Life as an Independent Scholar: Challenges and Rewards

At the recent meeting of the American Society of Church History, in Minneapolis, I presented a paper and chaired a session. My husband and I went on two excellent church tours, one within the Twin Cities, the other to St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. And as usual I attended the Women in Theology and Church History breakfast, always a great occasion for sharing and support.

One other aspect of the meeting stands out: I had conversations with two independent scholars. It’s a term you may never have heard; it seemed strange to me, and it took me a while to be comfortable using it to identify myself. What are independent scholars? According to one definition, they are people who “are actively carrying out work of scholarly merit,” but their research is not supported by an institution. Many of us write articles, present papers at scholar meetings, and write books just like our counterparts in academia, but we do it on our own. No, that’s not quite right. We do it with the help of grants and short-term contracts for which we apply or while working full or part time at some other occupation. When we are fortunate, we do it with the support of family and friends and with the encouragement of other scholars, both independent and employed in their academic fields.

The economic challenges are obvious, but there are others. Among them are gaining access to library and restricted online resources; getting our work taken seriously when we have no institutional identity; and simply keeping motivated to work when no institution is prodding us by the requirements it places on us.

As I pondered this, I remembered something I presented years ago in my presidential address to the Canadian Society of Church History. It is titled “Adjusting the Sails: Reflections of an Independent Scholar.” In it I tell of my journey, one that certainly did not follow the path I intended. I had to adjust my sails not once but many times. And yet my life course has been satisfying, even more so now than when I wrote the address.

I invite you to read what I wrote. My own story begins at the bottom of page 168 (the second page of this document) and continues to page 171. Then for a while I reflect on my journey before I make some suggestions to my colleagues.

Whiteley CSCH address

And I invite you to think about the course of your own life. Are you still on the path that you anticipated? Or have you, too, needed to adjust the sails? I’d like to hear from you about it.