I didn’t know how much I hated the term “independent scholar” until people began to use it to describe me. I left academia four years ago to try to make it as a full-time writer; when anyone asks me what I do, I say, “I am a writer.” Academics, however, still seem to struggle with this marker of identity and others like it, and they almost always default to “independent scholar.”
The term usually describes a person with a PhD who does not have an academic affiliation but who still participates in academia in a number of ways, including going to conferences and publishing articles in journals and books with academic presses.
It does not matter whether this person is unaffiliated by choice or because of the terrible job market. It is a marker specific to academia; no one uses it in other contexts, because outside of academia it makes no sense.
“Independent scholars” came into being during the 1970s and 1980s, as the population of PhDs doing scholarly work outside of academia grew larger and formed organizations of their own. I imagine that this first group conceived of the term as positive – something akin to “independent filmmaker” or “indie rock.” It denoted a certain kind of freedom and rebelliousness; without being tied to universities and their rigid expectations for promotion to tenure, these scholars could do whatever they wanted.
However, the term has morphed into something less positive in the years since. Instead of suggesting a liberated approach to scholarly work, it emphasizes failure: the inability to get or retain a tenure-track job. It is a term that silos people working in different areas of knowledge production. It marginalizes and others them.
At no time is this more apparent than in the late summer and fall, when scholars are scrambling to put together panels for next year’s round of conferences, and to register and make arrangements for attending this year’s meetings.
In order to do any of this, we must fill out forms and identify our “institutional affiliations.” Sometimes there is an option for “independent scholar.” The best-case scenario is a box to check called “Other” (a-hem). On most academic conference registration sites, however, there is no option to choose writer (or artist or journalist or freelance editor). For anyone who defines her/himself in one of these ways (or a host of others), the inability to accurately identify ourselves is alienating. It suggests that academic organizations do not welcome – or at the very least, are uncomfortable with – anyone who writes, teaches, and does scholarly work in contexts other than academia.
This can lead to strange situations. In the 2017 Western History Association program, for example, I am identified in one place as a writer (awesome), and in another as an “independent writer” (WTF?). This latter phrase has been suggested to me several times recently as an identifier – again, usually in the context of proposing panels. It is a ridiculous term. But it is a useful one, as it actually illuminates how “independent” in this context allows academia to simultaneously claim and diminish an unaffiliated scholar’s identity.
As the number of jobs in the humanities continue to decline and the numbers of PhDs continue to grow (a situation that is profoundly unethical, but that’s an issue for another post), the number of scholars working in contexts other than academia is only going to grow larger.
We shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as “unaffiliated” or working “outside” the academy – for these phrases, too, other us.
So. Please stop calling me an “independent scholar.” Instead, do these things:
- Embrace writers, journalists, artists, and other scholars as true colleagues, by asking them how they would like to be identified. If they choose “independent scholar,” great. If not, great. But let them decide.
- As Rebecca Bodenheimer has suggested in her piece for Inside Higher Ed, begin a conversation with a fellow scholar with “What do you work on?” rather than, “Where are you?”
- On conference registration and proposal submission sites, give scholars the opportunity to define themselves and their work in whatever way they wish.
- Or, perhaps, forego printing affiliations on conference badges and in programs altogether.
These are small steps, but they are a big deal. And they will make academia a more inclusive place.