Independent Scholars

The late Maurice Casey described himself as an “independent historian,” but for the most part, that term “independent scholar” has been used for people who dabble in scholarly inquiry, having advanced studies in the area, but who are not employed at a university or similar institution of higher education.

I have at times offered cautionary remarks about voices outside the academy. There are two reasons for this. One is that those of us who devote ourselves to academic research as part of our full time employment find it hard to keep up with the enormous body of literature on various subjects, and so it is likely to be even more difficult for someone who does not have that time set aside as part of their job. Another is that, just as one should not simply accept a view offered by a professional scholar, how much more so should one not simply accept something that is asserted by someone who may have even less expertise?

But having made such cautionary remarks, I want to emphasize that independent scholars can still play a crucial positive role in our endeavors of scholarly inquiry.

Full-time faculty often have constraints on what we can investigate. Not everyone will have the freedom to stop working on topics that will make book sales likely, and work on texts that deserve attention but which might not lead to a book contract.

The Ascension of Isaiah is a good example. I discussed it in my recent article for The Bible and Interpretation. That text has received slight attention on occasion, and so there hasn't even been enough direct concerted and detailed attention by a large enough number of scholars for it to be possible to speak about a consensus on matters of date, sources, and redaction.

But one of the many people who has earned a PhD or even a masters degree, but for whatever reason has not gone into full-time academic work, might nonetheless have the interest and the necessary skills to work on a subject such as this over a period of years, even decades, and to offer their results to the scholarly community.

As with any scholarly work, there will still be a need for other scholars to evaluate and interact with such work.

But in our day and age, in which knowledge is democratized to such a ridiculous extent, surely there is room for the kinds of figures which, if we look back historically, we will find have contributed to our knowledge all along. E. S. Drower wasn't a scholar of Mandaean studies – she got to know Mandaeans while living in Iraq, and put in the time and effort to learn. Some of what she did is open to criticism by linguists today. But what she accomplished is nonetheless remarkable and continues to be important.

I know that when it comes to the Secret Gospel of Mark, there have likewise been people outside of the usual areas of scholarly focus who have contributed to the discussion.

Should we expect more of this? Should we encourage it? And if so, how? And what questions, texts, or topics currently neglected in the mainstream academy might they usefully focus on?

 

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  • Jack Collins

    Well, given that the full-time, tenure-track position is rapidly becoming the exception rather than the rule, I think our choices are either to accept independent scholars (who are able to live up to professional standards), or consign ourselves to a very limited number of perspectives. It would be wise for professional organizations to take non- or semi-professional into account when setting dues, conference registrations, travel grants, etc., and if somebody could come up with an affordable way to give individuals access to various online journals, I would be ecstatic. (I end up registering for courses at a local state college just to maintain access to their library.)

    And perhaps we need to have a term to distinguish independent scholars who actually have higher degrees in the subject but have not found a permanent affiliation. I like the term “scholar errant.” Or maybe “academic ronin.”

    • Marcus

      I would love for there to be a way to have access to academic journals at a reasonable cost. I don’t have an advanced degree and don’t consider myself a scholar, but more of a lifelong student and a user of scholarship for the purposes of theology. Journal access would also be helpful for people like me.

      • Jack Collins

        Depending on your locale, some universities will honor area public library cards for use of resources on site, and your local public library can get a lot of stuff through inter-library loan. But these things require putting on pants and schlepping to the physical library. Sometimes I just bug my friends with academic jobs to download stuff for me. What it comes down to is that non-professionals can access most of the same materials, just not nearly as efficiently. So we end up double-handicapped, both by having less time to research, and requiring more time to do the research we can do. My solution for a while was to have a non-academic job at a university, but library access couldn’t make up for the poor pay and conditions.

        • Marcus

          That’s a good point. I do have a spouse who is a professor at a very small university so I get most of the books I need through here on inter-library loan. Her journal access is limited.

          I’ve never been denied access when I’ve gone to a university library (living in the Chicago area means there are some really good ones for biblical and theeological studies), but that is a lot less efficient as you note. I’d pay annually to have journal access from my home.

    • Tim

      Or how about, “Freelance Scholar”?

  • Timothy Bagley

    James, the cordiality of your post speaks well to the openness that your post explores. While I could never hope to re-enter the academic guild (my age and circumstances prevent it), I have never stopped in my desire to learn and study at the level I did many years ago. The well-known ‘ancora imparo’ often inspires me. Thank you for this post.

  • Dr Denis O’Callaghan Ph.D.

    There are an abundance of worthy works on line especially if you are able to read past basic English.

  • TomS

    How open are academic publishers to contributions from “independent scholars”?

    • Not very, although they are not completely unwilling to consider a proposal either. But I think that most independent scholars don’t need to publish in traditional venues for any purpose other than perhaps indicating their seriousness through the peer review process. But for the most part, just as independent scholars are not following the traditional path of academia, they would not need to publish in the same traditional ways. They are free to create a website and do their own translation of a text that scholars haven’t found the time to translate (for instance), and then it will be a matter of scholars being made aware of this, assessing what has been done, and hopefully indicating through their own online and print publications their appreciation for that work, not least through the very act of citing and using it.

      • Bethany

        But then how likely are academic scholars to read it? At least in the theory part of the idea of peer review is to separate the wheat from the chaff… in theory. 🙂

        • That is true. And so an important question is whether scholarly evaluation of online materials in a less formal process can serve the same effect.

          • TomS

            I wish you had said that the mailing address of a submitted paper makes no difference in the review process.
            What are the chances for some serious unaffiliated researcher to convince an academic institution to let him/her to use them as a mailing address? Would it be frowned upon for some non-academic employee – for example, a secretary in the Religious Studies Department – to use that as mailing address in submitting a paper to a journal? How about doing that with the knowledge of the chair? Would that chair get in trouble with the dean, or the editor?