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  • Acceptable Exclusions and Promiscuous Creativity:The Life of an Independent Scholar
  • Cynthia R. Greenlee (bio)

The independent scholar is the Great Illegible. She is less visible and more incorporeal than even the adjuncts whose labor feeds and supports higher education. One of the academy's many ironies is that intellectuals capable of rigorous inquiry cannot fathom what independent scholars do. I regularly hear such statements from conventionally employed scholars.

Those ostensibly befuddled statements originate from various and sometimes overlapping concerns. Some derive from a particular brand of academic arrogance. Other questioners are comfortable with established institutions and have real questions about how to career-build outside those institutions, which cannot adequately amplify options that they undervalue (and that few of their scholars have even tried). So, even in the wake of pragmatic queries about how one might earn one's daily bread outside the academy, too many scholars display a stunning lack of curiosity about other ways of professional being. Even the academy's "alt-ac" label makes clear that the tenure track is the normal (read: normative) trajectory for those with enough resources, support, and fortitude to complete a doctorate.

I am an intentionally independent historian and journalist. Emphasis on the "intentionally." The adverb matters, for the assumption is that most, if not all, independent scholars emerged from the job market bloodied and empty-handed. This belief is the natural byproduct of the scarcity of desirable higher-education teaching posts. It also stems from the university-based intellectual's incredulity that anyone would endure the travails of PhD studies only to shirk the search for that elusive job, with its supposedly carefree summers and relative freedom from the daily drudgery of the US worker.

I am one of the people who ran through the doctoral-studies gauntlet and kept moving—toward other things. Discussions of independent scholarhood almost inevitably begin by assuming that nonaffiliated thinkers are subpar or unfortunate casualties of the job market. For me, being a historian and journalist outside the boundaries of the formal profession was a deliberate choice, even if it may not necessarily be a permanent one. I recognized the things specific to the academy that I did not want, those things I wanted to be independent of: heavy teaching loads; moving to out-of-the-way places where my family and social life would suffer; the high possibility of being [End Page 139] the only Black woman in a department; and the publish-or-perish culture where writing became less about pleasure and craft.

Yet the decision-making process was not merely a negative exercise informed by what I did not want. I balk at framing the independent scholar's liminal status as a "plight," although this status comes with structural and academy-imposed professional liabilities—namely, lack of access to institutional funds like subventions and lack of eligibility for fellowships and grants from non-university funders who require affiliation.

These are understood as acceptable exclusions, so acceptable that the few organizations that give coveted postdoctoral fellowships or even small conference travel grants do not seem to consider what they are doing when they require applicants to have an institutional affiliation. It is one thing if, for instance, a journal editorship must come with department or university resources to do its work. But it is quite another to bar independent scholars from eligibility from much-needed research funds to conduct their work. Those without tenure-track positions, research budgets, and institutional membership can struggle to do the work and publish it, preferably in monograph form, because we must self-fund. Not producing work with scholarly regularity or in the "right" venues lends further fire to the idea that independent scholars do not produce quality work that merits even the chance to compete for funding.

That major obstacle aside, my opting out of the academy after a postdoctoral fellowship ("before you even get started," lamented a mentor) was a decision grounded in positives.

Buoyed by exemplary work of such Black feminist theorists as Toni Cade Bambara (who sometimes taught as an adjunct but remained largely out of the academy) and Audre Lorde (who served as a poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College), I understood...


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pp. 139-145
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