In defense of the independent academic lifestyle

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.)

International Ronin

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 info@ronininstitute.org, and we can discuss the process. And, if you’re feeling ambitious and energetic, build something local as well!

Ronin in the Chronicle of Higher Education

The most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an article on independent scholarship. It profiles nine independent scholars, four of whom are Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute (Patricia Appelbaum, Kristina Killgrove, Jay Ulfelder, and me).

If you have a subscription to the Chronicle, you can read the article here. Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall, which especially sucks since this will be of greatest interest to people who are maybe not in a position to pay for the subscription. For you, here are a few of the highlights:

First, here’s the succinct description of one of the main challenges faced by independent scholars:

Like traditional professors, [independent scholars] perform research, secure grants, and publish books and papers. In some cases, their work is having an impact on their disciplines, challenging established views and advancing knowledge in the field.

But independent scholars say their contributions are frequently discounted by tenured professors, who, as gatekeepers of scholarly conversations and the distribution of intellectual ideas, tend to exclude those who lack university credentials.

[snip]

The work life of an independent scholar—with its freedom from the performance requirements of the tenure track—can be attractive to those with young children and those who can’t or don’t want to relocate for a faculty job. Yet theirs can be a spartan existence, lacking intellectual colleagues or recognition, a calling that most can afford to pursue only by working extra part-time jobs or relying on a partner’s income. The financial needs of independent scholars can also get in the way of academic freedom by limiting the kinds of questions they are able to ask and the projects they are willing to pursue.

The bulk of the article then focuses on the nine examples of independent scholars, who represent some of the diversity of motivations for people working outside of academia, as well as the diversity of models that people are pursuing to make independent scholarship work.

Near the end is a quote from our website, which sums up one of the primary goals of the Ronin Institute:

“The Ronin Institute is creating a new model for scholarly research that recognizes that the world outside of traditional academia is filled with smart, educated, passionate people who have a lot to offer to the world of scholarship,” its Web site says. “There are tens of thousands of people in the United States alone who have advanced degrees yet do not have jobs that are making use of their knowledge and passion. We are creating structures that will leverage this vast, underutilized resource.”

Of course, the goal is not only to leverage this resource, but to allow would-be scholars (and would-be part-time scholars) to live more well rounded, fulfilling lives.

So grab your swords, all you Ronin!

Scientiam Consecemus!

Scientiam Consecemus!!

Here’s an update for those of you who are following the development of the Ronin Institute. We now have an official motto, in Latin and everything:

Scientiam Consecemus

That’s “Let’s Chop Up Some Knowledge” to you.

Thanks go to Research Scholar Kristina Killgrove, who not only came up with the translation, but also indulged my complete lack of Latin by answering a long series of naive yet nitpicky questions.

Now maybe you’re asking yourself, “What the hell sort of motto is that??” Here’s the idea. Traditionally, if a Samurai lost his master, he was expected to commit suicide. Those who did not commit suicide became Ronin, masterless Samurai who made their living in a variety of ways. They had earned the right to carry their swords, only now they were carrying them for themselves.

Similarly, the traditional view in academia is that a scholar is defined by his or her position at a University (or similar research institution). People who don’t have a traditional academic position are expected to commit a sort of career suicide, abandoning their scholarly research. Our perspective is that you’ve earned your skills, and you still have your tools. You don’t need a master in the form of a University in order to put those skills to use.

So grab your intellectual swords, all you masterless scholars! Let’s chop up some knowledge!

Achievement Unlocked: 501c3 Status!

Greetings to all from the Ronin Institute. We’ve got some good news here. The IRS has officially approved our application for tax-exempt status as a publicly funded 501c3 nonprofit organization!

What does that mean? Well, most importantly, it means that you can now donate to the Ronin Institute to support independent scholarship, and your donation should be tax deductible. Or, as they say on nonprofit websites, “tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law,” which is sort of a funny thing to say. I mean, if you gave a donation to me, personally, it would be “tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law.” It’s just that, in the case of giving money to me, the full extent allowed by law would be zero.

Here, though, your donation is tax deductible in the same way that that donations to the United Way or the Red Cross are. That is, donations to the Ronin Institute should be unambiguously tax deductible, but if there is any question in your mind about your particular circumstances, you should consult with a tax attorney.

So, if you (or your foundation, or your employer) are looking for some things to donate to before the end of the year, here we are! If you believe in reinventing academia, here we are! If you want to help to support some really high quality independent scholarship, here we are! Now look over to the right and click that Donate button! (If you’re on the main blog page, otherwise, hop on over to the Donation page.)

If you have questions about the Institute, or would like to direct your donation towards a specific program or project, contact us at development@ronininstitute.org.

To the future!

Ronin on the Radio

Buongiorno Ronineschi!

I had two opportunities to speak on the radio about the motivation and goals of the Ronin Institute this week.

