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The Indie scene

The life of an independent scholar, without the safety net of a university, brings with it trepidation, financial challenges and, for some, exhilarating freedom. Meet four who’ve taken the ride


About 10 years ago, Yosef Wosk, director of interdisciplinary programs in the department of continuing studies at Simon Fraser University, launched a series of informal academic discussions in public venues known as the Philosophers’ Café.

“I was starting to meet the most incredible people,” he explains, “and they were not part of university faculty.”

The Café is still going strong (the model has spread across the country), but from some of those encounters came a new idea: the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars, or CAIS – an organization that promotes and supports scholars working outside the university environment.

CAIS has only recently launched a membership structure, but Dr. Wosk, its president, sees an immense pool of potential members in Canada. His best estimate of the number of independent scholars in the country is more of a range: “It’s definitely in the thousands. Maybe ten thousand would be low. It really depends on your definition of the scholar.”

For his part, Dr. Wosk defines them as people who are not based at an academic institution but who continue to take their work on a given topic “to a place of scholarship.” Membership in CAIS distinguishes between the “eternally curious” lifelong learner (who would not be accepted for membership) and the independent scholar who “takes it a degree further” by engaging in and often publishing “first-hand, original research.”

Mark Dwor, a lawyer by trade who has independently become an expert on the antediluvian Pillars of biblical lore, chairs the CAIS board of directors. The board votes on all membership applications following a subcommittee’s thorough candidate-vetting process. While they don’t need to hold a university degree, many members have advanced degrees or are retired faculty members. Others are simply self-taught scholars. Associations for independent scholars in the United States and Australia apply similar standards, an indication that CAIS is onto a phenomenon that is gaining credence worldwide.

The life stories of independent scholars are as diverse as their areas of interest. Dr. Wosk has met teachers, artists, pharmacists, laborers, taxi drivers and dock workers who produce scholarly work. What they generally share, he says, is “a love of learning, a curiosity about the world, and a desire to contribute.”

But why forge a life of scholarship outside academia, the place where it seems most logical, most personally beneficial? “To overly simplify it,” says Dr. Wosk, “you’ve got people who dream of being faculty, people who would never want to be faculty, and those who are in between.”

Here, then, are a four of their stories.

The Driven

Like many kids, Ronald I. Cohen was an avid collector. It started with stamps, but a year spent in England after his undergraduate years spawned a fascination with books by Winston Churchill. “I had an instinct about collecting,” he says, “and I collected thoroughly.”

Thorough hardly begins to describe the result: the world’s largest personal collection of Churchill’s writings, and the recent publication of a massive three-volume bibliography of those writings – the type of reference work that ends up in every university library in the world.

“I do believe that scholarly or academic work is part of my soul,” says Mr. Cohen. While he spent a few years teaching law at McGill University shortly after graduating, he went on to practise law, counsel the government on policy, and become a Genie Award-winning filmmaker. Today he serves as national chair of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and chair of the Canadian Academy of Cinema and Television. The Churchill research was done on spare time and, needless to say, took up a lot of it.

Like other book collectors, Mr. Cohen began to realize that no reference work existed to describe what he had gathered, its significance, and “how the pieces fit together.” The previous Churchill bibliographer seemed to have little interest in taking that work further, despite the mounds of additional material Mr. Cohen was unearthing.

“The more work I did,” he says, “the more I realized that [the existing bibliography] needed to be started anew, and that’s what I did,” producing a reference that the respected Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert has called the Mount Everest of Churchill bibliography.

Mr. Cohen travelled the world, often “piggy-backing” on other business, always finding more than he could have imagined existed. “You keep going doggedly,” he says, and eventually, you’ve got something that needs to be shared. “If [it’s] likely to be of help to people researching in the area, you’ve got to get it out.”

Over the course of his decades-long mission, Ron Cohen never really stopped to consider himself an academic, a scholar or an “independent.” He just pursued his passion to the point of being uniquely positioned to offer the world an expertise that no one else had.

He says, “It was absolutely clear that it just needed to be done.”

The Understimulated

Robert Eighteen-Bisang, a member of the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars, is one of the world’s leading experts on vampire literature. He recently published Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula: An Annotated Transcription and Comprehensive Analysis, and is credited with proving conclusively that Dracula is a literary version of Jack the Ripper.

The son of a professional poker player, he spent seven years playing pool professionally in Toronto before discovering academia. Despite having read more philosophy by age 11 then most have in a lifetime, he hated school and had a knack for getting expelled. On the advice of friends, he reluctantly gave university a try, and did well.

