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.)

On comments: it's your blog, set your policy however you want

So, there have been a couple of interesting discussions about blog comment policies in the past couple of days. Over on his Scientific American blog, Bora Zivkovic wrote a long rant about bad-faith commenters and how he deals with them. Greg Laden wrote a good response post. (As have a number of other people, I'm sure. If you're one of them, leave a link in the comments.) Unrelatedly (I think), Jerry Coyne wrote about his commenting policy, specifically regarding when he will and will not permit pseudonyms.

The thing in common among these posts is the willingness on the part of the bloggers to strongly assert ownership over the comment threads on their own blogs, which seems like part of a broader trend, one that I approve of.

At some level, the whole challenge of designing and implementing a commenting policy is that you want to encourage engagement, but you want to find ways to keep that engagement civil and constructive. Basically, you need to prevent trolling, whether in the form of off-topic comments, disingenuous ones, or bullying ones.

There are things that fight against that, though. In particular, there is the (sometimes disingenuous) complaining by people who think that their free speech is being violated. So many things wrong there, it's hard to know where to start. First, a blogger is not the American Federal Government. Second, deleting a comment is not the same thing as a fine or a prison sentence. Third, deleting a comment from a site does not stop you from posting that comment elsewhere. In fact, if you really really want to make a trolling comment about a specific blog post, you can start your own blog, and write a whole post about it. Or you can probably still register the domain name (If not, try .info.)

Bora and Greg both cite the metaphor of a blog being like one's living room. This metaphor originates, to the best of my knowledge with Ronin Institute Research Scholar John S. Wilkins (no recent relation), whose blog, Evolving Thoughts, features this comment policy:
This is my living room, so don't piss on the floor. I reserve the right to block users and delete any comments that are uncivil, spam or offensive to all. I have a broad tolerance, but don't test it, please.
Try to remain coherent, polite and put forward positive arguments if engaged in debate. There are plenty of places you can accuse people of being pedophilic communist sexist pigs; don't do it here.
The point is, like your 1950s-Archie-Bunker-stereotype father used to say, "my house, my rules." As a blogger, you have every right to impose any damn commenting policy you want. If you only want to permit sycophantic comments that say things like, "Great post, Jon! You're the best!," go for it. There is nothing "fair" or "unfair" about it. Of course, I don't think that's a good policy. In a good comment thread, people will make corrections and additions, and to engage in an honest, constructive debate that adds real value and builds a community.

Basically, your comment policy should be guided by these two things:

  1. Pragmatics. What sort of policy will encourage the type of conversation you want to have on your blog? If you want constructive conversations, you have to hammer down the trolls as soon as they pop up. If you want a flame war, post on controversial topics, sit back, and watch.
  2. Your comfort zone. If you hate profanity, then ban profanity. If you hate the word "sensual," then ban all comments with the word "sensual." If you like arguing with people, leave the comments up and respond to them. If not, don't.
That's it. You have no obligation to have a "fair" commenting policy, other than to the extent that it serves the goal of encouraging the type of commenters and comments that you want. You certainly have no obligation to develop a commenting policy that seems "fair" to the troll whose comment you just deleted (or modified via disemvowelment or Kittenizing -- links via the Bora post).

Similarly, on the topic of pseudonymy: yes, there are legitimate reasons why someone might want to remain anonymous or pseudonymous. However, if you feel strongly about real names, there is no sense in which it is "not fair" to require commenters to use real names on your blog. What it means is that, in addition to losing the anonymous trolls, you may lose some good commenters who prize their privacy highly. If yours was the only blog on the internet, there might be ways in which this would be unfair, but I suspect that yours is not the only blog on the internet, and the the ambitious pseudonymous commenter can probably find someplace else to go.

The other analogy that came up in the comment thread of Bora's post was this:
Remember; free speech doesn’t extend to having a right to have a say in any place, by any means. You can no more walk into the offices of a newspaper publisher and demand column inches than insist that your comments be published on a blog. One is at best a guest when visiting a blog; and one’s behaviour must be acceptable to the host.
I like the idea of a blog being like a newspaper. Comments are like letters to the editor. The newspaper is under no obligation to publish all of the letters it receives. Similarly, you can choose which comments you allow to be posted.