Yesterday, I was on WBUR’s Radio Boston, along with Victoria Blodgett, Associate Dean and Director of Career Services for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale. If you’re interested in listening, you can find the segment here.

On Monday, I was interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth (listen here).

The WBUR segment is about 25 minutes, while the Word of Mouth segment is something like 10-12.

The WBUR segment was called “nice and didactic” on twitter, which I choose to interpret as a compliment.

The Goals of the Ronin Institute

Greetings Roniños y Roniñas!

Over the weekend, your Ronin Institute got some nice press coverage in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe. You can read the whole article here. Here’s the take-home message, though:

The goal, Wilkins says, isn’t just offering up a short-term solution to the current scarcity of academic jobs. It’s suggesting a new system altogether, named for ronin—the samurai who broke with the code of feudal Japan, refusing to commit suicide upon the deaths of their masters. “The analogy is, if you’re not employed by a university and you’re an academic, you’re supposed to say, ‘Well, I’m not an academic anymore.’ You’re supposed to sort of commit professional suicide at that point,” Wilkins said. “And what we’re saying is, ‘You know what? No, we can do this. We don’t need a master.’”

The article does a pretty good job of providing an introduction to what we’re all about, but I wanted to take a moment to spell out the goals of the institute a bit more, especially for those people who have found their way here as a result of the Globe article.

Basically, the purpose of the Ronin Institute is to reinvent academia outside of the academy, to invent new ways to fund, support, and connect scholars who are doing their research outside of the traditional setting of the university (or National Laboratory, independent research institute, etc.). Simple enough, right?

The difficulty comes in talking in more detail about this new, alternative model for scholarship. The reason is that there is no single model that we are trying to push. The “right way” to pursue independent scholarship is going to vary from person to person, just as the reasons for pursuing their scholarship independently are going to vary. For some people, independent scholarship is a stepping stone, a way to keep themselves in the game while they are pursuing their long-term goal of securing a more traditional position. For others (myself included), independence is the long-term goal. If you come back and check up on me five or ten years from now, and you find me in a tenured faculty position, it will mean that I have failed (or maybe that I suffered a personality-altering head injury).

For me, there are multiple features of independence that appeal. For one thing, I hate departmental politics, and find that there are things on which I am unwilling to compromise, even when I understand the necessity of compromise. For another, my wife spent fifteen years moving to wherever I needed to be. As an independent scholar, I can move to a place that works well for her, and for our family as a whole. Most importantly, I can define my own research agenda, without worrying about whether or not it fits within someone else’s definition of “evolutionary biology,” and without worrying excessively about issues of fundability. So long as I can bring in enough money to keep paying for the mortgage, groceries, and health insurance, that’s good enough.

I have spent my entire academic career dealing with variations on the following: “It’s great that you’re working on X, or that you’re interested in Y, but you really need to spend more time doing Z.” Now, I don’t know how much time you’ve ever spent doing Z, but it is boring as hell, and it is not clear to me that more Z makes the world a better place. X and Y, on the other hand, are awesome, and there is no doubt in my mind that, fifty years from now, people are going to be saying, “Thank God there was someone who had the foresight to work on X way back then, otherwise where would we be?”

For other people, the answer is different. The Globe article emphasized those people who are having difficulty finding a position. One of the issues with academia is that a gap in your resume can spell disaster. After you go for more than a couple of years without some sort of a position, it becomes increasingly difficult to find something. For these people, continuing to pursue their research in affiliation with Ronin can help to ensure that a two-year gap does not turn into a ten-year gap.

For some people, independence means relief from the geographical constraints of the academic job market, the fact that you basically have to go wherever the job is. This can be particularly hard for those two-academic households, where people are often faced with a choice: either one of you sacrifices your career, or you wind up living in a different city from your partner for much of the year. Of course, there are other things that can constrain a person’s job search. Maybe you need to live within an hour of your home town to look after an ailing parent. Maybe there are only a couple of places where you can live and be close to a religious or ethnic community that is really important to you.

For many people, the problem with academia is the lifestyle: the long hours, the stress, the travel. This is where the idea of “fractional scholarship” that Sam Arbesman and I have been pushing comes in. We believe that the people who would like spend ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week doing scholarly research number in the tens of thousands. Some of these would-be fractional scholars have full-time non-academic jobs that limit their hours. Some simply want to be able to pick up their kids from school every day.

For example, I was recently speaking with a woman whom I know from college. She got her PhD in Physics, and then took time off to have four kids. Now, ten years later, she would like to get involved with research again. It would be a real challenge for her to re-enter the academic job market with that ten-year gap. But, even more, she has no desire to jump back into a seventy-hour-a-week career. What she wants is to be able to use her expertise in and passion for science to do meaningful research, and to get paid to do it, but still to be able to go to all of her kids’ soccer games.

When you’ve got someone with this much intelligence, education, and talent, living in a country this wealthy, it would be ridiculous if we could not find a way to make that work.