Though he still butted heads with his teachers, his goal eventually became to join their ranks. But over a few lunches, some professor friends convinced Mr. Eighteen-Bisang that the constraints of academia – from committee meetings to publication demands – wouldn’t be a good fit for him.

“I love to study, but I get bored with it,” he explains. “I wanted a life of action and making money.”

But there was a thirst that even four backgammon championships and a marketing career couldn’t satisfy. “I got bored with that and started thinking it was meaningless, I’d like to go back to my studies.”

They have a psychological name for the trait, he says: “Understimulated. It’s really a personality type that I think you’ll find with scholars.”

He still takes on some marketing contracts – an important income stream – but focuses on “doing studies in areas that have to be done. Since I’m one of the world’s leading experts on Dracula, I’m concentrating on that for the time being.” He has published extensively on the topic, and is working on an entirely new bibliographical system he developed for his collections.

Mr. Eighteen-Bisang says he spends only one day a year thinking he should have stayed in academia – and one day wishing he was still a pool hustler. In the end, he says, “you have to decide what path gives you the most personal satisfaction. You’re your own boss – make your own reality.”

For him, that reality includes “a responsibility to use [intellectual gifts] in a way that benefits the community.” The desire to contribute is the common trait he likes most about the other independents he meets: “They are interesting, intelligent, and self-motivated. They just don’t really need the professor part of the university.”

The Slighted

“You know when Claude Dubois sings J’aurais voulu être un artiste?” asks Yves Laberge. “Well, for me it’s J’aurais voulu être un universitaire, and I still do.”

Dr. Laberge would, by most definitions, be considered an academic. With a PhD in sociology, he has published on cultural studies, media ethics, philosophy and film history in peer-reviewed journals. He has presented at conferences, contributed to encyclopedias, and held visiting professorships in Canada and abroad.

Dr. Laberge received his doctorate in the late ’90s, but a secure, long-term faculty post has eluded him. “I fund my own research,” he says. He has various income streams through short-term contracts with universities, libraries and museums.

Now at mid-career level in terms of publishing and experience, it would be difficult for him to accept a university career that begins at the bottom of the ladder. Just being on the ladder, though, would help him avoid what he calls the principal problem for independent scholars: they can’t take advantage of most funding programs offered by governmental agencies. “For them,” he says, “we’re nobodies.”

He believes research teams seeking funding are less likely to hire independents because it will hurt their funding chances. And of those independents who happen to land some of the minimal funding not destined for university scholars, the dollars are earmarked for research and equipment, and not for base salaries.

The granting agencies are due for an “examination of conscience,” he thinks, one that might lead to widening eligibility criteria and make more room for the independent scholar.

The Principled

Kelly Bannister, for her part, has always straddled the line between academia and independence, and seems to have figured out a best-of-both-worlds scenario.

“I wear that hat when it works for me,” she says of her adjunct professorship in ethnobotany at the University of Victoria, where she also directs an environmental policy centre. She also works with a research ethics centre at the University of British Columbia, and has recently joined another ethics-related group at Simon Fraser University. One of the primary benefits of these long-term affiliations, she confirms, is remaining eligible for grants.

But despite ties to three universities, Dr. Bannister has conducted her scientific research in ethnobiology entirely outside academia since completing her doctorate. “I really felt that I was in a dilemma,” she says, “if I continued to do that work as an academic venture.”

Her dilemma stemmed from a dispute over what to do with the results of her doctoral research, which focused on the traditional knowledge of an aboriginal community with respect to medicinal and nutritional uses for plants. She was under pressure to publish the results but she feared they would interest pharmaceutical companies and that the communities she worked with could be exploited.

“I found that if you really take a look at what the university policies say” about who has rights to and ownership of the data once it’s published, “you could find yourself having conflicting obligations.”

Her loyalties were with the community that trusted her enough to share its knowledge with her. Her supervisor had other, more conventional, ideas: publish, and profit, for the good of the university. “I don’t fault him for believing what he believed – essentially that was just status quo,” she says. “I just disagreed. I guess I decided that status quo was not something I wanted to perpetuate.”

It’s difficult to imagine a riskier decision for a young doctoral student to make. Despite finding herself without a supervisor, she successfully completed her PhD, and until recently her dissertation had been sealed, to keep the findings out of the public domain as long as possible.

The research will soon be published in a manner and place that both she and the aboriginal community sanction, with written agreement that the community retains all relevant rights to the information. Indeed, on the heels her doctoral experience, she started her own company so she could work directly for the community.

“Being independent, I wasn’t accountable to a university, a sponsoring institution or a funding agency,” she says. She could agree with the community on issues of collecting and storing data, ownership and use. “It was just cleaner for me.”

