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Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Ardis Parshall

Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Ardis Parshall November 9, 2015

1) Tell us about your background, education, and career goals when you were just starting out? Did they change over time?

I don’t have any formal education or training for what I do, which is Mormon history. No one knows better than I do what a handicap that is, or how much I regret my lack of opportunity, but being self-taught is not anything to be ashamed of, either. I have a knack for history, for analysis of documents and evaluation of historical claims, and for ferreting out where people of the past may have gone and what they did when they got there. I wish I could fill in the gaps in my education, but I do what I can do and that has to be enough.

I was late – about 40 – coming to scholarship. Before that I worked primarily as a legal secretary, hating every UCC form and every motion in limine I typed. But that paid 10c an hour more than other secretarial work, and it was all I knew to do, so I spent 20 years doing it.

For much of that time I also spent evenings and weekends researching and writing family history. That isn’t the same as “real” history, but it was good experience. To this day I credit my skills as a genealogist for allowing me to find records that traditionally trained scholars have not found – I think differently, and I’m capable of doing the massive work of hunting through mountains of records to find that single wanted fact, whether that is Grandma’s wedding date or the name of the courier Brigham Young trusted to carry a message across the Plains.

2) How did you decide to become an independent scholar?

My aunt, Evelyn Taylor, was working as a Church service missionary, the second missionary brought in to establish what became the Church’s jewel of pioneer history, the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database. She discovered someone who had traveled with our convert ancestor, someone we knew little about, and who recorded some terrific Taylor family history in his diary. Evelyn asked me to come to the Church Archives, a place I had not previously known existed, to type the diary for our family records. I went in, took one look around, and decided that was where I wanted to live. I never left.

At that date, in the 1990s, the Church did not allow much photocopying, and the only way to get material out of the Archives was to transcribe it. I don’t think they ever envisioned anyone walking out of their with as much material as I picked up through transcription – in fact, I’m pretty sure some of the rules they imposed on me (telling them who I was working for, what those people’s topics were, and exactly what documents I sold to them) were rules made up solely for me. But I cooperated (I also told my clients what I had to tell the Archives about their work), and left every day with more loot – er, historical material – than many of us dream even exists.

Finding clients was the trick, but when word spread that I could transcribe as fast as I did, my client base increased until I had just about all the work I could handle.

At first I was working solely for other people. I couldn’t help, though, wanting to do my own scholarly work with the gems I was finding. My best work, my most significant discoveries, even my best analysis had to be sold to others and has been published under others’ names. They paid me, and I needed their payments, but I am sometimes more than a little sad that my name will never be connected with much of the work I did.

3) What are some lessons learned along the way?

I’ve learned what I like best and what I do best, which is translating the dry, cryptic records of the past into stories about people and events that other people – readers of my blog, Keepapitchinin, and readers of the Salt Lake Tribune column I used to write – could care about. I feel an obligation to the people of the past to represent them in the 21st century, because they can no longer speak for themselves. I feel a joy in introducing people of the 21st century to our co-religionists of the past. I’ve found a role, something I’m good at, something that has meaning.

I’ve learned what it’s like to cooperate and collaborate with people, something I suppose most people learn much earlier than I did, but which has been a great benefit to me. I’ve learned how much I enjoy public speaking. I’ve learned that there is a hunger out there among Latter-day Saints for the kinds of stories I uncover and tell – I’ve never known anything like the thirst for seeing themselves in the history of the Church as I have discovered since announcing my book, She Shall Be an Ensign, a history of the Church using as much as possible an all-woman cast of characters.

I can’t say I ever learned to be a businesswoman, or to look after my own needs as well as I should. It’s too much fun sharing my finds with other scholars who can fit those finds into their own projects. I love the camaraderie, something I get too little of these days as I work from home writing. I am also finishing editing an important find, documents that Heber J. Grant and Reed Smoot and James Talmage hunted for in vain in their day … I have them, and I’ll publish them soon, and I’ve learned enough not to tell you today what those papers are. Take that, FPR!

4) How do you balance your work as an independent scholar with your other responsibilities in life?

I don’t really have any other responsibilities in life. My independent scholarship is my life. I work at it every day, usually all day and into the night. My entire social life is wrapped up in my work. That isn’t balance, and it isn’t entirely healthy, and sometimes I wish I were not so narrowly focused. But I have no idea how, or even real desire to, change that. I’ll die with my hands on the keyboard and a stack of documents on my typing stand.

5) What do you see as the biggest pros and cons to independent scholarship?

