The value of independent scholarship in a time of upheaval

By Ronin Research Scholar Jonathan Walter.  It first appeared as an editorial in the June 2020 issue of Kitsune

“We know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.”

Our lives and institutions have been radically disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. This applies too, to scholarly institutions. The consequences for both individual scholars and the systems of academia are likely to be far-reaching. From my perspective as a US-based, early career scientist, I share some observations and reflect on the value of independent scholarship to the scholarly community, particularly at a time when the pandemic is straining traditional academic careers and institutions.

One source of insight into impacts of the pandemic is its effect on the livelihoods and careers of scholars. As an early-career scientist I’m especially attuned to the job market for new hires. This year, 2020, and likely beyond, will feature a horrible academic job market. This spring, colleges and universities froze hiring while many faculty searches were incomplete; those positions remain unfilled and their long-term fate in limbo. As long as student revenue, endowments, and state budgets are depressed, faculty hiring will be scant. New hiring won’t be all that’s affected. My tenure-track colleagues are concerned about lost productivity and inequities in who can still do research at a time when children are home, and while labs and field sites are closed. As we have already begun to see, colleges and universities, especially those whose budgets depend heavily on tuition and fees, will make more radical cuts—including to tenured and tenure-track faculty—in the name of financial stability. Some institutions already in financial peril will close their doors permanently.

These events play out on top of existing flaws in the system. I made the choice to leave a traditional academic path pre-covid for a constellation of reasons. Most importantly, I face limits on my career growth at my current institution that I find untenable. At the same time, I am unwilling to pay the personal costs of moving to a different part of the country, even for a “dream” tenure-track job. For me, these costs would include disrupting my spouse’s career, leaving a community we love, and the inability to support a disabled family member living nearby. Others experience different barriers to and strains on traditional academic careers, but the outcome is similar: many scholars are considering whether to leave this path. The pandemic fallout in academia suggests that many also will soon be pushed off, less than willingly.

In this environment, I believe independent scholarship may be more important than ever. I study ecology, in which a key principle is that biological diversity makes ecosystems more stable, and even more productive. Analogously, independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole by enabling more paths through scholarly careers, and expanding who is actively engaged in scholarship at any time. As the pandemic exacerbates academia’s shortcomings, I see potential for the number of independent scholars to grow. This, I think, can be a good thing, even if the events leading to a scholar’s independence might be traumatic and unjust. Extending a bit further the metaphor on biological diversity, we know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.

One thing standing in the way of this vision is that relatively few recognize that independent scholarship is an option, or that groups like the Ronin Institute exist to mitigate some major pitfalls of independent scholarship. The costs of independent scholarship’s low visibility are two-fold. On one hand, scholars who don’t realize it’s an option can’t ask whether it’s right for them. On the other, structural factors hindering independent scholarship might be ameliorated if our position were better known. Understanding that not all who leave academia will become independent scholars, nor should all independent scholars be Ronin Scholars, I hope that Ronin Scholars and friends of the Institute will spread the word.

Jon Walter is an ecologist and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. He is also affiliated with the Ronin Institute as a research scholar. He is the founder and lead scientist of Athenys Research, a research and consulting firm and co-hosts a podcast called “Major Revisions” that comments on topics in ecology and academia from the perspective of three early-career scientists. You can read more about Jon and his research on his website.

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