"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"Do You Want to Be Listed as an Independent Scholar?"

This question from Conference Panel Organizer, in conjunction with an email from one of you readers  asking me to elaborate on what I hope to get from defining myself as an independent scholar besides just extrication from adjunct serfdom, got me thinking that I should do a post on ... well, why, more broadly, I'm defining myself this way and what I seek to gain from doing so.

So, to answer CPO's question first, yes, World, I do want to be listed as an "Independent Scholar." In fact, how else would I designate myself for purposes of presenting at conferences and publishing in academic venues? I am no longer "still a student" and am not currently employed by a college or university. What else should I call myself in these contexts?

I think it's interesting, though, how CPO's question reinforces the privileging authority that comes with affiliation, even if your affiliation is merely that of a graduate student or adjunct. The idea is that you belong to a club. By accepting the rules, the indignities, the dysfunction, the exploitation, you gain the privileges of affiliation, including the authority of having institutional backing for your work. As if what you had to say couldn't stand on its own. As if your audience lacked the mental capacity to contend with your research on its own terms. As if your affiliation granted your name automatic authority and your work automatic affirmation.

Maybe it does ...

By defining myself this way, however, I am not only underscoring the simple fact that I DON'T currently (and probably won't ever again) work for a college or university but also expressing my resistance to the dues Club Academe demands in exchange for the privileges of affiliation. Those privileges aren't worth the dues if you're on the adjunct track. As if your work as a grad student or adjunct counted as much as it would if you were on the tenure track and eligible for raises and promotion! Ha!! That's why I quit.

But, so, what do I hope to gain by defining myself this way? Do I want to make a contribution to my field? Do I still care enough about my field to want to contribute?

On the one hand, I'd have to say I feel like I already have contributed. Maybe that sounds arrogant, but my adviser told me, the very last time I saw hir, that my work changed the way ze reads and teaches Major Authors X and Y. I feel the same way about hir work, but this acknowledgment is not nothing, especially since Adviser has hirself published on both authors and substantively on Author X. Adviser lectures on Authors X and Y to literally hundreds of undergraduates every year and regularly teaches grad seminars that include their works. However, yes, I'd like to be able to reach audiences beyond Grad U and hence my interest in finishing Project Dissertation-to-Book.

On the other hand, my primary goal never really was to "contribute to the field" to the extent that doing so would mean privileging research per se over writing per seAcademics aren't exactly known for their elegant prose. But, personally, I believe literary studies can be an exception -- not that it typically is, just that it CAN be. My approach has always been a writerly one, by which I mean that, for me, writing about literature entails response on an aesthetic level to whatever I'm writing about. Which isn't to say, for example, that if I'm writing about Faulkner I write in ultra long sentences or that if I'm writing about Chaucer I write in Middle English (Duh!). But I do believe writing about literature should entail more -- in terms of craft -- than merely taking a body of "research," dumping it into prose, and calling it a book.

More importantly, writing about literature for me is always -- whatever the research involved might be -- a form of creative exploration and expression. Research and writing allow me to develop aesthetic responses more fully, to understand better why such-and-such a novel blew my mind as I was reading it, and to meet other readers and writers through the virtual worlds we create through our words.

I suppose I see my scholarly writing as a form of creative nonfiction ornamented with footnotes and works cited ...

Calling myself an "independent scholar," whatever I may or may not accomplish under this label, gives me the freedom to publicly make a statement about habits of mind important to me as a reader and writer, about work I've done in the past, and work I may or may not do in the future. Are research and academic writing always fun? No. Do I spend every waking moment I'm not toiling away at Think Tank on some academic project? Hell no!!! I'm lazy, and I also enjoy doing other, sometimes totally frivolous things with my time. Will I ever complete Project Dissertation-to-Book or any other academic project? That remains to be seen, but unless and until I lose interest in such activities completely, I think "independent scholar" is a fair designation for my relationship to reading, research, and writing.


  1. Great post. I had independent scholar on my email and was politely told that I should remove it as the designation was "not needed" and "possibly harmful." Yet I still feel it is the most accurate description of what I currently am doing.

  2. Did you take it off your email? I can only imagine that people who would say that are intimidated by the label. I could understand if you were still ABD, but you finished, right? The label makes a statement about your refusal to play by academe's shitty rules, and some people clearly find that threatening. But that's their problem.