Because I’ve earned my living for the past 20 years through my independent work, without a day job to fall back on for most of that time, the biggest con is the constant need to scrounge for paying employment at any rate and of any kind related to history. My clerical skills – I can read most 19th century handwriting as easily as you read print, and I type 150+ words per minute – have been as responsible as my historical chops for earning a living in history. The living is marginal, and I absolutely couldn’t do it if I had dependents.

Absolutely the worst con is being cheated by so-called scholars you trusted once but no more, either because they didn’t pay their bills or because they published your work, shown to them confidentially, as their own. Both kinds of theft have happened to me more than once, until I was forced to protect myself by limiting my trust. Changing who you are at heart is a definite con.

The pros? Too many to list. First is doing something I love. Not only do I have a religious interest in the work I do, but I am fascinated by the detective work involved. There is always the possibility that the next page I turn will contain that one bit of writing that scholars have searched for over decades. There is nothing like the adrenaline rush of looking at something and realizing not only what it means, but that you are the first one to recognize its importance. My resolution of the 1857 Tobin-Peltro ambush ( “Pursue, Retake & Punish,” 2005 [link is a .pdf download]) fell together in literally 15 seconds or less. I saw three words – “those from prison” – in a totally innocuous letter, connected the phrase with another letter I held in memory, and as fast as I could verify the date of the ambush I realized I held its solution. It took me another year to flesh out the events and write the story, but the thrill of that 15 seconds was so intense that I lived on it until the project was finished.

Then, of course, there are the friendships formed with smart and funny and generous people. And there is communion with and the constant companionship of marvelous people of the past. You get into their minds and hearts, and they get into your soul, and there is no separating yourself from them again. These I count as some of the pros of scholarship. Maybe others – what’s the opposite? dependent scholars? – have the same highs, but they have to divide their time with faculty meetings and midterm grading and other distractions I don’t have to deal with.

6) What advice would you give to undergraduates or masters students considering independent scholarship?

Establish yourself in some sort of paying day job adequate to your needs, and that allows you to support a family. Then and only then start your independent work.

Find a niche that interests you and for which you have access to the necessary scholarly materials. You can’t really compete with academics who have easier access to those materials in some topics, so find a niche where you can become the authority, perhaps because you have access to local materials, or where a mission language can be an asset, or where you have the edge in some other way. For me that was my clerical skill, as well as my residence in Salt Lake City. For you it will have to be something specific to your skills or location or access.

7) What do you think the role of the independent scholar will be in the future of Mormon Studies?

From the history side of Mormon Studies, there must – and will – always be a significant place for the independent scholar, whether that scholar comes out of the academy or comes from grass roots Mormonism.

Independent scholars often have a passion for history that leads us to work long hours at tasks that academic historians can neither afford to do themselves nor turn over to student assistants. We read anything and everything. I’ve traveled to courthouses and rooted around under rotten hay in old barns and sweet-talked elderly caretakers of their families’ heirlooms to gain access to materials that are unknown to librarians and archivists. Academic historians of course can and do conduct some of the same researches – but it’s hard to beat a passionate, even fanatical independent whose hobby and religious identity and nose for discovery are all tied up in the practice of history.

The emphasis at the moment is on the “professionalization” of Mormon history, meaning those credentialed by and working full time within the academy insist that their interests, their preferences and fads and concerns, take priority over all other practices of history. We see that in the drive to make the Mormon History Association and its Journal of Mormon History the particular domain of academic historians, marginalizing laymen and non-academic but capable and experienced independent scholars.

That “professionalization” cannot go on indefinitely, not only because ordinary, non-academic Mormons have as great an interest and as large a stake in our history as any academic historian, but also because academic historians must somehow be reminded of the professional ethics of their own organization, the American Historical Association. Their Statement on Standards insists that everyone, even independent scholars, have a role in making good history, and that our worthy contributions are a strength and not a weakness to the historical community.

We all interpret and narrate the past, which is to say that we all participate in making history. It is among our most fundamental tools for understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Professional historians benefit enormously from this shared human fascination for the past. Few fields are more accessible or engaging to members of the public. Individuals from all backgrounds have a stake in how the past is interpreted, for it cuts to the very heart of their identities and world views. This is why history can evoke such passion and controversy in the public realm. All manner of people can and do produce good history. Professional historians are wise to remember that they will never have a monopoly on their own discipline, and that this is much more a strength than a weakness. American Historical Association, Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct (updated 2011)

We independent scholars will always be a significant part of Mormon Studies. You couldn’t get rid of us if you tried.

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