Out today is a nice article in the Careers section of Nature called “Flexible Working: Solo Scientist.” It features the Ronin Institute prominently, and includes quotes from an interview with me, as well as Research Scholars Jeff Rose, Gene Bunin, and Vicenta Salvador. Also prominently featured is one of Gordon Webster’s excellent photographs from November’s unconference. Enjoy!
I was putting together a letter to send out to the community of Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute. When it was done, though, it seemed like it might be relevant to other academic communities, as well. So, I thought I would share it here:
On Tuesday, Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States. We won’t understand all of the consequences of that for some time. However, it seems unlikely to mean anything good for scholarship. There is good reason to worry that there will be negative impacts on funding, and it is possible that certain types of research could come under more directed attack. For some of you, there may be more personal and immediate dangers – things lower down on the Maslow hierarchy than publication expenses.
The Ronin Institute is a 501(c)3, meaning that we are specifically prohibited from lobbying for or against any candidate or piece of legislation, so we can’t, as an institution, take explicitly political positions. At the same time, we do have a certain set of values, values that are clearly at odds with much of the rhetoric and actions of the Trump campaign and its supporters. Given the way in which the violation of those values – and of many, many societal norms – has been mainstreamed and normalized in the media over the past several months, I think it is worth reiterating our commitment to our two cardinal values here.
The first value is truth. This is the core value of all scholarship. It means being careful and thorough in your research, and it means being clear and honest in your communication. It also means being open to the possibility of being wrong, and it means working every day to be less wrong. As we move further into what seems to be a post-truth period in politics, it is more important than ever for us to commit ourselves to uncovering truths and sharing them with the world.
The second value is empathy. That means treating each other with kindness and generosity, recognizing that other people may have goals and face challenges that are different from your own. And that entails a genuine commitment to diversity. No matter how much bigotry and harassment may become (further) normalized and (further) institutionalized in the coming months and years, they remain unacceptable here. And no, before you ask, valuing tolerance does not mean that we have to be tolerant of intolerance. If you think this sounds excessively naive or soft-headed or stereotypically liberal, this may not be the right community for you.
I’m not saying you have to be perfect in execution every time with these things. But you do have to be striving towards them in good faith.
Finally, I want to remind everyone that the Ronin Institute is a community, created specifically so that we can help each other to pursue our individual and collective goals. Normally, we think of this in the scholarly domain – exchanging intellectual ideas, or brainstorming solutions to problems like library access – but I want to encourage everyone to think also in the human domain. This election has brought an ugly part of our society out into the open, and for a lot of people, the country feels less safe than it did a few days ago. Unfortunately, given the incidents that have already occurred around the country, that feeling is probably accurate. The fact is that many people, particularly minority groups – both visible and invisible – are in a much more precarious position now.
I know that many of you don’t know each other, but here’s the thing: I have had at least some interaction with each of you, and we have a fantastic group of folks here. I don’t know what kinds of support people are going to need in the coming weeks, months, and years, but I do know that we have a lot of people who will do what they can to provide that support. So, if there is something that you or others in your community need, please ask. If there is something you can provide, please offer. This, by the way, would be a great use of that Slack account you’ve been ignoring!
Now let’s get to work!
Happy Holidays to everyone out there. Just a quick reminder that you can make a charitable donation to help support the Ronin Institute AT THE SAME TIME and FOR FREE!
If you use the Amazon Smile program, they will donate 0.5% of what you spend to the nonprofit of your choice. The trick is you have to go to Amazon Smile and select the Ronin Institute as your designated charity. Then, set that link up as a bookmark, because it only works if you shop using the “smile.amazon.com” URL.
And just for today, if you’re set up with Amazon Smile, and you go through Giving Assistant, a full 10% of what you spend will be donated to Ronin. So set your Amazon Smile to Ronin, then head over to: https://givingassistant.org/coupon-codes/amazon.com, and do the shopping you were already going to do anyway!
On July 1, a symposium at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts tackled the role of bureaucracy in academia. The event was framed this way:
Does bureaucracy go hand in hand with neoliberalism, or is it neoliberalism’s guilty secret, a riposte to its professed efficiency? How is bureaucracy represented in literature and theory – from Franz Kafka to David Foster Wallace, Max Weber to Michel Foucault; and what do these representations reveal about the relationship between bureaucracy and human nature in post-industrial society? We all recognise form filling and box ticking as the pointless paraphernalia of audit culture, yet we comply with it anyway. Could it be that for all its inhuman, lifeless character, we are somehow attracted to bureaucracy because it is untaxing, relaxing, and procrastinatory, in a world that prizes relentless hard work and high-speed commerce?
questioned whether the red tape existed “to make us keep our heads down” and said that it smacked of a “punitive attitude: if you enjoy your work, you should be doing more form-filling”.
