Exploiting students for the sake of exposure

Students are drawn to Emerson for the professional experiences promised to them in their admissions tours. Trendy new technology and networking techniques are taught by professors who either are, or have been, “in the industry.” Emerson is unfortunately hip to the latest trend: offering exposure in exchange for unpaid labor from students. But, ethically, this should not be permitted in courses students are paying for, let alone encouraged. Pitching opportunities to students is condescending, and doesn’t prepare students for the real world, where they will likely have to say no to such unpaid opportunities or miss out on paying rent. 

The Boston Globe has provided opportunities to writing, literature, and publishing and journalism majors. Students have the opportunity to take a class where they can have articles published in The Boston Globe Magazine. The course is designed to work like an internship and class. Students have a byline in the magazine, but they are still paying for the class. Journalism students worked with the Boston Globe to cover the presidential race with articles published on the Globe website. The Globe covered the cost of transportation and reporters and editors came into the class to talk with students. These classes provide good opportunities for students to learn from people in the industry and the publishing process, but is it worth the cost?

The problem isn’t just limited to journalism students. The department of visual and media arts offers a similar course with a partnership with WGBH, Boston’s PBS affiliate station. It too provides an incredible opportunity to work in a professional environment—in the class, students work as crewmembers for Sing that Thing!, a local a capella competition show. It’s definitely a step up from The Emerson Channel, but it’s still unpaid labor for an external organization. And it is intensive; the class works on set for upwards of seven hours a day, four days a week, for two weeks. Students might not get home from WGBH until 1 a.m—and that doesn’t even account for the three weeks in the editing room.

The communication department also offers free student talent to help with public relations and marketing for different local sports teams. The idea here is that working directly with these organizations will foster better education, although students are not guaranteed their work will ever be used. But they don’t go totally without compensation. Students are offered breakfast with the professionals they work with and trips to local sports stadiums. The issue here isn’t that students are getting great opportunities with sports organizations, but that the college apparently thinks it’s okay to peddle student labor as a commodity. 

This speaks to a larger issue of unpaid work in the arts and communication fields. Young people are manipulated into working for free all the time in the name of “exposure,” “building a portfolio,” or just plain “experience.” Start-up blogs email the Beacon frequently asking if our writers are interested in “collaborating” with their site—AKA, giving them free content. We must demand better for ourselves and our career paths. And that starts with not accepting to give our work away without pay.