Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day (or BADD for short), and this is my first year participating. For those of you new to my blog and my work, when I’m not running Academic Editing Canada, I’m busy with my independent scholarship in disability studies and science fiction. I recently wrote a post about my disability identification, “Fragments: Disability, Community, and Me,” if you’re curious, and many of the posts on this blog deal with my reflections on being a chronically-ill graduate student, and how that experience informs my research today. I also edit science fiction (SF), and I want to mention some good news right away— because I’m super proud of it—that Accessing the Future, an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction stories that I co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly!
There are many things that I could write about when it comes to my experiences of ableism, but I thought I’d share some of my observations as an independent scholar invested in bringing disability studies into science fiction studies. At the moment, I am frustrated with the genre academic community's engagement with disability—it is still such a marginalized conversation outside the handful of us who work at this intersection (mostly grad students and recent PhDs).
There are many oversights and microagressions I have witnessed or encountered in my role as scholar and writing about them in any specific detail feels unsafe and “unprofessional.” I know that this is ableism at work. I can say that I have felt devalued in my interactions with a few journal editors. I have made requests for accommodation on presentation times that were entirely ignored. And I’ve had to withdraw an accepted paper at a conference because its scheduling was so mishandled. These are just a few incidences that have affected my ability to fully participate, and I have heard many, many more examples of ableism from my disabled academic friends and peers. It is extremely common to hear, for example, in all kinds of academic and casual conversations, professors using ableist language, like “lame” and “crazy,” to describe unpopular or unusual ideas and people. This language hurts.
Articles addressing disability in any meaningful way are infrequent finds in genre journals—and, if they do appear, most of them are locked behind paywalls where I (and everyone else who lacks access to university journal databases) cannot read them. While I appreciate the difficulty of scheduling large, multi-track conferences, it is frustrating that the few papers about disability are often placed on panels about “otherness” or monstrosity (this has happened twice to me). It seems that genre conferences do not know where to effectively place a disability studies paper and this is a problem. It makes talking about disability in a sustained, critical way (that intersects with feminist, queer, anti-racist, and such other important concerns) that much more difficult.
While Disability Studies is becoming less marginalized in science fiction studies, there is a long way to go for it to move from a momentarily interesting “hot topic” to an actually active and engaged conversation that does not rely on a small handful of people to constantly bring it up. Since I started presenting on disability in SF at conferences (though I am not able to attend more than one or two a year I do follow what’s going on online), I have learned just how new and marginal disability studies is in the academic genre community. For example, the Science Fiction Research Association’s annual conference theme this year is “The SF We Don't (Usually) See: Suppressed Histories, Liminal Voices, Emerging Media.” Although many axes of identification were included in the original call for papers (CFP), there was no mention of disability! It took the wonderful Ria Cheyne to point out its absence before “disability and ability” were added to the CFP. Furthermore, there are no papers, from what I can tell from their conference program, that directly address disability. This is an all too common scenario that I have seen played out too many times.
Additionally, in a practical sense, there needs to be more people talking about disability and calling out ableism because so little is actually happening to improve the working conditions for a countless number of disabled graduate students, adjunct/sessional and tenured faculty, and administrative staff. Just check out some of the stories on PhDisabled (which is an amazing resource for disability recognition and advocacy). Conference organizers need to work harder in ensuring that their venues are fully accessible and in developing clear policies around accommodations for people with disabilities. Journals need to be open access and available on a variety of platforms.
I can’t speak to how other academics are trained in graduate school, but I know that for me, the process of interrogating cultural truths was held up as a foundational goal. I also know that when I see an absence of knowledge, especially one that causes or reinforces existing harm, I feel an obligation to speak up and say, “this is something we need to be talking about.” This is how I feel about the representation of disability in science fiction. There are very few popular SF texts that show realistic depictions of disability, whether it be physical or cognitive disability, chronic illness, or neurodiversity. It is a niche topic in terms of academic study but literature and film (and all media) show us what is and what is not possible. SF is an important place where cultural producers and consumers think through what kinds of lives matter and who gets to take part in creating the future world. I believe that genre scholars have a responsibility to meaningfully and significantly engage with disability—both theoretically and practically—sooner than later.
As is common at the turn of a new year, I have found myself reflecting on all of the changes that have happened in my life since I completed my PhD in 2010. Last year, in particular, was an amazing year for me professionally: in addition to presenting at three conferences (ICFA, SFRA/Eaton, McMaster), I published my edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, and won the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellowship. As well, my editing and coaching business grew and stabilized into sustainable employment, and I ended out 2013 with the first two months of 2014 already booked with client work.
