The great teaching kerfuffle

The version of this post that I have been writing in my head is longer than some books I’ve written so I will try to be concise.

I will start with the caveat that I am only speaking on my own behalf here. I have spoken to several other teachers who were affected by this mess or have taught the venue in the past. I can say that I am not the only teacher offended and I am far from the only teacher who has withdrawn from the “opportunity” so graciously presented to us. But the opinions shared hereafter are mine – I do not pretend that I speak for anyone else.

Having been teaching for several years – mostly crochet but knitting and crafty business classes too – I made a conscious effort to increase the number of events at which I teach to help my cash flow along. Let’s be honest, print publishing is not what it once was and that’s where the bulk of my income has come from in years past. There are some places I won’t teach and some places I wish I could teach every year but that’s not what they want (I puffy heart love you DFW FiberFest), but I have seriously been working on more teaching opportunities.

So a couple of years ago along comes a new show from an old player, and I get asked to teach, and the contract doesn’t work for me so when I politely decline I am made a better offer and off I go. The show was great, the students wonderful, and I am glad that together, the venue and I could make it work. This year comes, I still have a minor issue with the contract and have a good conversation with the promoter about it. I sign anyway, have a great time, really feel like I am starting to develop some regular students which is terrific in such a relatively new show. And I feel heard about the issue I brought to their attention so I apply to teach for 2017. As an aside, since every venue has a different way to handle class submissions and only one promoter that I can think of off the top of my head keeps your general class pitches on file so you don’t have to pitch the same stuff every year, do you guys have any idea how long it can take to do an application for a large show? We pitch way more classes than we have spaces to fill so the promoter has a selection from which to choose. An application can take a whole day away from other work! And if you don’t get selected to teach that work is wasted.

Anyway I get the email – you’ve been selected to teach! Yay! Stand by for the contract which we will send next week! Yay! I am anxious to read the contract because I hope my issue from this year has been addressed. So I get the contract and I read it, and I read it again and I say “Oh HELL no!”. I wait a day so I don’t send hate mail to intermediaries because none of this is their fault, and I read the contract with fresh eyes because surely it can’t be as bad as I thought it was but yes it still smells, and I send an email saying there’s no possible way I will sign this contract. And I get an email back offering to explain it to me. Now not only am I offended that I was offered this piece of crap masquerading as an employment offer in the first place, I am offended that they think that I do not understand what a piece of crap it is! So I decline their offer of a telephone meeting.

They are shocked! They are appalled! I hear through the grapevine that a second version of the contract has gone out to some teachers (but not me) and it is still a bad contract, but a slightly less bad contract. Other teachers try to negotiate but keep hitting brick walls. I ask a colleague why I was not offered the second contract and was told “you said you wouldn’t teach the event so you are being taken at your word.” Ok, that’s true, that’s exactly what I did say. So I am sad to lose the show but surely not sad enough that I will lose money teaching it, so I sigh heavily and move on. I worry that my regulars with think I abandoned them but there’s nothing I can do about that. Sigh.

Then I hear from a few more teachers, and a few more after that. Some have signed the second version, many are waffling, several have done what I did and withdrawn from the event (and I love each and every one of you!). And then it moves to Twitter (#FairFiberWage or #FiberTeachersNeed if you’re interested, or search me at @Hooked4Life because I am copied in a lot of that pile o’ tweets!) and then the lovely Abby Franquemont had a say about it which you can see on Facebook, and then I decided I needed to add some words. Ok a lot of words. In fact if you are still reading, high five!

Then some vendors chimed in – if there is a teaching kerfuffle going on shouldn’t they know it? Of course they should because it could affect attendance and therefore their business. And some students said “well if you guys are getting screwed, shouldn’t we know it so we can vote with our dollars?” And of course they should too. But every damned time something like this happens the fiber community gets up in arms in our defense (love you guys for that) and then the people who disagree come by and say we need to suck it up and get real jobs, whatever those are for someone with my very specific skill set, and then people yell at each other and a week later it’s over and nothing changes.

I had a savior complex for a very long time. I ranted on Getting Loopy and I called people out on their bullshit ways, and I fought for recognition at TNNA and other purportedly professional organizations. I was going to make life better for designers EVERYWHERE. And then I gave up doing that. Because it stressed me out, it didn’t change things much, if ever, and oh yeah there were the death threats on Ravelry (true story – and hilarious now that it’s five years past but it requires cocktails to be told!).

