I’ll start from here: There is no such thing as an “independent scholar.” Every work of scholarly output is the product of many collaborations between scholars, librarians, archivists, colleagues, editors, and IT professionals. For proof, you need only peruse the footnotes of a peer-reviewed article or the acknowledgments section of an academic monograph.
But with the overproduction of Ph.D.s and the disappearance of secure academic jobs, the many doctoral graduates locked out of the professoriate must choose between two paths. One involves piecing together a series of underpaid adjunct jobs, hoping you can maintain that sought-after academic affiliation and stay “in the game.” The other option is to, ahem, go rogue.
This piece is not about how to make it as a “freelance academic.” Nor is it about the Titanic proportions of the academic job crisis, which remains frozen in an awkward melodrama between those who make it onto the lifeboats and those who must cling to a floating door in the middle of the Atlantic. What I want to talk about is how to maintain academic community between Ph.D.s employed within the university system and those who are not.
I’ve been on both sides of it: Faced with a pernicious two-body problem and my own sheepish dreams of becoming a full-time cultural critic, I left a tenure-track job in 2019. But I was committed to finishing my book about women writers of postwar television, for which I was already under contract with an academic publisher. To my great relief and satisfaction, the book came out in January 2022 from the University of California Press, the first volume in its Feminist Media Histories series.
Writing an academic book, not to mention publicizing one, is always hard, but doing so without the support, resources, and incentive structure of an academic institution has presented its own set of challenges. Credit where it’s due: I was lucky and got some help from faculty friends.
Academics talk a lot about service to the profession, and not enough about service to one another, and especially those who lack the privileges of the tenure track. To that end, here are five easy ways to start doing just that for an underemployed Ph.D. near you:
Use your university channels to boost a colleague’s work. It can be difficult for unaffiliated scholars to get the proper eyeballs on their work, so leverage your institutional channels on their behalf:
- Ask your university library to order their scholarly books.
- Include their work on assigned reading lists for your courses.
- Share the announcement of someone’s new book or journal article — or circulate a podcast interview with the author — via your departmental email list or on social media.
Those are tiny ways to promote scholarship that scholars without university employment simply cannot do themselves.
Spread the paywalled wealth. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed more and more Ph.D.s openly offering to share PDFs of their scholarship. And while the rise of networking sites like Academia.edu certainly have their drawbacks, it has been a boon to those of us who lack access to research easily available to faculty members. Help your unaffiliated friends get the resources they need, including copies of relevant essays and book chapters that you didn’t write yourself.
There are other ways to combat paywall culture: Publish your research in open-source journals (as I have done, hint hint) and encourage your professional organization to make some of its articles open source, as the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies has started to do. Lastly, consider if you want to apply for a subvention grant so your academic monograph can be free to all, including those without big research grants or a university affiliation.
Cite, review, and buy the work of independent scholars. Academe is addicted to credentials and lineages: Where do you work? What is your job title? Where did you study? Who was your adviser? Never did that truth hit me harder than when it came time to finalize my biography for the back of my book without a university affiliation to crow (or hide behind).
Resist this elitist streak in the profession by choosing to cite, review, and purchase the work of contingent and unaffiliated scholars. The more that faculty members spotlight the work of all scholars — whether or not their office is on a campus — the less institutional boundaries will matter.
It’s not about CV building. Some unaffiliated scholars work “alt-ac” or field-adjacent jobs, while others take up entirely different lines of work. Stepping off the professorial track means the CV you’ve been crafting for a decade has to be revamped, with large chunks of your work life tossed out altogether.
But what if you still want to produce scholarship? Academic rites of passage — chairing a conference panel, serving as a peer reviewer, going through rounds of edits to secure a refereed publication — go from a professional necessity to a personal calculation (Can I cover the travel expenses to attend? Can I afford to do unpaid academic work?). Even uttering the phrase “it’ll be good for your CV” to an independent scholar might earn you an eyeroll: Good how? For whom? And don’t you mean résumé?
So ask your independent-scholar friends if there are any academic perks that they want, need, or miss. It might be a paid speaking gig for your department, a low-commitment affiliation with the library or the humanities center on your campus, or an invitation to a Zoom working group that slots into their lunch hour.
Retire the term “independent scholar.” Some scholars are affiliated with a university, others are not, but none of us are independent. We are all colossally co-dependent — which I mean in the best possible way. We need one another to conceive of, execute, and ultimately share the work of intellectual inquiry. All those of us outside a university ask is that you introduce us — if not in writing, then at least in conversation — as who we are and what we do, not as what we aren’t and who doesn’t employ us. (I realize I’m not the first, not even at The Chronicle, to have this gripe.)
The truth is, I’m just a girl, standing in front of an academic community, admitting I don’t have a university email address. But I am also a writer, editor, and cultural historian, and I like to lead with that foot. When you’re scripting that introductory email or organizing a face-to-face meeting on behalf of your unaffiliated colleagues (which we truly appreciate), don’t forget to open with our expertise and accomplishments.
Bonus: If you’re already doing any — or all — of these things, thank you. Please keep doing them, and tell other professors to follow suit. Why not streamline the process and just forward this article to colleagues?
These steps are individual quick fixes, small but significant opportunities to support colleagues and to keep our disciplines broad and inclusive. This is crucial as small colleges struggle to make ends meet and flagship public universities are gutted by hostile state legislatures. Writing a single book review is not going to alter the state of the field or the job market, but modest, incremental change is still meaningful within the discipline — and, of course, to the unaffiliated scholar whose book you review.
The academy needs drastic, structural change, and that change may not be coming … not soon, anyway. And to put on my rusty teacher hat for a moment, I might ask: Who benefits when frustrated Ph.D.s direct all of this spite, defensiveness, and bitterness at one another, often on social media? As a scholar working without a university affiliation, I haven’t reaped any rewards from any of those bad feelings, and I suspect, dear reader, that you haven’t either.
Resentment and competition be damned. We codependent thinkers flourish when we consider the material and emotional dimensions of academic work and strive to play together in the increasingly wide and messy sandbox of scholarly endeavor.
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