When I was still in grad school, there was no way that I could have imagined a year like 2013. I was sick, poor, and justifiably angry. I'm a lot healthier and more financially stable these days, but honestly, I'm still angry. I don't dwell on my disappointment with my graduate school experience anymore, but it occasionally informs my decisions to take on certain projects and it certainly comes out whenever I talk with graduate students and faculty. I don't feel like it is necessary for me to lie about my struggles with academia. After all, I left the university for many reasons. When I attend conferences, I identify as an "independent scholar" and many people are curious as to what that label means, what motivated me to leave, and how I go about my work life now.
I thought I would start the new year by revisiting some of the first posts I shared here on Bleeding Chrome. These are the entries that hurt to write and were terrifying to share. Even reading them now makes me tremor. I wish it wasn't true, but I suffered through graduate school. I made many choices to stay within a system of work that I knew didn't accommodate my sick body or respect me as an individual.
We can never go back and change the things that injure us physically or emotionally. But we can acknowledge that we suffered and that we are still here, giving voice to our experiences so that others may help us bear the weight. Maybe we don't always immediately emerge stronger or wiser, but I do believe that with enough time we can come to a point of understanding with our past struggles. Here are some of mine:
Post/Academic Shame (my first ever blog post):
After completing my graduate studies and earning a doctorate in English Literature, I anticipated that I would feel a mix of exhaustion, relief, and accomplishment. I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming sense of shame that I would feel – and still feel in part today – that plunged me into a severe depression for several long winter months. Not following tradition, I did not have a celebratory meal and drinks with my supervisory committee after my defense. I was ill at the time and had called off the lunch that was planned. As the days and weeks passed from my defense date, I couldn’t bring myself to reschedule another time to get together. How could I celebrate my failure as an academic? ... [Read the whole post]
In all visible and general day-to-day aspects, I am able-bodied. Such a demarcation between able and disabled was not always there for me. At the height of my health problems, I felt distinctly apart from everyone I knew. I was ill enough at one point in my doctoral education that I missed a year. Not literally “missed a year” of course – I am not a time traveler – but certainly I lost out on a year’s worth of socialization and professional development. While the inability to participate in academe was difficult enough to deal with, the blow that came to my ego was worse. You see, nobody seemed to notice my absence. ... [Read the whole post]
Through such small social and institutionalized codes of conduct, I was always aware of my class status. I sought out others who didn’t see my mispronunciations and gaps in cultural knowledge as signs of my unsuitability for academia (and yes – there were definitely a few individuals who gave me little intellectual credit due to these slippages). I found the silence around matters of money infuriating. In my experience, people who have money are always the ones the least comfortable talking about it – and academia is quiet as a tomb. ... [Read the whole post]
A few months ago, I was asked by a kind and generous woman to be on a panel about independent scholars at a large, well-known conference. She found me through this blog and I was honoured to have been asked – it is always nice to be noticed after all. My first response was an immediate but tentative “yes.” Apparently, two different academic organizations were sponsoring this panel, so I thought that perhaps, given the topic (the challenges of being an independent scholar), this meant that there would be some kind of funding offered. I wasn’t expecting much, but I hoped that at least the conference fee would be waived.
It only took a few email exchanges to learn that not only was there no funding for me, there wasn’t even any funding available for the woman who put the panel together (which meant that she herself couldn’t go). At this point in our conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder: what kind of professionals “sponsor” a panel to learn about the barriers and challenges of independent scholars and then neglect to provide any sort of financial support? Learning that I would have to fully pay my own way to attend the conference in order to share my experiences, there was no way I could justify the expense of the trip. I still wanted to be part of this opportunity to discuss independent scholarship however, so I proposed the possibility of presenting a paper via Skype.
Emails were sent. Higher ups were lobbied. And yes, delivering a paper via Skype was an option …but I would still have to pay the conference fees! At this point in time, I was beyond annoyed. I was being asked to present on my experience as an independent scholar over Skype--a free service--and I still had to pay them for the honour. My frustration with the elitism and pay-to-play culture of academia was at an all time high. The attitude that I encountered from these conference organizers was that I should be grateful that they were going to let me speak in the first place. I decided that I would never attend this conference (as there really is no benefit for me to be there) and thanked the woman who had contacted me. I sincerely appreciated her effort in trying to make my participation on this panel happen, and we both agreed that, if nothing else, at least we were able to make a meaningful connection with one another.