Anyway, here at Lost in Transcription, the policy is both simple and complicated, as it is based on the subjective judgment of an extremely complex neural network. Specifically, if I think you're a bot or a troll, you'll get deleted. Most of the time, the distinction between those and real comments seems pretty straightforward: most of the comments that are not obviously spam are perfectly constructive. In borderline cases, factors like identity may help to tip the balance, with a leeway ordering of real name > pseudonym > anonymous. I have no plans to take up modifying comments, but if I do, I will note that they are modified.

If your comment gets deleted, think back about what you wrote and think about why it might have come off as trollish or spamish. For example, did you respond angrily to something that was obviously a rhetorical and sarcastic question? Did you write something that sounds like it could have come from a press release? These are things that will get you deleted. However, if you want to try again, you're welcome to do so!

Alright, comment away!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

International Ronin

So, this is reposted from the Ronin Blog (original here)

In the wake of that article that recently came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (covered here), I've received a few e-mails suggesting that there may be some confusion out there regarding the geographical scope of the Ronin Institute. So, I thought I would just take a moment to try to clear that up.

In concept, the Ronin Institute is a global institution. After all, the future of scholarship is international (just as the future of most everything is). As far as we are concerned, location and national citizenship do not matter. What matters is your work and your citizenship in the community of scholars.

That being said, from a legal perspective, we are incorporated in the United States, and our tax-exempt status was granted here. So, the US is the only place where we have a formal, legal, corporate presence. Similarly, my knowledge of the way that systems of scholarship and funding work is primarily limited to the US system. I basically understand other systems to the extent that they are similar to the US system. This means that, in practice, we might be able to provide the best support to scholars who are US citizens and/or who are in the US. However, as our network (both the Research Scholars affiliated with Ronin and other, like-minded institutions) grows, it will encompass a broader range of circumstances and systems.

We are envisioning two main types of activities. One is to help independent scholars to apply for research funding, including permitting them to apply through the Ronin Institute. For certain types of funding agencies (like government agencies), the fact that we are a US non-profit probably matters, and we may be in a position only to support applications from people in the US. Similarly, if you are in the EU, we might not be in a good position to help you to apply for EU funds at the present time.

Most private foundations are much less constrained on this dimension. Likewise, we expect that most donations from individuals could be disbursed to scholars (e.g., in the form of scholarships for conference travel) without too much concern over nationality and residency.

So, what's the take-home message here? Well, I'm imagining that you are an independent scholar living outside the US. You're saying to yourself, "Hey, this Ronin Institute thing is pretty cool. I wonder if I could join? Or should I start my own institute where I am?"

The answer is "Yes" and "Yes." If you are committed to pursuing scholarship at the highest level, are actively engaged in research, and would like to join our community, get in touch with us at, and we can discuss the process. And, if you're feeling ambitious and energetic, build something local as well!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ronin in the Chronicle of Higher Education

So, this is reposted from over at the Ronin Blog . . .

The most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an article on independent scholarship. It profiles nine independent scholars, four of whom are Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute (Patricia Appelbaum, Kristina Killgrove, Jay Ulfelder, and me).

If you have a subscription to the Chronicle, you can read the article here. Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall, which especially sucks since this will be of greatest interest to people who are maybe not in a position to pay for the subscription. For you, here are a few of the highlights:

First, here’s the succinct description of one of the main challenges faced by independent scholars:

Like traditional professors, [independent scholars] perform research, secure grants, and publish books and papers. In some cases, their work is having an impact on their disciplines, challenging established views and advancing knowledge in the field.

But independent scholars say their contributions are frequently discounted by tenured professors, who, as gatekeepers of scholarly conversations and the distribution of intellectual ideas, tend to exclude those who lack university credentials.


