In praise of independent scholars


Robin Wilson, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education (grrr, they pay walled the piece for now), profiles independent scholars who are pursuing their intellectual interests outside of full-time academic employment. Here’s the lede:

It might be easy to mistake Thomas Ernst for a traditional academic. His CV has a long list of journal articles, and he can often be found find on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He attends lectures, works with graduate students, and spends time in its libraries. But Mr. Ernst is not on the tenured faculty at UMass, nor is he a professor anywhere else.

He is an independent scholar, who does most of his research and writing from the solitude of the second bedroom in his small apartment near the Amherst campus. In the past 20 years he has written a book, published a dozen journal articles, and contributed two chapters in encyclopedias.

Wilson notes that independent scholars are “a growing part of the academic landscape.” Some are working independently because of the scarcity of tenure-track academic positions. Others have taken this route by choice, though it can be a challenging one. In any event:

Like traditional professors, they 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.

Learned Associations

There even are learned associations for independent scholars.

In the U.S., the National Coalition of Independent Scholars welcomes those not affiliated as full-time college faculty “who are pursuing knowledge in or across any fields whose credentials demonstrate an active involvement in independent scholarship in any field, as evidenced by advanced degrees or presentations/publications. ”

In Canada, the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars “is a program that gives voice and lends legitimacy to non-faculty independent scholars.”

The Bible (Still) of Independent Scholarship

If you’re searching for a book that captures the spirit of independent scholarship, look no further than Ronald Gross,The Independent Scholar’s Handbook: How to Turn Your Interest in Any Subject into Expertise (1982 and 1993 eds.).

Ron (bio here) is a vital figure in the advancement of self-directed adult learning. He helped to popularize the term “lifelong learning” during the 1970s, and his reader-friendly books include The Lifelong Learner (1977), Peak Learning (1991 and 1999 eds.), and Socrates’ Way (2002).

My favorite of all of them, however, is The Independent Scholar’s Handbook. The Handbook is the opposite of a stuffy academic tome. Ron wrote this engaging and energizing book for those who are pursuing scholarly work outside of traditional academic settings. It intersperses stories of successful independent scholars with lots of “how to” advice. Urban activist Jane Jacobs, historian Barbara Tuchman, and futurist Alvin Toffler are among the well-known and not-so-well-known independent scholars profiled in it.

It’s a pre-Digital Age book, so its discussions about formulating your research plans, gathering resources, and presenting your work are silent on Google and Powerpoint. No matter; it continues to instruct us that scholarship can be lively, creative, pertinent, and socially relevant. The book is out-of-print, but there are affordable used copies available via online booksellers; either the 1982 or 1993 edition will do.

John Ohliger

A profile in The Independent Scholar’s Handbook led me to Basic Choices, Inc.a small, home brewed think tank dedicated to exploring societal options based in Madison, Wisconsin, co-founded by adult educator, writer, and activist John Ohliger (1926-2004). John was a tenured adult education professor at Ohio State University, but he became deeply disillusioned with academe and left it to pursue an independent intellectual and community life.

I was so intrigued by the idea of a community-based center committed to social change that I tracked down John and began to fill a drawer with his writings. I eventually became dear friends with John and his wife, Chris Wagner, and his work continues to inspire me, even as I currently occupy a perch in academe.

For more about John’s life and work, there’s a great volume Andre P. Grace and Tonette S. Rocco, eds., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (2010), which received the 2010 Phillip E. Frandson Award for Literature in the Field of Continuing Higher Education from the University Continuing Education Association. I contributed a chapter on John’s role as a public intellectual in an adult education tradition.

The Importance of Independent Scholars and Scholarship

Some independent scholars manage to do their work on a more or less full-time basis. Others pursue scholarship as avocations. Regardless, it takes creativity and resourcefulness to engage in scholarly research and writing without the built-in perks of academe.

Even with these challenges, independent scholars contribute mightily to the world’s knowledge, as Wilson’s Chronicle piece and Gross’s The Independent Scholar’s Handbook aptly illustrate. Especially as academic scholarship has become increasingly insular and trendy, as academic freedom faces serious threats amid the growing “corporatization” of university culture, and as full-time teaching appointments continue to be hard to secure, we need to support and celebrate independent intellectual work.

-David Yamada

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