Thursday, January 31, 2013

In defense of the independent academic lifestyle

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.)


  1. "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." True except for the '40 hours a week' part... If the independent scholar spends only 40 hours on tasks other than research, I'd say they have a substantial leg-up over the typical academic.

  2. Attention Shanna123, Docbot, and wassall: And who, exactly, are you? What have you contributed to human knowledge? How many times have your publications been cited? (If you're wondering about mine, Google Scholar me.) I'll consider taking your opinions seriously when you stop cowering behind pseudonyms and if your accomplishments merit it.

  3. The composer Jen from the Ronin Institute, here. Maybe it's a good thing I don't have a subscription to the Chronicle.

    IMO, just because I don't have a tenure review board doesn't mean I'm not responsible to my fellows (even if they aren't in my field.) It also means that I've got to do more to communicate my work, since I'm not preaching to the choir, as it were. I kind of resent Shanna's implication that we're all a bunch of failed academics. (And the whole discussion of disappearing tenure jobs is something all academics should be very concerned about, but that's another discussion for another time.)

    I'm guessing Docbot doesn't live in Massachusetts. My insurance is taken care of, thank you very much.

  4. As I said, most of the responses I've seen have been positive, but there is one big negative response that we're all going to have to be ready for. These three comments represent different aspect of it, but the basic message is this:

    "I'm someone who has succeeded following the standard path. Therefore, I believe that the standard mechanisms are flawless arbiters of quality."

    It is fundamentally about reification of the credentialing role of the University by people who benefit from that reification. It's annoying, probably inevitable, and something that needs to be tackled/diffused if we are going to transform the perception of independent scholarship.

    Jen, In the Chronicle comment thread, there were something like ten positive comments for every negative one, so it was actually quite nice reading through them.

  5. In the Chronicle comment thread, there were something like ten positive comments for every negative one, so it was actually quite nice reading through them.

    Well that's good, then. Guess it only takes one rotten apple, as it were.

  6. Also, I had meant to add, I'm glad that I don't work in a field where our primary commodity is executing chefs!

  7. I have to wonder, though, how many of those negative comments are coming from people for whom grad school and academe wasn't a healthy environment. It's the old, "well I suffered, and so does everyone else" attitude. (Thankfully my chair and committee were pretty cool.)

  8. My guess is that may be part of it. I would expect this response especially from someone who suffered, but then made it through, and expects to be rewarded for their suffering as well as to see other people suffer. (My committee was great, too, except for one guy. But, you know, there's almost always the one guy.)

  9. This is probably the most refreshing thing I have ever read -- ever.

    Independent academics have the liberty to study and write about the topics and issues they find important. Those who work regular jobs and do research in their spare time are the jewels of the academic kingdom (so to speak) because they are not just fulfilling a work requirement; they are fulfilling a life passion. Traditional academics have the luxury of having an audience that must listen -- In the real world, you have to compete for attention in the marketplace of ideas. The former seems irrelevant to preparing students for life. The latter seems today like it is restricted only by one's ability to construct great prose in 140 characters or less.

    In closing, I thought I'd share the first thing that came to mind when I read this: If you don't know the movie, then I challenge you to figure it out.

    "Jean-Pierre: The Forty-Seven Ronin. Do you know it?
    [Sam shakes his head]

    Jean-Pierre: Forty-seven samurai, whose master was betrayed and killed by another lord. They became ronin - masterless samurai - disgraced by another man's treachery. For three years they plotted, pretending to be thieves, mercenaries, even madmen - that I didn't have time to do - and then one night they struck, slipping into the castle of their lord's betrayer and killing him.

    Sam: Nice. I like that. My kind of job.

    Jean-Pierre: There's something more. All forty-seven of them committed seppuku - ritual suicide - in the courtyard of the castle.

    Sam: Well, that I don't like so much.

    Jean-Pierre: But you understand it.

    Sam: What do you mean, I understand it?

    Jean-Pierre: The warrior code. The delight in the battle, you understand that, yes? But also something more. You understand there is something outside yourself that has to be served. And when that need is gone, when belief has died, what are you? A man without a master.

    Sam: Right now I'm a man without a paycheck.

    Jean-Pierre: The ronin could have hired themselves to new masters. They could have fought for themselves. But they chose honor. They chose myth.

    Sam: They chose wrong."

    Connexum Sumus Unum. E Veritate Potens.


    P.S. The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.
    -- Sun Tzu