There are few people in the academic world as resilient and resourceful as the independent scholar. I say this not because I am one (though I am), but because I have had the pleasure of working with a group of independent scholars over the last two years who were willing to be vulnerable and, in being vulnerable, opened my eyes to exactly what it means to work outside traditional academia. Each independent scholar I encountered shared a deeply personal story that both resonated with me (“I suffer from impostor syndrome too!”, “Yes! Information access is such an issue!”) and broadened my understanding of the experiences of others (I had no way of knowing what it is like, for example, to be a Black and/or disabled scholar.) I woke up every day happy to check my email or open the latest chapter I was sent and learn more about what it was that brought us all together and yet also made us all stand apart as unique scholars. This year, for Thanksgiving, I want to express my gratitude to every single person involved, because the reason I am so sure our work together will touch others is because of how much it touched me.
The project that caused this collaboration was Independent Scholars Meet the World: Expanding Academia beyond the Academy. It’s a collection of deeply personal essays that I co-edited with Elizabeth Keohane-Burbridge (one of my best friends and the founder of our podcast, Footnoting History) for the University Press of Kansas series Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia, spearheaded by Joe Fruscione and Erin Bartram and shepherded by Joyce Harrison. The origin story for it is very 2010s: in 2018, I was scrolling through Twitter instead of doing work and saw the call for proposals tweeted by Joe. Up until this point, my relationship with him consisted mostly of gif exchanges and good-natured mocking baseball banter (he is a Nationals fan and I am a Mets fan.) The words “independent scholar” in the list of suggested topics hit me so hard that I immediately text Elizabeth and told her that I was certain this was something we should do.
A few months later we had a proposal together with contributions lined up from a variety of scholars, only one of which I knew prior to this project’s start. Our writers came to us from a mix of personal relationships, answers to our call for papers, and positive responses to our solicitation emails. Along the way (as detailed in the book itself) we had some leave and some come in. Our foreword, amusingly, is by Ben Raphael Sher, who initially turned down our request that he write for us.
In Independent Scholars Meet the World, we argue (I believe convincingly) that the qualifier of “independent” is unnecessary, because independent scholars are not the Other, they are not less-than, they are scholars of the same caliber as their counterparts who teach in the traditional higher education classroom. The difference is only that they lack a college or university affiliation. Independent scholars are researchers and teachers too, they just apply their scholarship to different audiences and in a wide variety of ways, and I am in awe of every one whose story I have had the privilege to read.
Danielle Slaughter and Vay Cao created their own vibrant platforms (Mamademics and Free the PhD, respectively) to help others. Alison Innes and Katherine Anderson Howell reinvented themselves, moving from working within the traditional structure to using their skills in less-expected ways like social media management and fandom studies. Joshua Hevert discovered the good you can do teaching dual-credit high school. Valerie Schutte publishes traditional scholarship while doing the majority of her work from inside her house. Allyson Schettino rediscovered her love of history by entering museum education. Laura Macaluso works hands-on with public spaces and monuments, while Dayanna Knight makes historically-accurate coloring books.
Beginning Independent Scholars Meet the World, I knew only the story of Footnoting History - how we turned our traditional academic training into a way to communicate the importance of history to a public audience. Completing Independent Scholars Meet the World, I know so much more. I now know that scholars are everywhere, even if they aren’t waving a banner declaring their expertise. I have learned to make sure I look beyond what I think someone is doing to see what is actually going on underneath. I make sure to offer my own resources when someone else appears to be in need of something that they cannot access. I no longer doubt myself as much as I used to, because there is a wide-ranging, vibrant community of people out there who, like me, want to engage with their fields but not in the way that was expected of them when they entered grad school. I cannot adequately express how moved I am by the dedication these scholars have shown to their work regardless of what life has thrown at them and how inspired I am by their willingness to share their stories. What you see as a scholar’s output is nothing more than the tip of their personal iceberg. Independent Scholars Meet the World does more than just share stories of jobs some might consider out-of-the-box. It lifts the curtain and shows you the human spirit behind it, and how much heart it takes to succeed and thrive when others tell you that you have “left” academia. I look forward to seeing what else comes from these wonderful humans.
So, to all the independent scholars I have had the privilege to work with I say thank you, because as much as I hope sharing your stories will have a positive impact on others, I already know that it has had a positive impact on me.
And as for all the independent scholars I do not yet know, I cannot wait to meet you.
Independent Scholars Meet the World (University Press of Kansas, 2020) can be purchased here. Use code MYBOOK for 30% off and free US Domestic shipping through December 16, 2020.