Independent Day

In my pursuit of alt-ac-hood, I am a great fan of Versatile PhD, a web site devoted to forums and information for those transitioning out of the tenure track as a goal. The other day, someone posted a comment on one of its open forums to the effect that they were dissed when registering for a conference as an independent scholar.

The person querying had published a book, and had been invited to talk at the conference because of it. (She also works at a nonprofit, but that position apparently isn’t related to the research done for the book.) In other words, you would think she had a position inviting respect. Instead, she was told that her specific affiliation for the conference—independent scholar—was a euphemism. She wanted suggestions, from the Versatile PhD’ers, about how she could respond graciously.

Euphemism for what, it didn’t say. (Party-crasher? Suppliant? Poseur? Mystery Guest?) First of all, it isn’t a euphemism if you’ve actually published your research, it seems to me.

Second, as it happens, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently gave one of their awards to an independent scholar, Pamela O. Long. (The MacArthur awards are frequently referred to in the media as “genius” grants; awardees this year include a generous helping of academics and artists.) Ms. Long is 71 and has worked as a successful independent historian most of her life. Read more of her story here.

The whole issue of independent scholarship is a very vexed one for alt-ac’s and post-ac’s just because of this prejudice. It’s part of a larger set of practices that devalue any work that is not specifically linked to an institution of higher education and even within that, to work as a tenure track appointee within a department. That this is happening even as more and more people flee the tenure track or abandon it prior to obtaining it due to either the paucity of positions or the almost complete lack of free time for a fledgling academic (and as entire conferences are devoted to the alt-ac world, such as the recent one at Penn State) is increasingly frustrating. There are a scant number of openings in the current job lists, measured against multiple hundreds of applicants.

It seems to me that one solution is simply to be more inclusive about what constitutes thought and research. Some of this takes place in institutions; some of it takes place in conjunction with both institutions and private studies (past recipients of the MacArthur have included people like Anna Deavere Smith and Junot Diaz, who have university appointments but are better known for their artistic activities), and some takes place in private studies. The pudding—Pamela Long has a number of books to her credit—should be the proof.

Part of my own transition out of academia has included believing that perhaps there are a number of good models, not just one.

I’m happy to report that Pamela Long has written an informative and generous article on being an independent scholar that foregrounds the idea of the work being central and also provides an intriguing parallel with the lives of artists. To quote: “there are plenty of us out here, so it seems reasonable that we should claim some cultural space….it would be good for our profession to move a bit closer to this [by artists] focus on the work as opposed to the position.” I’ve only known about this essay for a couple weeks (since the MacArthur announcements were made), but I really think this should be required reading for alt-ac and post-ac folk. The whole thing can be found here.

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