A related sentiment was articulated by Mark Fisher:
The real goal of neoliberal managerialism, in Dr Fisher’s view, was “to stop people talking to each other, by breaking up departments and bringing in professional administrators”. Although he was all in favour of administrators and managers whose basic roles were troubleshooting and providing support for academics to do their jobs, “‘professional administrators’ are neither professional nor administrators”.
Pathological bureaucracy is just one of the features of the modern university that have disenchanted so many scholars across the academic landscape. In fact, many of the Ronin Institute’s members have made similar observations in explaining their decisions to leave traditional academia.
The problem is that bureaucracy has an inherent growth dynamic that can be difficult to fight against, or even notice. And yet, fighting against that growth is a necessity. One of the principles we’re committed to here is the Minimum Viable Bureaucracy. The core of the idea is that you should never add any layer of complexity that is not absolutely necessary.
If that seems obvious, it may be that I have not yet explained it clearly enough. There are lots of things that are nice to have — things that seem like they should make life easier, or that will guard against some very specific disaster. But every one of these comes at a cost. Of course there is the cost of paying an additional bureaucrat, but there is also the cost of redirecting the time and energy of the individual scholars away from the activities that, in name at least, are the core purpose of academia: research and teaching.
That means that there may be certain things you don’t do, even if the local cost-benefit analysis seems to say that you should. Because once you add something — a layer of regulation or a formal procedure or a staff position — it almost never goes away. You wind up committing to the costs, but tend not to reevaluate the benefits.
So can we actually build something that can function in the modern world while fighting hard against bureaucratic creep? Let’s find out!
h/t Thanks to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Alex Lancaster
Sadly, and contrary to early reports, this is actually an image by a contemporary surrealist artist named Tetsuya Noguchi (e.g., here, or here). However, Kapur, a historian, notes that he has actually seen genuine Edo-period cat-ear helmets before. Also, anyone looking for present ideas for the motorcyclist in your life, here you go:
Happy New Year to everyone out there.
In December, the Ronin Institute published the first issue of Kitsune, a newsletter that will come out six times a year and will keep you up to date on the happenings at the Institute and in the world of alternative scholarship more generally.
That first issue is now available on the website here. If you would like to receive it in your very own inbox, send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll add you to the list. You might also add email@example.com to your address book, so that your newsletter does not wind up in your spam folder.
We’ve got a lot of exciting people on the rolls now, and some cool programs in the works. Keep an eye on Kitsune, and you can stay up to date on both.
Today is a big day for the Ronin Institute. It’s the day we unveil our shiny new logo, lovingly crafted to reflect the values of the institute and to pay homage in heraldic form to its proud one-year history!
Special thanks to Kristina Killgrove, who provided the Latin translation of the institute’s motto Scientiam Consecemus! (“Let’s Chop Up Some Knowledge!”)
Be sure to look for this symbol when you are out shopping for quality independent scholarship!
Reposted from Lost in Transcription:
So, as I noted previously, there was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about independent scholarship. The article profiled nine scholars, four of whom are affiliated with the Ronin Institute. (Scientiam consecemus!) Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall. Given that the article’s primary audience is probably unemployed academics, this is kind of ironic, predatory, or clever, depending on your perspective.
Most of the comments on the article were supportive and hopeful — some perhaps posted by people who are anxious about the job market in academia and are pleased to see that there are paths outside of the standard one.
In fact, that is consistent with the most of the responses I have gotten in person, as well. Most people I speak to, including tenured academics, agree that there are certain systemic problems with the way that academia is structured and funded. While they may or may not believe that the Ronin Institute is the (or even a) solution for these systemic problems, they are often enthusiastic and supportive — glad, at least, that someone is trying something like this.
To be honest, this came as a pleasant surprise, as I had expected to find more people who responded out of defensiveness, with a knee-jerk impulse to defend the status quo. I expected this particularly from successful faculty who have tenure, or are on their way to getting it, who benefit most from maintaining the current system. Maybe it’s just that the academics whom know personally are extra awesome (true), or that the skeptical ones have the courtesy to keep their skepticism to themselves.