As an independent scholar, I have no interest in paying to tell salaried and funded academics about my experiences creating an intellectual life outside of the university system. So to anyone in academia reading this, here’s the deal: if you want to hear from independent scholars at a conference, give them money. Any amount will do, really, as we are writing and researching on our own, without university resources. We independent scholars clearly have a passion for sharing our knowledge and expertise, but it is insulting to be invited to speak about our challenges and then be expected to financially perform as if we have tenure-enabled travel funds. Greater value needs to be attached to our efforts and contributions to scholarship, especially when those inside of the academy invite us to return and share with them our unique struggles and successes.
The 2013 Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy will be held on Friday, June 7, and Saturday, June 8, 2013, in Toronto, Ontario, at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, one of the world’s most important collections of fantastic literature.
We invite proposals for papers in any area of Canadian science fiction and fantasy, including:
-studies of individual works and authors;
-studies that place works in their literaryand/or cultural contexts.
Papers may be about works in any medium: literature, film, graphic novels and comic books, and so on. For studies of the audio-visual media, preference will be given to discussions of works produced in Canada or involving substantial Canadian creative contributions.
Papers should be no more than 20 minutes long, and geared toward a general as well as academic audience. Deadline: February 15, 2013. Please submit proposals (max. 500 words), to: Dr. Allan Weiss (aweiss[at]yorku[dot]ca).
In a recent thread on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Forum, someone asked about using the label “independent scholar.” A little digging showed that it wasn’t the first time the topic has been raised there, and there is clearly a lot of anxiety associated with the alternative identification. I read through the threads and took note of some of the stereotypes associated with the independent scholar title (my favourite descriptors are: “goofy,” “crackpot,” and “unhireable”). There is a pervasive sense that identifying as an independent scholar is risky and should be avoided (in favour of other labels, such as “visiting scholar”) if at all possible. From what my cursory research shows, this hand-wringing and name calling comes mostly from those still firmly entrenched within academia. For scholars on the outside, like myself, there is significantly more confidence and feelings of quality attending the label of independent scholar.
Let’s first establish some sort of working definition of what actually constitutes an independent scholar. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars outlines the following criteria for inclusion in their membership: “NCIS welcomes people who are pursuing knowledge in or across any fields whose credentials demonstrate an active involvement in independent scholarship in any field, as evidenced by advanced degrees or presentations/publications. Further qualification is that the scholar not be employed on a full-time basis by an academic institution or other organization in the field to which their independent scholarly activity pertains. Graduate students intent on pursuing independent scholarship, adjunct faculty, and others tangentially associated with academic institutions who do not receive financial support for their scholarly activities are eligible.”
Okay – so an independent scholar is actively pursuing knowledge (and presenting/publishing it), tangentially or not associated with a university, and does not have funding/financial support for their scholarly work. Nothing shameful or embarrassing there, right? Nope. Despite evidence to the contrary*, there nevertheless persists a good deal of myths, mostly unfavourable, about independent scholars. Here are the most popular ones:
Myth #1: “Independent Scholar” is a placeholder title for unemployed PhDs
Two points: First, As the NCIS definition indicates, an independent scholar has an active track-record of scholarly research and publishing. “Active” is the key word that distinguishes an independent scholar from an unemployed PhD. “Independent scholar” shouldn’t be used as a placeholder title. If you are not an active scholar but want to identify yourself to prospective employers as a PhD holder, then use the honorific of “Dr.” or put “PhD” after your name.
Second, it is entirely possible to have a PhD, be employed in a non-academic position, and carry out independent scholarship. Most of the independent scholars that I have met work full-time jobs of some sort, and they integrate their scholarly work into their daily life.
Myth #2: Independent scholars are crackpots
I’m sure that some independent scholars are indeed “crackpots,” but so are some “real” academics and professors. A label does not determine quality of work. Peer review processes are in place, in both Humanities and STEM fields, which ensure a certain level of intellectual engagement and worthiness of the contribution within academic publications. Publishing or presenting outside of traditional academic locations is also a legitimate direction for independent scholars – if you are interested in sharing your knowledge/passion with an appreciative audience, then the opportunities to do so are everywhere, from blogs to community library talks to international conventions.
