Our Ronin Institute home at 10 years

By Research Scholar Emily Monosson, first published in the May 2022 issue of Kitsune

Welcome! You’ve stumbled across the launch of the good ship Ronin Blog, the official blog of the Ronin Institute. Updates here will cover developments at the Ronin Institute, as well as topics of potential interest to independent scholars everywhere – or anyone who has ever thought/dreamed about pursuing research outside of the confines of the traditional academic system.” – Jon F. Wilkins, the Ronin Institute’s first blog post on December 17, 2011

“When I first started thinking about forming the Ronin Institute,” writes founder Jon F. Wilkins recently, “it was really motivated by the fact that I could not personally imagine pursuing a traditional academic career. I had become aware of the various pathologies that we now talk about within Ronin all the time—lack of control over where you live, distorted incentive systems that emphasize funding and flashy results over quality scholarship, and the toxic politics dominating many departments. I knew that was not the life I wanted.”

it was really motivated by the fact that I could not personally imagine pursuing a traditional academic career. I had become aware of the various pathologies that we now talk about within Ronin all the time—lack of control over where you live, distorted incentive systems that emphasize funding and flashy results over quality scholarship, and the toxic politics dominating many departments.
Jon F. Wilkins

Wilkins co-founded the Ronin Institute in 2012 with Richard Murray and Steven Orzack. Recalls Murray “I believe the first time Jon shared his vision was at a poker table in Santa Fe [New Mexico] while we (and about 5 others) were exploring the implication of complexity theory in the real world.” At the time both were part of the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit devoted to complexity science. Pursuing Jon’s vision, Murray writes, “would both be an opportunity to continue working with Jon beyond our time at Santa Fe and might enhance the possibility of freeing the creative talents of the many possible undiscovered Einsteins in the world that spend their days working in unrelated fields to put food on the table!”

Orzack had prior experience as a research scholar outside of the traditional academic setting having founded the Fresh Pond Research Institute in 1995. “Jon and I had a bunch of previous conversations about the downsides of being a scholar in academia, which ultimately led to the Ronin Institute idea. We both had positive expectations but I did not think Ronin would grow to what it is now in such a short period of time. Little did I know.” Little did anyone know. 

That same year, Wilkins co-authored an article published in Wired magazine describing the enormous potential for “fractional scholarship,” and the role the Ronin Institute might play in housing and supporting those scholars. 

“What do we do with everyone who has the skills and passion to make important contributions to scholarship, but for whom the standard model just doesn’t work?…[T]here is an opportunity for people to take up scholarly research in an independent, part-time capacity. We believe that the number of people who have ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week that they would like to devote to research is large. What is lacking at this point are the funding and organizational structures to support these would-be fractional scholars.” The Ronin Institute, wrote Wilkins, “acts as an aggregator for the fractional scholars of the world, providing an institutional affiliation, connection with other fractional scholars, and support for conference travel and grant applications. The passion of these scholars would not be lost through attrition and the difficulties of working on one’s own; instead, it would be supported and encouraged.”

The Institute launched and soon had its first five members: Kristina Killgrove, Ralph Haygood, John S. Wilkins, Steven Orzack, and Jon F. Wilkins.

About a year after the article was published, two dozen other scholars (including me) from various fields, seeking community, independence, and a way to carry out research in a way that best suited their lifestyle stumbled upon the good ship Ronin Institute. Now there are hundreds of us.

“I thought the Ronin Institute was an idea whose time had come, both for me personally and for the world…many other ex-academics wanted to continue doing scholarly work, but our ability to do so was limited … Some were easily articulated, such as the difficulty of accessing scholarly literature …. Others were less tangible, rooted in the challenge of imagining how to proceed, in the near absence of role models or close colleagues.” 
Ralph Haygood

An early Unconference: held in November 2016 at the Democracy Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts (photo credit: Gordon Webster)

So what were those very first first members thinking when they joined this upstart Institute? And how do they feel now that ten years have passed and the Ronin Institute has grown? I recently reached out to these members to ask. Here are summaries and quotes from their email responses:

“I thought the Ronin Institute was an idea whose time had come,” writes Ralph Haygood, “both for me personally and for the world.” Ralph left academia in 2009, and knew others who had done likewise. “I suspected, many other ex-academics wanted to continue doing scholarly work, but our ability to do so was limited by a variety of factors. Some were easily articulated, such as the difficulty of accessing scholarly literature or even applying for, let alone securing, research grants without an academic affiliation. Others were less tangible, rooted in the challenge of imagining how to proceed, in the near absence of role models or close colleagues.” 

