Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Kevin Barney

Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Kevin Barney November 6, 2015

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

When I went to BYU as a freshman in 1976, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I just took general ed classes. At the end of that year I still didn’t have a clue (although I recall some thought about psychology, as is common among college freshmen). It was on my mission to Colorado from 1977 to 1979 that I began to gain some tentative interest in scholarship. This was, I think, based on a combination of factors. All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t actually know anything about the Church, because I couldn’t answer people’s questions about it. So I now had a genuine motivation to want to learn, and I began to read a lot. As part of that I was exposed for the first time to Hugh Nibley, who “blew my mind,” a common experience among young people upon first exposure to him. There was a culture in my mission of collecting, trading and listening to tapes (GA talks, lectures, etc.), but for some reason I didn’t go that route but began to collect and read actual books. (Maybe that was because my father was a professor of education and I grew up with books everywhere in the house.) By the end of my mission I had an entire trunk of books I would schlep on transfers. My book acquisitions became increasingly scholarly in nature, and I could see the importance of knowing the biblical languages in order to study the Bible closely, so I began some tentative steps in trying to teach myself about those languages, using such tools as I had at my disposal (a Strong’s Concordance, a Berlitz Hebrew reader, and a Jehovah’s Witness NT interlinear).

When I came home from my mission, I had a vague idea of wanting to study history. I got a job to earn money to go back to school moving an auto meter factory from Elgin to Sycamore, Illinois, 10 hour days, six days a week, back breaking work for minimum wage. It was a recessionary time, and I remember thinking I don’t want to end up doing THAT for the rest of my life. One of the business owners, a member of the Church and a mentor, was a big advocate of studying economics, so when I returned to BYU it was with the idea of majoring in economics and then going to law school (my father was a frustrated lawyer, so that was an influence as well). So my first semester back I’m taking econ, math and accounting classes.

Back then you had to do an “extra major skill,” which was usually a language or statistics or something like that, and I thought maybe this was my chance to take an actual Greek class. But my dad talked me out of that, encouraging me to take Latin instead, as it would be more useful and I could add Greek later were I still interested. So that is what I did. I signed up for the accelerated Latin class spring term of 1980. Now my entire language study to this point had consisted of one semester of high school Spanish, and the class was filled with RMs fluent is romance languages. And the professor kept talking about ablative this and accusative that and I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. I was in trouble. But I rolled up my sleeves and went to work, and I ended up getting one of the best grades in the class.

It is traditional after the basic grammar class to read Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, and that is what I did summer term. And that is when I fell in love. I wasn’t reading about Caesar; I was reading his own words. And I thought it was so cool to do so in my Oxford Classical Text edition, with not a lick of English in it. So during that term I decided to change my major from econ to classics. Fall semester I took second year Latin, beginning classical Greek, Biblical Hebrew, classical civ and other classes. I loved all of it. And for about a year I planned to go on for a Ph.D. in classical philology and become a professor (like my dad). I basically wanted to become Eric Huntsman or Trevor Luke. That next year, however, we got pregnant, and I had to reevaluate that plan. It was still a horrible recession, and I quickly realized if I went down that road I would end up driving a cab for a living. So I switched up again; I kept with classics for my undergrad program, but then went to law school (at the University of Illinois) so I might have a shot at getting an actual, you know, job.

So I ended up on a path to becoming a professional and making a pretty good living, but also having that classical education burning a hole in my back pocket. So that was the frame for what would come, and to be honest I couldn’t have planned it any better even if I had actually known what I was doing.

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

Like Julie, it wasn’t really a conscious decision, but just something I sort of fell into. As an undergrad I had published a couple of articles in Century 2, the BYU student journal, which was a good experience and taught me about how to work with an editor. Then I published an article I had written while in law school, “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible” in Dialogue, which was my first real scholarly publication. But for a period of some years after that I didn’t do anything else, and one night while I was just watching TV my wife kind of kicked me in the butt and told me I needed to write something. The Ensign had just come out with its annual writing contest on the Old Testament (the next year’s curriculum), so I decided to take a crack at it. (Hard to believe, I know, but the Ensign actually used to sponsor writing contests.) So I wrote a descriptive piece about Hebrew poetry and ended up winning first place, which came with a $500 prize and publication in the magazine. (My article is in the June 1990 issue.) And that success kind of spurred me to keep going. I’d have to stop and count, but I think I’ve published something like 30 articles, mostly on scriptural topics (as a scholar I’m primarily a scripturist). (And with every acceptance my wife’s little joke was to ask where the check was; unlike the Ensign most scholarly Mormon venues don’t actually pay for contributions.)

3) What are some lessons learned along the way?

One lesson I learned was how political things can get. When I published my JST article in Dialogue, I got exactly zero feedback on it. This didn’t surprise me, as I was describing a position that was common among my professors at BYU (outside of Religious Education), and I figured I was just preaching to the choir. But when I signed off on Signature publishing an edited version in The Word of God, it hit the fan, and all of a sudden I was some stripe of an apostate. Seeing how quickly things could turn was a sobering experience.

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

Being a lawyer for me at least has actually been a pretty good platform for this kind of thing. Although there are times when things are crazy at work, more often there are moments of dead time during the day (at least in my practice area, public finance), which I can use to pursue my interests. My wife has her own interests and always encourages me to pursue mine, so I have never had any sort of familial push back.

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

The biggest pro is I can publish what I want where I want and not care what anyone else thinks about it. I can publish in Dialogue (and have, four times) and not worry about how that is going to torpedo my BYU career, and I can also pursue whatever research I want without worrying about some tenure committee. In that sense it’s very liberating.

Perhaps the biggest con is not having the same handle on the literature and methodologies as someone who actually went on to earn a doctorate. I’m well read, but in the end I’m still an amateur.

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

There are limits to what you can do online; you need to find a good research library close enough for you to be able to use. If I’m working on an article I typically go to the Garrett Theological Seminary library at Northwestern University. That’s a sacrifice for me; it’s a one-hour drive one way. But for me at least a library like that is a necessity.

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

Like Julie, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I see definite movement to greater professionalization, especially in history. Mormon history is moving away from being a provincial topic to one that is studied using the tools and methodologies of the academy more generally, and I think over time it will be harder for independent scholars to keep up in that kind of an environment.

On the other hand, independent scholars have a great advantage over BYU Religious Education due to their unshackled freedom. Someone like me can publish an article exploring the Documentary Hypothesis in Mormon thought, or how Asherah scholarship might relate to the Mormon concept of a Mother in Heaven (two actual Dialogue articles that I did indeed write). A BYU professor might be sanctioned or even fired for broaching such subjects or publishing in such a venue, which results in them being limited to “safe” topics only. As long as BYU remains skittish about what they’ll let their professors do, there will remain a space for independent scholars to push the envelope.

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