So why am I writing this novella? There’s a sea change happening and in what I hope is the extinction burst of my savior complex I feel compelled to point it out.

Teaching was the last hope for many of us to keep making a living and if those contracts are under attack – and they are – shit’s about to get real. Book advances have been decimated in the last few years as well. The rhetoric behind these changes from those in power is eerily similar and sounds like this “It’s ok to take a teaching contract with no guarantees or per diem because if you sell out every seat in every class you’ll make more money!” Or for books “It doesn’t matter if the advance is terrible because you’ll earn out quicker and you’ll make the same amount you would have anyway on royalties !” What both of these proposals do, though, is shift the financial responsibility of a given project making money away from the shoulders of the corporations that profit from the end product, and put that weight on the shoulders of the artists that make these projects possible. If a corporation has put out a big advance on a book or made a financial guarantee to a staff of teachers that corporation has skin in the game. They are incentivized to do the best they can to sell that product because if they don’t they’ll lose a sizable chunk of money, which is much more quantifiable to the bean counters than the more general “we should be profitable” mantra. Profit is good – it’s what keeps all of this content in the marketplace for consumers to benefit from. But a company the size of Hooked for Life should not be expected to subsidize expenses for a company the size of … Well let’s just say that I don’t think it’s coincidence that the parent company’s name begins and ends with F U…

15 thoughts on “The great teaching kerfuffle”

  1. Mary Jane, the lack of respect given designers for the work we do is one reason you don’t see much out of me these days. I just got tired of my designs being changed to the point that they were no longer really my designs. My book I self published through Ravelry made me as much (if not more) money in the long run as the collective work I ever did for anyone else, and continues to sell even now, four years later. (Thanks, Ravelry and Crochetville!) I have been dabbling in other fiber art pursuits of late, but via Facebook and Twitter, I am seeing the negative changes in the industry. A friend asked the other day, “Do you think you will get back into designing?”, to which my answer was, “I think about it, but I don’t know” I did answer some calls recently, but nothing was accepted, but big deal. They are still good ideas, and if I decide to, I will develop, hire a tech editor and do all the work myself. I have the utmost respect for you and our other fiber arts colleagues for the hustle you full timers have to put in to make a living. I have much more lucrative opportunities, and it saddens me that I can’t consider designing as a full time occupation, because there is no way I could ever hustle hard enough to replace my current income. I love what I do with a crochet hook, but trying to make money from it was stealing the joy away from it. I said I would keep doing it until it was no longer fun.

  2. As a shop owner and event attendee, I appreciate knowing the struggles fiber arts teachers and designers are having. I feel you should name names.

  3. I have run several hobby conventions and understand the fixed cost and economic risks taken on by a group of volunteers. Nevertheless, that is not a reason to try to cut costs on the “talent” (whether actors at a fan con or teachers at a craft retreat.) Sometimes the budget will require fewer teachers (to reduce travel/per diem costs) or one has to choose teachers who live closer to the event and will have less expensive transportation costs, but the budget cannot ask people to work below their expectable fee or not to eat. The only thing we ever limit is minibar charges (g). As Abby’s post illustrated, underpaying teachers is wrong, whether the event is run by volunteers or by corporations. However, when events are run by corporations it is particularly EGREGIOUS. The current trend in all fields is to shift risk onto the individual under the guise of making everyone an entrepreneur. So they say, as you noted: Assume all the upfront risk of laying out money to come to an event and stay at the event, and if you class sells out you will end up with more money than if we had simply given you a more traditional contract. Every company wants to be Uber, where they provide the initial infrastructure but everyone assumes their own cost of renting the car, getting insurance and also providing for their own health care and retirement. I am not completely against that model, because with Uber, at least in NYC, drivers who used to work for terrible taxi companies who skimped on insurance for passengers and also charged so much for the use of their taxis that drivers earned very little per hour, now are happier to control their own schedule and actually earn more money per week. Of course, this model works best when the old conditions were actually even more abusive than the new.