Kristina Killgrove was two years post-PhD when she took the leap. “I liked Jon’s vision for what independent scholarship could be–a collective of scholars all working in their own fields to push human knowledge forward. My favorite thing about academia has always been the research.” After sending out nearly one hundred applications for various types of positions, Kristina wondered if the Ronin Institute might provide a path forward. 

I liked Jon’s vision for what independent scholarship could be–a collective of scholars all working in their own fields to push human knowledge forward. My favorite thing about academia has always been the research.
Kristina Killgrove

John S. Wilkins too joined the Ronin Institute in search of a home-base, “as a new member of the precariat in academe, with no fixed access to scholarly resources and collegiality. The ‘gig economy’ should not be the dominant model in the academy, but if it is, then the Ronin Institute is essential.”

For these early members and many others since, the Institute is truly like a home. Sometimes we stay put for years and sometimes we travel–whether towards the rocky shores of life in academia or elsewhere–secure in the knowledge that we can always come home. Over the years, our distributed community has grown, from a handful of members to over four hundred members. We have built an institution that is both stable and flexible, blossoming into a virtual space to fit our needs at any given time. The Institute flexes to accommodate the collaboration needs of say, math and physics scholars, or those who wish to explore how to provide educational opportunities, and just as easily–when those needs have been met–reabsorbing these structures again to make space for new ones.

But, just like a home, there are the unavoidable chores…so we work together at the Ronin Institute to keep the things running: we welcome new members; keep our infrastructure updated; share and learn through organized seminars and workshops; provide necessary structure for researchers; and communicate.

But, just like a home, there are the unavoidable chores. Dog hair doesn’t vacuum itself up nor do the dishes wash themselves, so we work together at the Ronin Institute to keep the things running: we welcome new members; keep our infrastructure updated; share and learn through organized seminars and workshops; provide necessary structure for researchers; and communicate. Just like any home is ours to run, the Ronin Institute works similarly under a “do-ocracy” approach: Do what you think needs to be done in the best way you can do it! 

We are still growing. And there are always challenges and opportunities to explore:Is it possible to provide educational opportunities, and what would that look like? What about providing access to literature and other material that remain locked beyond paywalls? How far can we decentralize the Institute? Can we strengthen our collective ability to support scholars seeking funding? What else might we dream up? If we can dream it, can we build it? 

We are still growing. And there are always challenges and opportunities to explore…What else might we dream up? If we can dream it, can we build it? 

Over the years we have grown, well beyond anything Jon F. Wilkins could have imagined. He writes recently, “It has become clear that there is an enormous pool of people in the world—numbering in the tens of thousands—who have the expertise and passion to contribute to our collective understanding of the world, but who simply don’t fit into one of the boxes defined by traditional career paths. The Institute has brought together a wonderful collection of people, and I never spend more than ten minutes interacting with them without learning something new. One thing that I hope we will see is a continued diversification of our population of Research Scholars.”

As we celebrate the years, members, and our accomplishments, there are challenges ahead. One big challenge, observes Wilkins, “will be navigating the creation of necessary formal structures while trying to avoid some of the bureaucratic traps that plague traditional academia.” That is one of the more daunting challenges for the home we call Ronin. But then what scholar doesn’t love a good challenge? 

Scientiam consecemus!

North Kinsman Mountain, part of the Appalachian Trail (photo credit Leigh Rae)
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I am a toxicologist turned writer. Most of what I write is about how we impact the world; and how we can reduce our human footprint. My most recent book Blight: Fungus and the Coming Pandemic (W.W. Norton Press) will be in print Summer 2023. It is about fungal pandemics across species.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

One Comment

  1. Maryam Oluwakemi Funmilayo

    Hello Emily,

    I love your article! I have a deeper level of respect for the founders of Ronin Institute and more so, for all the researchers who decided to take a leap of faith because of what they were actually looking for in life.
    I joined Ronin last year, after I earned my master of public health degree, and I cannot thank my mentor, Ponn M, also a fellow Ronin Scholar, enough. I truly feel empowered being a Ronin member and scholar.
    To the founders, I am grateful.

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