Myth #3: Independent scholars are really retired professors
Yes, there are definitely retired professors who now identify as independent scholars. They are known to frequent their favourite conferences and still publish a book review or article every now and then. But there are also independent scholars, like myself, who have never been employed by the university past their graduate education. There are even independent scholars who don’t hold advanced degrees because they are self-educated and have pursued their passion to academic levels of intensity.
Myth #4: Academic publications aren’t open to independent scholars
The idea that you must have a university affiliation for any academic publication to take your work seriously is a particularly pervasive myth. Definitely untrue. While it may be easier to get published in certain journals over others (and this is true even for those with university affiliation), if your work is solid, then the independent scholar label will not limit your opportunities. If you present yourself professionally, then you will be taken seriously. Make inquiries if you are uncertain about the suitability of your paper for a specific journal. Follow all submission guidelines to the letter and meet deadlines.
Using myself as an example here, I left grad school with zero peer-reviewed publications, but now I have (in the works), one edited collection of essays, one journal article, and one chapter in a book. (I’ve also presented three academic papers at conferences in the last year, and have written an afterword for this amazing anthology of SF short stories, Outlaw Bodies).
Myth #5: An independent scholar is a wannabe professor/failed academic.
There are many reasons why someone chooses to pursue scholarship outside of university employment. Given the dreary state of the academic job market, an ever-growing number of advanced degree holders find themselves unwilling or unable to chase tenure-track jobs around the world. Choosing independent scholarship can be a political decision, a way of taking some authority away from the university. Or it can be a lifestyle choice – independent scholars are free to pursue multiple career and research avenues that are not possible for a tenure-tracked academic.
Whatever the reason behind someone’s decision to identify as an independent scholar, assuming that they lack the academic chops for a tenure track position just makes you look like a total snob and/or clueless jerk. Scholarship is possible beyond the university, and academia does not hold the rights to original thought or innovation.
I’ve written about the benefits of being an independent scholar before, and there is certainly more to say about the topic. Feel free to add your own thoughts about the myths of independent scholarship in the comments.
*I haven’t included any specific examples of independent scholars (other than myself) here because, well, they really aren’t that hard to find. Also, I’m going to write a post on notable independent scholars and I don’t want to give away all of my fascinating research now. Stay tuned!
Earlier this week, I lost all of the confidence I had been carefully encouraging and maintaining for the last year. Up against several deadlines – of my own making no less – I began to crumble. Physically and mentally, I felt terrible. Knowing that it was an avoidable situation just made me feel worse.
The evidence of my “doing okay” is everywhere around me. I run my own business, set my own hours and rates, and am doing exactly what I want to be doing in terms of scholarship. A few weeks ago, at the height of my new found life satisfaction it suddenly hit me: I do not know how to deal with success. When it comes to rejection and failure? No problem. I am expecting rejection and failure. And academia provided me more than ample opportunities to play out that expectation.
As a graduate student who wasn’t ever able to secure external funding (i.e. the kind of funding that counts), I went through the five years of my doctoral studies too often feeling like a poor loser. The majority of my peers managed to land SSHRC or OGS awards for at least one of the years of their programs. I never experienced that day of excitement when the acceptance letter arrived, or had the validation and comfort in knowing that, at least for one year, there would be enough money in the bank to live on. I became used to the idea that I wasn’t at the top of my department/university/field. I was just another graduate student, earning the university two more units of governmental funding. Such a position does not inspire confidence.
When I left academia, I had to do a lot of hard work reorienting my ideas of success and happiness to life outside of the university community. Even though I was already existing on its margins in the last year or so of my doctorate (as I prepared for my departure), it was a difficult transition. I didn’t just have to find a new career path for myself, I had to rebuild my destroyed confidence, a task far more difficult than networking and developing an entrepreneurial plan.
Having finally achieved happiness in my work life, it was startling to see myself falling back into old destructive habits these past weeks. What changed? For one, I prioritized my independent scholarship over paid client work for a bit, which meant my incoming earnings dropped off as a result (an echo of my underpaid grad life). I also received feedback on one of the papers I have out in the peer-review process right now. While the feedback was fair, it was far from glowing, inscrutably listing everything my first draft paper lacked. Suddenly, I was back in grad school and I wasn’t good enough anymore. I had to forcefully remind myself that I don’t need to publish this paper (or any papers for that matter). Nevertheless, already stressed by unrealistic deadlines, the all-to-familiar sounding criticism was the last straw. I crumbled.
