Thoughts on The Plight of the Independent Scholar

Thoughts on The Plight of the Independent Scholar August 29, 2017

Even if you’re active in publishing and presenting your research, being an independent scholar can function like a stigma at conferences.

A selfie from Berkeley, where I did have some institutional support to attend one conference.
A selfie from Berkeley, where I did have some institutional support to attend one conference.

This Inside Higher Ed post, The Plight of the Independent Scholar, resonated deeply with me even though I’ve been able to hang on to an institutional affiliation in the five years since finishing my PhD. It points toward the types of systemic problems in academia that have fascinated and impacted me as an alt-ac/adjunct laborer.

In it, Rebecca Bodenheimer observes:

When you meet someone at a conference, invariably the first thing that person does is look at your name badge to assess the institution with which you are affiliated. For many academics, that tells them how much time they should spend on learning about you. If you’re at an important institution, maybe you’re worth their time, maybe the networking will be advantageous. But if you’re at a no-name or regional institution or, even worse, an independent scholar, you can’t do anything for them, so you’re disposable. And often they’ll jump at the first chance to start talking to someone else.

I noticed that she’s an ethnomusicologist, which is a related discipline to my own field of folklore studies, and so I imagine that like us, they have viable forms of being employed outside the university. However, her points about prestige still stand: unless your name is already very well known, it’s hard to measure the impact of the “Independent Scholar” label on people’s perceptions of you.

She also points out that attending conferences as an independent scholar can be very isolating; people from cohorts at universities tend to run together in posses, and often there’s funding and other networking opportunities to be had when you’re affiliated. As an adjunct, I’ve had to navigate similar issues. I self-fund most of the conferences I attend (which is another reason why it’s overly ambitious for me to take on 6 conferences this year!), but I am fortunate to mostly attend conferences where I’ve already built up a decent network of colleagues and friends.

I could continue to compare and contrast Bodenheimer’s experiences as an independent scholar with mine as an adjunct, but you get the idea: certain people are marginalized within academic systems due to hierarchies, both institutional and social. Bodenheimer has some useful suggestions at the end of her post for how privileged insiders can help make room for the rest of us, which, granted, assumes that they have an incentive to even notice the problem in the first place.

This? This is a big part of why I’m involved with Conditionally Accepted: because I can’t not notice academics on the margins, being one myself. For all that conferences are my happy place, I know that’s not the case for everyone, and some of those reasons have to do with power dynamics. Our academic communities thrive when they are diverse, and that’s why we should strive to make conferences accessible to independent scholars, adjuncts, alt-ac folks, and others who are marginalized.

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