There are a few of the comments in the Chronicle thread that do seem to reflect the conservative impulse that I had expected to see more of. Normally, I would say it is not worthwhile to address negative comments (especially negative comments that are hidden behind a paywall). On the other hand, I suspect that these comments may reflect attitudes that are fairly widespread in the academic community. One of the challenges that independent and non-traditional scholars face is the attitude that they do not have the authority to participate in the community. So, these comments represent criticisms that need to be addressed.
Let’s start with this comment from “Shanna123”:
Always interested to hear about folks who did not receive tenure. My experience has been that most departments/institutions (I’ve been at 4, either achieved tenure or was granted it coming in at all) strive VERY hard to support and ensure that folks hired in TT positions achieve tenure. So I always wonder about folks who did not achieve this. How are we supposed to evaluate whether someone’s independent/”off the grid” contributions are worthwhile?
First, many independent scholars did not “not receive tenure.” Some have never wanted a tenure-track position. Some have received tenure and walked away from it. Some would, ideally, like tenure, but are geographically constrained. (The fact that the commenter makes a point of pointing out her history of tenure is typical of the self aggrandizing and posturing that pervade so much of academia and make it unattractive to people who got over playing the “who’s cooler” game in high school.)
Second, yes, most universities work hard to support their tenure-track faculty and get them to tenure. However, many universities are also reducing the number of tenure-track positions in favor of adjunct positions, which pay less and provide basically no job security.
Third, and most gallingly, “How are we supposed to evaluate whether someone’s independent/’off the grid’ contributions are worthwhile?” This is pretty simple: YOU READ THE WORK! If you are evaluating someone in the context of reviewing a manuscript, or a grant proposal, or on a hiring committee, you read their work and decide if it is good. If you don’t have the skills or knowledge or time to do this, you have no business evaluating them. If you are simply going to say, “Well, this person got tenure at such-and-such University, I guess they must be good,” you’re not doing your job.
Next, here’s part of a comment from “Docbot”:
Those identified in the story have obviously come to the crossroad of reality and hubris. As an academic myself, I understand the desire to contribute to a field and the joy of having my own views adopted. However, I also accept that if my impact stalls, or my respect diminishes, so too will my hopes for tenure and future positions. This is our commodity, much like the craftsmanship of a carpenter or the execution of a chef. I find the promotion of this semi-professional academic lifestyle to be irresponsible. Not only is it an unrealistic career path, (ie how do you support a family without health insurance?) it also drives down the wages of full time professors, by providing administrators a pool of mediocre stop-gap replacements.
This is just a bunch of nonsense. Yes, impact in the field, in the form of scholarly papers, books, seminars, etc. is our chief currency. Docbot somehow assumes that independent scholars are incapable of generating such work. Yes, if you stall, it makes it hard to have impact in the future. This is just as true within the university system as it is outside it (although there are ways to jump start a stalled career).
Re: “I find the promotion of this semi-professional academic lifestyle to be irresponsible”: This is classic concern trolling. “How do you support a family without health insurance?” Well, I don’t know, YOU BUY HEALTH INSURANCE, DUMBASS!! Yes, the financial instability that accompanies the independent scholar lifestyle means that it is not a path that everyone can pursue. However, maybe you have a spouse with a regular job with insurance. Or maybe you live in any one of the non-US countries with universal health care. A number of the Research Scholars at Ronin have full-time non-academic jobs, and engage in their research in their “spare” time. And before you object that no one could do legitimate research and hold down a forty-hour-a-week job, keep in mind that many academics have forty hours a week of teaching and administration, and they basically do their research in their own spare time.
Finally, about driving down wages of full-time professors, I think Docbot fails to understand the difference between adjunct faculty and independent scholars. I don’t think that there are a lot of administrators are out there hiring cheap “stop-gap” researchers. Also, to the extent to which this point is true, it is, for better or worse, how our economic system works. Docbot seems to feel that everyone else should get out of the way so that he or she can have a good salary without competition. As for the implication that independent scholars are inherently mediocre when compared with traditional faculty, well, I reject that as irrelevant/ridiculous on its face. Or rather, while it may or may not be true that tenure-track faculty do better work on average than independent researchers, it is certainly true that the judgements about pay, funding, publication, etc. should be based on an individual’s skills and qualifications.
Docbot goes on to say:
In closing I would like to add, that in my experience I have always found the anything requiring me to attend a ‘support group’ is something I should change.
First of all, meeting with and communicating with people who share common interests and problems is what non-psychopathic humans do. In academia we hold journal clubs and discussion groups. We go to conferences and symposia. We also meet to discuss specific challenges, to share solutions to shared problems. Would you say that anyone who has ever joined a “Women in Science” group should leave science? That seems to be an implication of your statement here. To denigrate people who do these things in a way that is slightly different from the way that you do it does not make you clever. It makes you a dick.