So this week I have needed to repeat my mantra of “independent scholarship means freedom!” I have the freedom to write about whatever I want (and I am). I also have the freedom of not caring about how successful I am within the realm of academic publishing. It would be nice to publish an article in a top-tier journal since I want to share my research, but the success of my current work life, which I love, does not depend on it. I have many options available to me, and it is foolish and unproductive to hang my hopes on the same unrealistic standards of academic performance that I found oppressive just a few years ago.
Being an independent scholar, as I am discovering, is not as easy as I would like it to be. And it isn’t because of any institutional barriers; it has everything to do with the way I approach success and failure. Thankfully, this latest bout of self-doubt has been brief. Surrounded by the positive community I’ve found in SF fandom, the happy clients for whom I work, and an ever increasing list of cool independent scholarly projects, I am already coming back with a renewed sense of confidence and purpose. Now all I really need to do is reschedule those ridiculous deadlines ...
The current furor over the University of Birmingham offering an “honorary" research assistant position has caused me to reflect on my own unpaid scholarly pursuits. It is absolutely wrong for a university to expect their research workforce to perform for free, but as an independent scholar, the unpaid aspect of the work – and for me it is work, not a hobby – is a necessary given. At least once a week, when I’m up against a deadline of my own making, I think to myself (usually out loud to the increasing annoyance of my partner), “Why am I doing this again?” When you are working “for free” it is important to be clear about the purpose of your efforts (otherwise, you’ll lose motivation and accomplish nothing). Increasingly, this blog pulls in traffic from people looking for more information (ideas?) about being an independent scholar. There are growing numbers of MAs and PhDs out there who are hesitant to lay down their research books simply because they aren’t in a teaching or tenure-track position at a university. I think that this is a good thing.
For the curious and the disbelieving alike, here are a few of the benefits of being an independent scholar:
While the current academic job market and over-production of professionally unprepared PhDs (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) are not ideal situations, the fact that more post-graduate degree holders are seeking outside alternatives to researching and publishing can only increase awareness that there is a need for higher education reform. The vast majority of PhDs who leave academe for non-academic jobs aren’t solicited for their opinions on their experience of graduate education, nor are they an audible voice in advocating for reform. Once out of the university system most PhDs get on with their lives, and rightly so, but their silence makes it harder to convince people within and outside of academe that reform is needed.
For myself, transitioning from a PhD student who advocated for more transparency (in regards to funding and academic job market figures) into a fully fledged independent scholar was a relatively easy decision. Once I admitted to myself that I still desired to continue my studies on my own, I realized that I was also placing myself in a unique position to voice my concerns about the faltering state of graduate education in North America. As an independent scholar who attends academic conferences and engages with my academic peers online, I have kept one foot in the door of the Ivory Tower. From the threshold, I get to tell those inside exactly why I left academia (while demonstrating my academic competence) and the public on the outside can hear me too. As an independent scholar, I know that my voice is being heard without any professional risk.
When I left academe, I said good-bye to a formal system of professional support and community. Now I work at home. By myself. I interact with my clients through email and phone conversations, so my work life can feel fairly isolated sometimes. In addition to making me a memorable individual at business networking events (since no one else has “independent SF scholar” on their business card), my independent scholarship fulfills my need to be part of a larger community. Through my participation in the science fiction community – both academic and fannish – I get to meet and talk with people whose intellectual passions mirror my own.
At academic conferences, I enjoy the opportunity to be among my scholarly peers and get caught up with the latest research in my wider field of study. At SF conventions, I meet other fans from diverse walks of life and have fun participating as an “expert” on panels. By identifying myself as an independent scholar, especially within the fan community, I occupy a unique position of expertise that has connected me with some of my favourite writers and created new friendships and work partnerships.
I get to read and write about whatever I want for whomever I want. It’s wonderful not having to worry about funding or departmental politics that (not-so) quietly dictate what one should or should not study. While I was a grad student, I deeply felt pressure to perform intellectually in specific ways that were not necessarily natural or agreeable to me. As an independent scholar, I never worry about whether or not my research is in vogue at the moment. If a peer-reviewed journal isn’t interested in my latest article, no big deal. I’ll send it to an SF-blog or post it on my own instead. My goal is to put my work out there for other interested parties to read – where that place is (online or in print, academic journal or SF book review blog), doesn’t matter to me so much.