While Dr. Bannister knows she has taken a financial hit for choosing this path, the trade-off is worth it. Between volunteer work and contracts with universities, governments and communities, she’s been able to tackle the issues she’s passionate about, from biodiversity to research ethics reform. She sees in some colleagues the pressures that come with regular faculty positions, and doesn’t think she would be happy doing the same.

“If I look back at my career in academe so far, I’ve done almost everything I could have wanted to do in a way that I felt had integrity. I’ve been able to be a part of change in the system that I’ve really wanted to see.” Change that she first noticed was needed as an unusually bold doctoral student.

The funding dilemma

Back at SFU, Dr. Wosk takes issue with what he calls universities’ near monopoly on scholarship. “We’ve got one model,” he laments, “and anything else is heretical, or it’s outside the academy, and it doesn’t count.”

For independents, the “unofficial” nature of their scholarship is felt most acutely when trying to fund it. Only a few can finance their scholarship themselves. The Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars has established a number of modest grants to support independent research, but not much is available through the major public funding agencies for scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. While Canadian figures are not readily available, Dr. Wosk believes they likely would mirror recent U.S. statistics showing that independents receive only about two percent of government research grants.

While the nearly identical acts of Parliament that created both SHRCC and NSERC in the late ’70s make no mention of universities and mandate the agencies only to “promote and assist research” (“and scholarship” in SSHRC’s case), the agencies’ stated policies make clear they are primarily, if not entirely, concerned with supporting university-based research.

This doesn’t seem to stem from any decision to explicitly exclude independents, but rather from basic assumptions at the outset that universities are the most obvious place to find scholarship. This led to the natural development of policies that inexorably tie the individual researcher to an academic institution.

“It’s really a whole system approach rather than just looking at the individual,” explains Barbara Conway, NSERC’s corporate secretary. “The evolution of the research grants program has always been within the structure of universities.”

For instance, NSERC asks that individuals have at least a three-year appointment with their institution, to ensure long-term commitment to the research project. The quality of the research environment and resources, the ability to train highly qualified personnel, including students, and the prevailing policy infrastructure – from ethics regulations to financial controls – are all are all key criteria for institutional and individual eligibility, and none of them leave room for any disassociation of the individual applicant from the institution.

With respect to opening the door to funding independents, says Ms. Conway, “we’ve never really had the discussion before.” Funding independents “brings up a lot of questions, not just in terms of supporting the individual, but how our whole grant process works,” she says. “Without the institution, there’s a big void.”

For Dr. Wosk, the increasing number of independents and their growing mobilization in Canada and abroad could help chip away at longstanding, if inadvertently held, attitudes and assumptions about the quality and value of independent scholarship.

To this end, he would like to see more interaction between the worlds of academia and independent scholarship, calling his office a “beachhead between the proverbial town and gown.” To build those bridges, CAIS is working to offer better remote library access and, through an agreement with SFU, has created an independent scholar-in-residence position. CAIS will soon publish the first issue of a journal dedicated to independent scholarship.

New technologies bring new possibilities as well. Dr. Wosk will soon meet with the founders of Wikimedia, for instance, who naturally are interested in the idea of independent scholarship and the larger notion of democratizing knowledge. For Dr. Wosk, new media puts us on the verge of “a quantum leap forward in identifying and supporting independent scholars.”

He believes that recognizing the value of their contributions is essential, and fears we may be wasting untold amounts of intellectual potential. After all, he points out, Albert Einstein came up with some of his best stuff while working as a patent clerk.

Pascal Zamprelli
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  1. Alex Liszka / December 10, 2008 at 15:31

    Fascinating article and extremely well written.

  2. Frederick W. Metzger / December 10, 2008 at 22:59

    These four articles also prove the creative wisdom of Dr. Yosef Wosk for founding the Philosophers Café. Congratulations!

    Dr. Fred Metzger

  3. Paul Bassett / December 11, 2008 at 17:30

    I taught at York U.’s Computer Science Dept. from 1973 – 1980, but have done my most important research since then, while working as an entrepreneur to earn a living. A thumbnail of my contributions can be found on Wikipedia by looking up “Frame Technology (software engineering)”.

    It’d be great if more university software engineers were aware of frame technology.

  4. azeka / January 8, 2009 at 01:53

    Please send docs of Ind. Scholar and any info. on how to join up including grants. How does I.S work?

    Thank you kindly.

  5. sarah stewart / January 16, 2009 at 14:36

    Thank you very much for this article. I think I am about to develop into an independent scholar. As you have said , the problems I see are funding for me personaly, funding for my research, being able to access resources like libary databases, access to ethics processes (IRB), and maintaining credibility now that I am no longer associated with an academic institution.

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