can get a seat) or read, but there’s still a chunk of time I can’t use.
I do the talk, take the questions, and inevitably spend more time afterwards talking with students who want to ask me questions individually. I don’t rush this if I can help it, because it’s important to them and one of the best parts for me.
When I get back to base the work is still not finished. I will have promised to email things to various people so I send those off. Then I prepare an invoice and email it to the academic, hoping that I will be paid within a month, though sometimes it takes much longer. (NB: this is not the academic’s fault – universities have the most ridiculously Byzantine, monolithic, labyrinthine, ponderous finance systems.)
In fact this kind of speaking engagement usually takes more time than the half-day I charge for. I’m OK with that – but it is never, ever, “just an hour”.
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