Being an independent scholar has also given me the confidence to take risks in my intellectual pursuits. Freed from the pressures of academia, where publishing success determines advancement and changing one’s disciplinary focus is an arduous process, I find myself sketching out projects that I never considered before. If I’m going to be an independent scholar, I might as well take risks with that scholarship. While I still fully intend to keep my SF research going, I have decided that my next book-length project will be on theory – I want to rethink and reframe the concept of agency. Not a small task. Just writing that out for public eyes makes me sweat a bit, but it’s also damn exciting. Independent scholarship doesn’t come with a set of rules and regulations, so why contain my intellectual efforts to what I already know (and what already exists)?
Above all else, it feels wonderful to be able to do the work that I was trained to do. I spent six years in graduate school learning how to be a researcher, writer, and educator because I enjoyed those roles. While I get to put my skills into practice through my paid working engagements (as an academic coach and copyeditor), my time is spent helping other people with their intellectual or professional pursuits. I absolutely love working with my clients, but I still have a strong desire to do independent research into my own areas of interest. If anything, I am more motivated to keep my clients happy because their business gives me the financial freedom to take the time to write academic articles and attend SF cons.
In the past year, I have surprised myself at the level of success I have already achieved as an independent scholar – by the end of next year, I will hopefully have published at least three peer-reviewed articles, one peer-reviewed book (my edited essay collection, Technology as Cure: Representation of Disability in Science Fiction), and three non-academic pieces of writing. This list doesn’t include all of the smaller writing and SF-fandom projects that I’m involved in or the conferences/conventions at which I will be presenting . Basically, I experience all the best parts of being an academic without the institutional constraints.
Being an independent scholar is not for everyone. It requires a certain privileged position – I have a full-time working partner, no children, and state heathcare – and a willingness to work with no expectation of financial reward. I’ve become a firm believer, however, that one should live their passion. For me, I want a life full of science fiction and life-long learning. Even though this work will not produce any income (and often costs money to pursue), the benefits I have experienced as an independent scholar make the financial sacrifice worth it.
What does it mean to be “well-read?” This is a question that I have spent a good deal time thinking about the past several months. For most of my life, “well-read” has meant someone who had read the entire English literary canon and can throw off opinions on writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Faulkner. I vividly remember preparing myself for my undergraduate education by going to the public library to read “the Classics.” What I didn’t anticipate at the time, however, was how boring I would find them. Now I appreciate the value in reading “foundational Western literature,” but few canonical tomes have ever really excited me or made me think, “Wow, I want to read more of that!” Accompanying my lack of interest in these must-read texts was a sense of guilt and worry – I should enjoy Dickens, but I just don’t. Do I not understand the appeal? Everybody else in my first year English class seemed to love carrying around their Norton Anthology of Literature, but I simply performed the work I was tasked with little joy.
Since I had a lack of interest in the canon, I pursued courses in other genres of literature throughout my undergrad when I could: environmental writing, regional-Western Canadian poetry, Russian literature of the 20th century (Bulgakov, not Tolstoy). The result of my careful picking and choosing around the core-required courses is that I had read a little bit of everything from everywhere. If there were gaps in my knowledge of the canon, surely this would not be held against me when I entered into my Master’s degree.
During grad school, unfortunately, any confidence I had gained from undergrad was quickly stamped out. I almost consistently felt – and was made to feel by many of my peers – like I was embarrassingly “under-read.” I can’t even count the number of time where a (usually male) colleague said to me, “Oh! You haven’t read that?” Regardless of how they framed their derision, their meaning was clear: I was not as well-read as them and therefore somehow less intelligent/undeserving of graduate education/an idiot. I now know that much of this kind of combative conversation and literary peacockery is tied into gendered and classed ways of discourse, and academia encourages the assessment of one’s intelligence based on who/what they have read.
Of course, being well-read is important when you are an academic. Clearly, if you are researching and writing about a particular topic, it is best that you know as much about it as possible. But the distinction between what you need to read and what you should read is complicated and always changing. What you “should read” is often politically driven, based on which academic celebrity is in vogue this year, which splinter discipline is grabbing all the funding, etc. In my experience, peers who came from well-to-do homes were much “better read” than myself. By belittling my literary experience, these people were also reminding me, perhaps unintentionally, that I was outside of the norm. I was not, for all intensive purposes, “well-read” (which is too close to “well-bred” for my comfort).
