Is ‘Independent Scholar’ What You Call Yourself?

NCIS is crossposting the following discussion from our Facebook page which reflects upon Julie Enzer’s article in Inside Higher Ed, “What Shall I Call Myself?”

As Enzer writes:

"Many people use Independent Scholar. Perhaps I will settle on that designation as it seems to be an emerging convention for scholars outside of academia. For now, however, Independent Scholar feels like a statement of defeat: independent, because I was unable to secure an academic position. Though, of course, it is accurate."

[Enzer’s full article is here.] To add your comment, please visit the NCIS Facebook page.

Here is the ensuing comment thread on the NCIS Facebook page:

Freda Blake Bradley: I understand this author’s sentiments. I teach college history, yes, but they do not fund my research. That isn’t 100% bad, though, because they also have no vested interest in the outcome. In American history right now, gender history and “racial” histories are the most popular. Neither of those are my “passion” although I’ve taught in both areas. My passion is Appalachian history and environmental history—but it’s hard to find funding for the latter in my region. The former, however, is relatively easily funded by my state SHOULD I wish to do that and they don’t care if you’re a professional, have a PhD, or have a high school diploma IF you fit their needs.

So, as the author said, do I negotiate my title or leverage my topic? I’d prefer to leverage my topic. Therefore, I choose to “title myself” with a third option. I tell people I am a “professional historian” because that’s what I am. IF they ask who funds my research, I tell them that although I teach in higher education, they do not fund our research at my institution. (then I follow with, “. . .but I do accept donations to my work” which is usually followed by crickets—lol).

However, I’m also a historic reenactor. For many years, I’ve been researching and presenting two first person characters….begun before my degree. Many historic reenactors are not professional historians…….they are hobbyists. I’m also a genealogist. Many genealogists “feel” they are historians, but they are not….they are hobbyists. Again, do I leverage my degree or my topic? In this case, I DO leverage my degree. It’s necessary to set me apart—especially in the reenactor field.

What do I put on MY taxes? I use “adjunct faculty” because that’s where the lion’s share of my income comes from. To the IRS, that’s what’s important….they don’t care what my “title is.” All they care is does my blank on the IRS form match my W2 or 1099….and adjunct faculty matches.

So, I think the answer is what do you need to leverage and why? Am I professional? Yes. So, I choose professional historian. It fits all my needs currently. Am I an independent scholar? Yes, but that doesn’t leverage me in the boxes above, so I don’t use it. I WILL use it when I need it, but for the boxes above, other things fit better.

Joan Cunningham: I first came upon "Independent Scholar" when Googling the term "Private Scholar", encountered in a book by Alexander McCall Smith describing a female anthropologist character, who had no visible means of research or even personal support. As is typical of Smith's writing, she was treated gently and with respect, and I was endeared to her. Finding myself sometime later formally retired from academia, I thought that maybe I, too, could be a Private Scholar. The term has a certain dignity and sense of freedom from the politics and perversities of the academy. Of course this side of the pond the term turns out to be "Independent Scholar", which somehow does not have the same dignity.

But as I hear about more scientists,frustrated and disgusted with academic research, forming their own research companies and competitively obtaining funding from sources INCLUDING THE NIH, the term Independent Scholar becomes not one of defeat and failure but rather of, well, independence and pride. The meaning of the term should come from us. If we feel "less than", then we are. It is up to us. But for Independent Scholars to be respected by academics from the academy, we will need to uphold very high standards for our work.

Karen Garvin: Yes, "Independent Scholar" should be a badge of honor, not embarrassment. No one owns you, and as Freda Blake Bradley mentioned, if the current "hot topics" in your area of scholarship don't interest you then you can steer your research in whatever direction you want to go.

Of course funding is always an issue. I'd love to hole up in the British Library for a few months but it's unrealistic for me at this point in time. But I'm not writing the idea off!

Amanda Haste: Well said, Joan Cunningham. For me it's all about professional integrity. And as I used to tell my music students, you need to be professional, a term which has nothing to do with whether you're paid but has everything to do with how you conduct yourself, and how you approach your work, whether that be
performance or research.

Karen Garvin: I haven't really given much thought to a title. I suppose "Historian" is all I really need. I am an independent scholar, but that doesn't have to be my title.

I don't accept "Independent Scholar" as a defeat, though. Not everyone can or wants to work in academia, and the rarefied atmosphere can quickly become suffocating if you find that you don't meet others' expectations of what you should be researching -- or the conclusions you draw from your research.

So, "independent" means exactly that. Free to follow your own interests, research the sources you want to delve into, and ask questions -- and even question the ivory tower, too. Perhaps it's not a way to win friends in academia, but academia does not own scholarship. At least, it shouldn't.

Amanda Haste: I teach several courses at a university as a vacataire (equivalent to adjunct faculty) but as they're not really connected to my research, and as I have no job security and no funding for my research I still choose to describe myself as an independent scholar. And I'm proud of it! As you say, it represents freedom. ☺