The question that people seem to ask most is, “where is the money going to come from?” The answer to this question is actually pretty simple. It’s the same place that money always comes from for research: a combination of grants from federal agencies (NSF, NIH, etc.), private foundations, and individual donors. We will be working with independent scholars to identify, secure, and manage grants for specific research projects, just as university departments do for their faculty. In addition, we will be helping some of our scholars to partner with other researchers, agencies, or even companies to take on consulting jobs or subcontracts that can make use of their expertise and supplement their incomes.

And, of course, the extent to which our independent scholars need money varies from case to case. Some people are in the fortunate position of having a partner with a more traditional job (academic or not) that pays most of the bills. What those people need is mainly legitimacy and community, and maybe money to pay for conference travel and publication costs, so that their academic habit is at least financially neutral in their household. Some people really need to find salary support to make ends meet, even if it is only part time.

We start from the premise that if you have the skills, passion, and training to do meaningful academic research, you should not be precluded from doing it by the arbitrary constraints of the traditional system. Then, of course, there’s the fact that there is nothing that can stop us from reinventing academia when we’re working together. The rest, as they will say in the future, is history.

Ronin Institue post at Wired

So, yesterday I posted about the white paper that Sam Arbesman and I wrote about fractional scholarship for the Kauffman Foundation. Well, we also wrote a piece for Wired, which Sam has posted there now.

The best part is that it features a picture of a statue of Ben Franklin, and right under the picture it notes that the article was co-authored with Jon Wilkins (me). Go read it. Go!

Ronin Institute at the Colorado School of Mines

So, tomorrow (Tuesday, February 28), I will be speaking at The Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO about the Ronin Institute. I’ll talk about my own motivations for founding the Institute, the need for independent scholarship, and the potential future for institutes like this one.

If you’re in the area, c’mon down! (Or, up, probably.)

Here’s the official summary from the organizer, Alejandro Weinstein:

“The Ronin Institute, or how to reinvent academia”

by Dr. Jon Wilkins, Ronin Institute

4:30 P.M., Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Alderson Hall Room 151

 

Abstract: After more than 10 years of working in traditional research institutions (Harvard University and the Santa Fe Institute), Dr. Wilkins founded the Ronin Institute with the objective to create an organization that can help to connect and support scholars who, by choice or by chance, do not have an affiliation with a university or other research institutes. In this lecture, Dr. Wilkins will share his motivation to found the institute, his long term vision, and how the Ronin Institute fits in the current academic ecosystem.

 

About the Speaker: Dr. Wilkins is an external professor at the Santa Fe institute and founder of the Ronin Institute. He received an A.B. degree in Physics from Harvard College in 1993, an M.S. degree in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1998 and a Ph.D. in Biophysics from Harvard University in 2002. His interests are in evolutionary theory, broadly defined. His prior work has focused on coalescent theory and genomic imprinting. His current research has continued in those areas, and has expanded into areas like human language and demographic history, altruism, cultural evolution, and statistical inference.

The Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship Incorporated

So, here’s an update for you on the development of the Ronin Institute. I’ve written about the concept and motivation for Ronin previously (e.g., here, here, and here). Briefly, the goal is to establish an institute to support scholarly research outside of the traditional (university / government lab / research institute) environment.

Well, the Ronin Institute is now incorporated in the State of New Jersey. The official name of the corporation is “The Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship Incorporated.” That’s obviously a mouthful. As it turns out, having something like “Incorporated” or “Corporation” is a requirement for an official corporation name in New Jersey. It seems, then, that the standard practice is to have two names for your corporation. One is the official, legal name. Then, you file additional paperwork to establish a legal alias (like, “The Ronin Institute”), which you can put on your checks, letterhead, etc.

Now, some of you may be reading this and saying, “Why the heck are you forming a corporation?” After all, the whole concept here is that independent scholars want and need is independence, not a corporate overlord. In fact, a “corporation” may sound worse than a university when you think about issues like academic freedom.

Well, it turns out that incorporating is the first step in establishing a non-profit. For the Ronin Institute, the incorporation paperwork was filed on February 13. I have just finished working with the other people who will form the initial board of directors to iron out the bylaws for the institute. The next step will be to submit the federal application for tax-exempt status. At that point, we will have a fully formed non-profit, and we can begin in earnest the work of changing the way that research is done in the country and in the world.

Why am I telling you all of this? For those of you who are interested specifically in the Ronin Institute and its mission – and especially those among you who may eventually be interested in joining up – I want to keep you up to date on our progress.

There may also be some of you out there who are interested in the idea of independent scholarship, and are thinking about forming your own non-profit research institute. For you, I want to provide a sense of how the process works. Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to post information about creating bylaws, establishing a board of directors, and preparing the federal application documents.

In the meantime,here’s an adorable video of an adorable baby aardvark!

Video via Jezebel.

This post cross-posted at Lost in Transcription.