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.)

4 thoughts on “In defense of the independent academic lifestyle

  1. I couldn’t agree more with all your points in this post. People leave academia for all sorts of reasons, very few of them to do with not being capable of achieving tenure. I left because I believe traditional academic institutions are heading in the wrong direction. Benjamin Lee Worf is perhaps one of my favourite thinkers (and doers) and he believed that his research was truly independent when he was working outside the academy. Succeeding in traditional academia very often requires making choices and supporting decisions that I am just not prepared to support. I suspect this is true for many independent researchers. I love research and teaching, but I personally choose not to participate in dirty politics, in petty game playing and slander, in philosophically motivated alienation, in structures that waste money on infrastructure but screw humans for every cent. This is not something I want to be part of at all. However, it won’t stop me doing research.

  2. Hello,

    To the author: I appreciate your work in getting the Ronin Institute going, enabling it to be profiled in publications with a lot of reach in the academic/nerd world.

    I’ve considered affiliating with the Ronin Institute but I’m concerned that someone might look up my affiliation and see some of the language in this post, which might appear to them as an official communication from the institute. Whether I agree or not is beside the point. Maybe I’m being wimpy but I feel like others who are considering being independent scholars would have similar concerns.

    -John

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