    What I think some old line corporations are now too short-sighted to see, is that they can’t be half-way to this model. If writers or teachers are being asked to take on all the risk of investing hours into writing a book, creating patterns or setting up a syllabus and traveling to an event, and the corporation has no skin in it themselves (as with publishers who fail to promote their books), then writers and teachers will probably be best served by really taking control of their “means of production” by forming cooperatives to do it themselves. Uber and other “modern” companies live with the risk that independent contractor drivers will migrate to another service who promises and may deliver more. Uber actually has to provide a better interface between driver and client to thrive. Drivers in NYC are telling clients about a rival service Juno, which pays drivers more and charges passengers less. Right now Juno’s software is more clumsy than Uber, but for 25% less cost I will deal with clumsy software. Fueled by a shortage of drivers in NYC (where they need taxi and limo licenses), the drivers are joining to wield power. The authors I know, even those previously published by large publishers, are thinking of self-publishing on amazon and hiring social media publicists to talk up their books. This does involve putting up one’s own money first, but that is better than using one’s own money to subsidize publishers who actually are not holding up their ends of the bargain. I believe these old line corporations are going to end up losing because they are giving up the protective service they previously offered, of aggregating risk across many authors or teachers, and acting as a kind of insurance policy. Without that function, they offer very little. They want to follow the model the shifting risk to the individual, without becoming a modern company in any other way.

    But none of that helps teachers and writers right now. Just as some of the population prefers to wear clothing made by people earning a fair wage and eat fair trade chocolate with their fair trade coffee, the fiber community, I believe, will want to know that they are attending classes with fairly compensated teachers. We know our teachers are professonals. I am glad that this is finally being publicly discussed. When Craftsy became so popular, there was a discussion on the Ravelry Craftsy group wondering if the teachers were being fairly paid. Several teachers came on to say that they were and that they were enjoying filming repeat classes with Craftsy. I hope that is still true–but I know it was important to the audience members that it be true. We like the Craftsy platform offered, but not if they made their money by short-changing teachers. The world’s economy is shifting to a more entrepreneurial model (at least until a new form of unions come back.) However, for that model to work, the countries in which we live have to provide affordable or national healthcare and retirement pensions, which right now the US fails at. I don’t think healthcare and retirement should come from business—-it too often made people prisoners of jobs. But transitions in systems are rocky. Fiber artists and teachers (who are disproportionately likely to be women,) cannot be the one’s who bear the brunt of the rocky change. They need contracts that protect them. If they are asked to assume the risks, then their fees must be proportionately higher, so that if they sell out at one event, they have a nest egg to carry them over a less well attended event. Uber only works when the drivers earn more than they would have in the old system. They do in NYC, but not other parts of the country and the world. Fiber events can’t reasonably expect to shift the risk, without substantially increasing the payout–to make teaching a livable profession, not just if classes are completely filled, but if they are filled an average amount!

  4. Mary Jane,
    I am so glad you are saying something. This is an important conversation. So important. These things need to be talked about and talked about publicly. The issue of fair, respectful compensation and contracts is one that needs to be addressed across the entire fiber-work spectrum: production, design, writing, and teaching. I am happy to help in any and every way I can.

    1. Mary Beth, I’m so sorry. I absolutely know your name and I’m really sorry for letting my fingers get ahead of my head. Bah. Please forgive!

  5. Insightful post and I agree 100% with all of it. I stated this sentiment on Abby’s thread, but will reiterate it here: every last word you wrote regarding publishers and especially event organizers (as well as the cheapness of some other people wanting something for nothing) is pretty much why I refuse to design or teach for a living. A living wage in the fiber arts is hard enough to sustain, and there is so much theft that goes on as well (intellectual theft, theft of designs, for one).

  6. Mary Beth: I’m relieved to know that i am not the only one getting the shit end of the stick. While I have been teaching locally for over 15 year, and in print as a designer for 10, adding 2 years as a magazine columnist, I am deemed unqualified to teach at any of these hallowed events. I do not even get refusals for teaching gigs or rejections from publishers, any more. I am pretty much ignored. I hate like hell to pull the gender card, but if it walks like a duck…I will keep trying as long as strength allows, but this whole industry is sucking, big time.

    1. I would agree with Peter, as someone trying to break into the teaching gig circle; I can’t even get an application to some events, but if I do and I spend the hours to fill it out I have yet to receive a “not at this time, thank you” response. That said, I felt as if I would need to work at less than a living wage to get started just to get my foot in the door, to build up a class, students, a name for good content, etc. but now I’m seeing the writing on the wall. Cori

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