The Chronicle Review

Stop Calling Me ‘Independent Scholar’

Clare Mallison for The Chronicle Review

October 08, 2017

I didn’t know how much I hated the term "independent scholar" until people began to use it to describe me. I left academe four years ago to try to make it as a full-time writer, and I identify myself as such. Academics, however, still seem to struggle with this marker of identity and others like it, and they almost always default to "independent scholar."

The term usually describes a person with a Ph.D. who does not have an academic affiliation but who still participates in academe — by going to conferences or publishing books with academic presses, for instance. It does not matter whether this person is unaffiliated by choice or because of the terrible job market. "Independent" is inherently referential; you are independent of something. While "scholar" refers to a specialist in a branch of study, the combination "independent scholar" is a status simultaneously defined by academe and separate from it. It both claims and marginalizes unaffiliated scholars.

Outside of academe, this terminology makes no sense. There are no "independent lawyers" or "independent businesswomen," because what would that even mean? They are simply lawyers and businesswomen, whether they work for themselves, for small firms, or large corporations.

The term "independent scholars" took on new meaning in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, as the population of Ph.D.s doing scholarly work outside of academe grew larger and formed their own organizations, like the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. These early groups conceived of the term as positive — something akin to "independent filmmaker" or "indie rock." As the freelance writer Diane Johnson argued in a 1983 article about the Academy of Independent Scholars, the organization’s members were people "with wide-ranging interests and the kind of restless intellect that inhibits the orderly accumulation of academic brownie points." The term connoted freedom and rebelliousness: Without being tied to universities’ rigid expectations for promotion to tenure, these scholars could do whatever they wanted.

 Today, however, for those of us without an affiliation who want to remain within academic circles, there are struggles. It is difficult to secure funding for research or to gain access to library and e-resources. There is also the term "independent scholar" itself, and the status it now conveys. Laura Stempel Mumford, a literary scholar, embraced the term "independent scholar," yet struggled, 10 years after getting her Ph.D., with "the constant need to make my story audible against the dominant narratives of the profession." (The dominant narratives, she thought, suggest that if you do not end up on the tenure track, you must be "lazy, intellectually shallow, poorly trained, or insufficiently committed to the rigors of academic life.")

These narratives have only grown stronger as a result of the job-market crisis. In the field of history, there are more than twice as many Ph.D.s produced each year than there are jobs advertised. One would think this would result in a more capacious definition of "success." Instead, most Ph.D. institutions still only pay lip service to "alternative career" training, encouraging their students to think only of a future on the tenure track.

As the number of independent scholars grows, the term’s association with professional failure hardens. I am sure that most professors and grad students who use this term do not intend any disrespect, but by using it uncritically they marginalize those of us they apply it to.

At no time is this more apparent than in the late summer and fall, when scholars are scrambling to put together panels for next year’s conferences, and to register and make arrangements for attending this year’s meetings. To participate, we must fill out forms and identify our "institutional affiliations." Sometimes there is an option for "independent scholar." The best-case scenario is a box to check called "Other." On most academic-conference registration sites, however, there is no option to choose "writer" (or "artist" or "journalist" or "freelance editor"). This inability to accurately identify ourselves is alienating.

This suggests that academic organizations do not welcome — or, at the least, are uncomfortable with — anyone who writes, teaches, and does scholarly work in contexts other than academe. This is part of a larger adherence to traditional academic beliefs and hierarchies, including what constitutes "scholarly work" and who is hirable. Departments may encourage students and professors to write op-eds and columns "for the public," but these forms of writing do not count for tenure. Any attempt to compose articles or books in a different structure or style is met with incomprehension or rejection. I left academe after 12 years of teaching because, as an adjunct with two books, I made no sense to any hiring committee; I did not fit into the long-established structure of departmental tenure and promotion.

As the number of jobs in the humanities continues to decline and the number of Ph.D.s continues to grow (a situation that is profoundly unethical, but that’s an issue for another day), the number of scholars working in contexts other than academe is only going to rise. Those who work in academe must focus on this crisis; in the meantime, they need to stop marginalizing unaffiliated scholars. They can do so in the following ways:

  • Embrace writers, journalists, artists, and other scholars as true colleagues, by asking them how they would like to be identified. If they choose "independent scholar," great. If not, great. But let them decide.
  • As the ethnomusicologist Rebecca Bodenheimer has suggested, begin a conversation with a fellow scholar with "What do you work on?" rather than, "Where are you?"
  • Professional organizations: On conference registration and proposal-submission sites, give scholars the opportunity to define themselves and their work in whatever way they wish. (Or, barring that, forgo printing affiliations on conference badges and in programs altogether.)
  • Conference program committees: Make a concerted effort to recruit scholars from a range of professions for panels and round tables — and not just those that focus on "alternative careers."

These are small steps, but they matter. They would signal to those of us who are engaged in rigorous research and writing that we are part of a scholarly community. They would indicate that we can contribute our ideas, create social and professional networks, and engage in discussions with our academic colleagues. Professors and grad students would also benefit from this more diverse community. Additionally, shifting our language and making room for self-identification would create a new series of inclusive, professional norms.

These changes would also make scholars working outside the academy fully visible, forcing everyone to reckon with the current conditions of the academic job market. This is absolutely critical to the future of academe: If we want to continue to produce knowledge, we must validate the different types of work that scholars do.

Megan Kate Nelson is a writer and historian in Lincoln, Mass. She received a 2017 NEH Public Scholar Award for her book project, "Path of the Dead Man: How the West Was Won — and Lost — During the American Civil War." A version of this essay appeared on her blog, Historista.