The work life of an independent scholar—with its freedom from the performance requirements of the tenure track—can be attractive to those with young children and those who can’t or don’t want to relocate for a faculty job. Yet theirs can be a spartan existence, lacking intellectual colleagues or recognition, a calling that most can afford to pursue only by working extra part-time jobs or relying on a partner’s income. The financial needs of independent scholars can also get in the way of academic freedom by limiting the kinds of questions they are able to ask and the projects they are willing to pursue.

The bulk of the article then focuses on the nine examples of independent scholars, who represent some of the diversity of motivations for people working outside of academia, as well as the diversity of models that people are pursuing to make independent scholarship work.

Near the end is a quote from our website, which sums up one of the primary goals of the Ronin Institute:

“The Ronin Institute is creating a new model for scholarly research that recognizes that the world outside of traditional academia is filled with smart, educated, passionate people who have a lot to offer to the world of scholarship,” its Web site says. “There are tens of thousands of people in the United States alone who have advanced degrees yet do not have jobs that are making use of their knowledge and passion. We are creating structures that will leverage this vast, underutilized resource.”

Of course, the goal is not only to leverage this resource, but to allow would-be scholars (and would-be part-time scholars) to live more well rounded, fulfilling lives.

So grab your swords, all you Ronin!

Scientiam Consecemus!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Scientiam Consecemus!!

So, this is reposted from over at the Ronin Blog:

Here’s an update for those of you who are following the development of the Ronin Institute. We now have an official motto, in Latin and everything:

Scientiam Consecemus

That’s “Let’s Chop Up Some Knowledge” to you.

Thanks go to Research Scholar Kristina Killgrove, who not only came up with the translation, but also indulged my complete lack of Latin by answering a long series of naive yet nitpicky questions.

Now maybe you’re asking yourself, “What the hell sort of motto is that??” Here’s the idea. Traditionally, if a Samurai lost his master, he was expected to commit suicide. Those who did not commit suicide became Ronin, masterless Samurai who made their living in a variety of ways. They had earned the right to carry their swords, only now they were carrying them for themselves.

Similarly, the traditional view in academia is that a scholar is defined by his or her position at a University (or similar research institution). People who don’t have a traditional academic position are expected to commit a sort of career suicide, abandoning their scholarly research. Our perspective is that you’ve earned your skills, and you still have your tools. You don’t need a master in the form of a University in order to put those skills to use.

So grab your intellectual swords, all you masterless scholars! Let’s chop up some knowledge!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Learn Something New Every Day

So, here's a cute trick I learned a couple of days ago (via Stellar:Interesting). Set up your web browser homepage to:

Then, whenever you open a new window or tab, it will redirect to a random Wikipedia article.

For example, did you know that Macropoliana afarorum is a moth from the Sphingidae family, or that it is known from Djibouti?

Well, if you had set up your homepage like this and then opened a new browser window a geometrically distributed number of times with a mean of about 30 million, you would have known it!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Two more from Fisher and Haldane

So, previously I introduced you to Darwin Eats Cake's two newest characters, R. A. Fisher's Pipe and J. B. S. Haldane's Mustache. Well, the comedy duo have provided two more installations of their series, tentatively entitled, "Stuff Sitting in Jars on a Shelf, Talking."

I would not necessarily have predicted this, but as it turns out, Fisher's Pipe has a really juvenile sense of humor.

It's sort of sad, really.

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Hard of Hearing Vader

So, this is one of the best things I've seen in a while. It's such a simple concept, but just brilliantly executed.

Update: "Deaf Vader" Why the hell did I not think of that before!?!?!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Twitter is now a Passive-Aggressive Stalker

So, for the past few months, I've been getting this at the top of my twitter feed:
Except I've been getting e-mails from Twitter, pretty much every day.

For example, I've been getting those e-mails informing me of what the people I follow on Twitter are talking about. For the record, Twitter, I already have a service that tells me what the people I follow on Twitter are talking about. It's called "Twitter."

Is this your passive-aggressive way of complaining that I never respond to your e-mails, Twitter?

What's next? Are you going to tell me you're worried that my answering machine is broken, because you've left like five messages, but I haven't called you back yet? Are you going to ask for topless pics? Show up on my porch? Tell me that if you can't have me, no one can?

Seriously, Twitter is the worst boyfriend ever.