Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Cheryl L. Bruno

Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Cheryl L. Bruno November 11, 2015

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

I graduated from a small liberal arts college with a B.S. in Physical Recreation and Recreation, while working as a swim coach. Upon graduation, I served an LDS mission. When I returned, I enrolled in a Master’s program at BYU in Educational Psychology. I married a few months after beginning the program, and in less than a year delivered the first of my eight children. I was happy to discontinue my studies in response to Ezra Taft Benson’s 1987 speech, “To the Mothers in Zion,” which proclaimed that “contrary to conventional wisdom, a mother’s calling is in the home, not in the market place.” Oh, and yes…that changed over time.

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

After serving for many years as a Seminary teacher, I became interested in the broader world of Biblical scholarship and theology. I briefly considered entering a graduate program as my children began to leave the home. However, money was tight for our family, which had survived for many years on one income (my husband’s). Besides, I couldn’t find just the right program for my needs and interests anywhere nearby.

I reached the point in my Biblical scholarship that I needed to know Hebrew. I bought myself some introductory books and tried to pick it up on my own. Not feeling satisfied with any Old Testament translations into English, I began a “literary translation” of Isaiah, with the most rudimentary of Hebrew language skills. I am satisfied that it is at the same time a brilliant opus and a ridiculous failure. I loved the time I spent working on it, and I still return to it from time to time.

To fill some intellectual and social needs, I began to blog.

Through blogging, I met some great mentors, and my interests began to coalesce around the subject of Mormon history. I’ve written a few published articles, and I’m now co-authoring a book on Mormonism and Freemasonry.

3) What are some lessons learned along the way?

I had to learn to believe in myself. When I started presenting at Mormon conferences, I didn’t know how to introduce myself, since I had virtually no qualifications for being there. When I began submitting papers for publication in professional, peer-reviewed journals, I asked myself, “What am I doing? They’ll look at my curriculum vitae and won’t even bother to read this!” But I kept trying to improve, and educating myself, and now I’m a lot more confident. I’ve started to publish, and I’m getting more confident about putting my research out there.

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

As an independent scholar, I don’t make any money. I have a job as a manager with an Aquatics company. I’d love to just fixate on researching and writing, but I have to drag myself away to support myself financially. I guess it is a good thing, since I get out and interact with children, teens and adults in my job. I teach swim classes, train lifeguards, and get some physical activity that I might not if I was solely immersed in academia. But it’s hard to balance what I consider my vocation with other responsibilities. Others in my life have seen it as an overblown hobby, and can’t understand why so much of my time and resources are spent on researching a four-year-period in the 1800s, in an obscure Illinois township.

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

Independent scholarship gives you the freedom to produce as much or as little as you want. It’s less stressful. It’s the only way I could ever have entered the field. I don’t think we have to worry as much about having published in Sunstone, or FAIR, or what our early work looked like as those who are looking to be hired in academia. We are more free to let our proclivities develop naturally, and to publish in a wide variety of places.

However, there are many cons to doing Mormon studies this way. If you don’t have a specialized degree, you really have to work at educating yourself. Much of Mormon studies is substandard, and it’s essential to be able to recognize and produce quality work. Peer review is essential; and if you’re an independent scholar it might be difficult to find the guidance you need. It’s also challenging to strike a balance between your scholarship and where you are on the faith spectrum.

it may be difficult to access or afford certain sources if you are not connected to a trusted or respected professional organization. Many sources in Mormonism are restricted. It will be harder to pursue resources or travel where you need to go to track down your information.

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

Use the amazing world of the internet! I’ve participated in introductory religion courses through Yale University’s Open studies program online, I’ve listened to lectures by Bart Ehrmann, and familiarized myself with Andrei Orlov’s writings on the Enoch Pseudepigrapha to give me needed background for an article I wrote on Joseph Smith’s Enoch writings—just to name a few! The internet can take you a long way and give you direction for further readings in your field of interest.

Collaborate with your fellow scholars, especially those whose interests parallel yours. I’ve found Mormon studies scholars to be so helpful, interested, friendly. When asked, they’ve been willing to review, share and assist me in my work. I try to reciprocate, when I can. I’ve been lucky to have great experiences with this. Sure, people have used things I’ve found first, but I try to overcome my feeling of “ownership,” because it’s gone the other way just as many times.

I’d also suggest to start broad, but to keep in mind a goal of narrowing your interest as you go. To be a really successful independent scholar, you need to be an expert in a small area of study.

Finally, read, read, read!!

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

Mormon studies would not exist as it does without the independent scholar. There are far too few professional positions available in the field. Many who do this work do it for the love of research and study, or to bolster the faith, or out of plain curiosity. I’ve seen some beginning scholars attending and presenting at Mormon conferences while still in high school, and seasoned folks entering the field at retirement age. I think independent scholars will continue to be important in the world of Mormon studies.

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