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ABC's and PhD's: Indie Scholars
October 28, 2009 - 12:53pm

Last week, for Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee reviewed a three-day event held at the University of Iowa called “Platforms for Public Scholars." This symposium had as its goal the discussion of integrating humanities studies in academic institutions with civic work. It’s a difficult problem to connect the academy with the public. The tenure hierarchy was pointed out as a struggling point for this, as it’s hard to engage academics in collaborative work with the community since it often does not contribute to promotion. Coming from the science side (I don’t know the humanities very well) I’ve also seen issues with scientists who are not motivated to effectively convey their studies to the public, and stigmas surrounding faculty who write science for a popular audience. And this disconnect works both ways, as one commenter brought up, as evidenced by cases where institutions establish a venue to promote discourse with the “interested public” only to find no attending audience.

Some comments to Scott’s article also brought up a similar disconnect at another level: i.e. between independent scholars from outside the academy and with academics within. One wrote: “If and when [independent scholars] make attempts to engage with university scholars, we are met with polite skepticism at best.”

I find independent scholarship an interesting idea with a lot of undeveloped potential. There is a considerable number of independent scholars out there (especially in these times when far more PhDs are produced than can be assimilated into traditional, increasingly competitive academic positions); many of them notable, respectable contributors to their fields who, for a diversity of reasons, work on their intellectual passions with little or no connection to the ivory tower.

Becoming associated and recognized is a big hurdle that independent scholars need to overcome. There are several associations for independent scholars that provide a cornerstone for supporting and promoting these outside-of-academia academics. Two of the largest are the National Coalition of Independent Scholars and the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars (which has even produced the “Independent Scholars’ Handbook”). Smaller organizations within these umbrellas bring together scholars at a more local, personal level (for example, the Princeton Research Forum and others), if you’re lucky enough to be close enough to one to participate.

Despite the existence of these organizations, I’d say for most independent scholars (and I include myself in this club) right now it’s a hard and lonely road. The basic need for access to library facilities, the lack of interactions with collaborators and co-authors and colleagues to read manuscripts, and difficult access to grants, funding, and even publishing opportunities are real issues. This recent blog from the Times Higher Education exposés another difficulty: finding a professional identity in order to relate to colleagues at meetings. And with only a small framework for interaction these scholars have no voice.

BUT, there is a powerful force that is in the early stages of pulling these independents together: new media. I just discovered a support thread through the forums on Chronicle for Higher Education in which some Independent Scholars have recently come together in the beginnings of accessible discussion of the challenges they face. I expect we’ll hear more and more from this population as they use the blossoming array of social media to discover exciting new energy and strength in developing community.

It seems to me also, that there is a potential mutualism that has not been realized. Academia could contribute much to the development of independent scholarship, and there is just as much that Independent Scholars could give back – for one example, perhaps, by using their freedom to establish links between academia and projects in the public realm. A little give and take on both sides could at least ease the wall that often develops between independent and affiliated scholars, and I’m hoping to see this happen with the strengthening of the independents’ voice.


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