The last comment I want to respond to is from “wassall”:
Ms. Ginsberg found that “(h)andling a full-time academic job” while raising two preschool-age children “wasn’t feasible.” I work with several colleagues who apparently find it quite feasible. With its generous vacations and summers off from teaching, a tenure-track position seems hard to beat in terms of flexibility while raising a family. Yes there is pressure to publish, but how is this different than the pressure of making partner in your law firm, running your own restaurant, or being responsible for annual sales targets?
This one looks to me almost like astroturf spawning out of that “academics are lazy” / “university professor is the least-stressful job” meme that the Wall Street Journal has been pushing. Enough so that if this comment were posted on my blog, I would probably just delete it. But let’s take it seriously for a moment.
When I read that Ms. Ginsberg (not a Ronin . . . yet!) found that raising two preschool-age children was not feasible, I don’t take that to mean “logistically impossible,” nor would anyone else who was not actively trying to misrepresent her position. I suspect that what she meant was that a traditional academic job is very time consuming, and it requires making certain sacrifices. In her case, she concluded that the sacrifices she would have to make with respect to her two small children were not worth the benefits of a full-time academic job.
Many independent scholars have consciously made the choice to have a smaller paycheck, and less job security, because the greater independence and flexibility is worth it to them. These people are perfectly aware of the consequences of their choices, and are willing to take responsibility for them.
Let’s follow wassall’s analogy with the law firm. Honestly, I suspect that making partner in a high-power law firm makes for a harder lifestyle than getting tenure at a university. Perhaps partly because of this, many lawyers don’t go work for high-power law firms. Some of them take poor-paying jobs as public defenders, or working for nonprofits, because they care about something in the world other than money and prestige. Some of them might go to work for a smaller law firm, maybe even work part time, because they want to be home when their kids come home from school. Some of them start their own law firms, because they have an entrepreneurial spirit and value their own independence.
The idea that you can’t do scholarship if you’re not at a University is like saying you can’t practice law if you’re not in a skyscraper in Manhattan. Now, the path for how to pursue a career in independent scholarship is not as clearly laid out as the paths that lead to becoming a public defender, or starting your own law firm. This is why I believe that “support groups” are valuable, so that people who are interested in developing new models for scholarship can discover and share what works.
Oh, and sorry for yelling. I wasn’t yelling at you. (Unless you are Shanna123 or Docbot.)
In the wake of that article that recently came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (covered here), I’ve received a few e-mails suggesting that there may be some confusion out there regarding the geographical scope of the Ronin Institute. So, I thought I would just take a moment to try to clear that up.
In concept, the Ronin Institute is a global institution. After all, the future of scholarship is international (just as the future of most everything is). As far as we are concerned, location and national citizenship do not matter. What matters is your work and your citizenship in the community of scholars.
That being said, from a legal perspective, we are incorporated in the United States, and our tax-exempt status was granted here. So, the US is the only place where we have a formal, legal, corporate presence. Similarly, my knowledge of the way that systems of scholarship and funding work is primarily limited to the US system. I basically understand other systems to the extent that they are similar to the US system. This means that, in practice, we might be able to provide the best support to scholars who are US citizens and/or who are in the US. However, as our network (both the Research Scholars affiliated with Ronin and other, like-minded institutions) grows, it will encompass a broader range of circumstances and systems.
We are envisioning two main types of activities. One is to help independent scholars to apply for research funding, including permitting them to apply through the Ronin Institute. For certain types of funding agencies (like government agencies), the fact that we are a US non-profit probably matters, and we may be in a position only to support applications from people in the US. Similarly, if you are in the EU, we might not be in a good position to help you to apply for EU funds at the present time.
Most private foundations are much less constrained on this dimension. Likewise, we expect that most donations from individuals could be disbursed to scholars (e.g., in the form of scholarships for conference travel) without too much concern over nationality and residency.
So, what’s the take-home message here? Well, I’m imagining that you are an independent scholar living outside the US. You’re saying to yourself, “Hey, this Ronin Institute thing is pretty cool. I wonder if I could join? Or should I start my own institute where I am?”
The answer is “Yes” and “Yes.” If you are committed to pursuing scholarship at the highest level, are actively engaged in research, and would like to join our community, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can discuss the process. And, if you’re feeling ambitious and energetic, build something local as well!