One of the ways in which people (in academia, or really anyplace where there are pretentious jerks) maintain the illusion of their being “well-read” is to dismiss the knowledge of others. When I said, “I’m working with feminist SF writers,” snobbish colleagues would retort, “Have you read [insert whatever SF writer that they have read]?” Even if the conversation got to the point where I told them about the writers that I was working with, writers unfamiliar to them, these privileged peers would still insist in eliding my interests with theirs, which, by default, were better, smarter, more important and worthy of study. It sucked to be continually intellectually marginalized, but I kept on reading what I enjoyed despite my sense of genre-induced isolation.
When I first started involving myself with SF fandom, I brought all of my grad school insecurities with me. At the first con I attended (WorldCon in Montreal), I was overwhelmed at how well-read the other fans were that I was meeting. I only knew the little corner of feminist SF that I had studied for my dissertation. There was just so much SF out there that I hadn’t even heard of, never mind read. But, unlike my grad school peers, most of the fans I talked with weren’t condescending when I said, “I haven’t read that yet.” It really hit home to me that I was in a different world of reading when I explained my interest in feminist SF … and people not only asked me who my favourites were, but they wanted my recommendations! Up until that con, no one I talked to about my work asked me what they should read. Reciprocal interest AND respect? I hardly knew how to respond!
Instead of a verbal game of one-up-manship or a pure info-dump, the majority of people I talk to at cons are interested in sharing resources with me. I’m not saying that there aren’t still politics and power issues at play at cons when it comes to “the books that you should read” (because there most certainly are problems), but that there is a greater general openness to a variety of engagements with genre which is simply not as present within academe.
My experience with fandom, then, is a mixed bag when it comes to people using the phrase “well-read.” Since SF has so many subgenres, and many that bleed into the larger genres of fantasy and horror, very few people can claim to be well-read in all of it. Going to SF cons has helped me appreciate what it means to be truly well-read. If I’m sitting next to someone in their late-50’s who has been reading SF since they were a teenager, there is no way that my five years of directed scholarly SF readership will match their experience. And chances are good that they haven’t read the disgusting amounts of academic theory that I have, which help me frame my SF readings in, I hope, unique and productive ways.
I feel increasingly more comfortable in telling people, “I have not read that! I’ll put it on my list.” I have turned my lack of knowledge into opportunities to connect and learn from other fans. It’s impossible to read everything and I’ve finally stopped trying – and caring – to do so. By being amongst a diverse group of fannish people, I better understand the inherent unfairness of the phrase “well-read.” The amount and kind of books that I have read are dependent on the time, money, education, and health that are available to me at any given moment. These are factors with which we all must contend, but few acknowledge in their evaluation of what it means to be “well-read.”
I am happy with my little corner of books, but I still I want to read more and I want read widely. I am, however, constrained by finances, time, and ability. I would rather sit down with a person who has read a few novels well, than with somebody who has read a lot of books just for the sake of having read them. I’m sure that I will continue to encounter people who have read everything and think that they are better for it. But I don’t give them my time or attention anymore. I’m interested in learning about people’s passions – why did a certain book grab them, what do they recommend? To me, to be “well-read,” then, has come to mean “to love-what-you’re-reading.” More sharing, less judgement. Let's throw out the literary yard sticks!
Now help me decide on what book I should read next …
Last week I attended my first ICFA – it was an amazing conference and I’m still processing all of the information force-downloaded into my brain. I met dozens of interesting and brilliant scholars and writers, as well as received a deep validation of my own career choices. Last week also marks, roughly, the first year anniversary of Academic Editing Canada. I’m not sure exactly, because I never bothered to celebrate the date of my sole proprietorship’s launch last March. As anyone who has been following my blog knows, I left graduate school in the fall of 2010 feeling defeated and suffering from depression and chronic pain. So when I launched AEC in at the start of 2011, I had only the barest glimmer of hope. I could imagine the possibility of success, but only in the way that I can kind of imagine what being an astronaut or billionaire must be like.
Needless to say, I was not prepared for actually succeeding on my own, but here I am, with enough client work to keep me employed and support my independent scholarship (i.e. free up time to research/write and provide resources to attend SF cons). I’m absolutely gobsmacked at what I’ve accomplished. It’s not that I’m rolling in cash (far from it), nor am I racking up prestigious publications (so far). Yet I am happy – I have the academic job I always wanted!
From the completion of my PhD, it took me over 6 months to separate out what I liked about academia and drew me there in the first place from all of the stuff that I detested and could no longer endure. Once I worked out the basics of what I loved doing, I started shaping my career plans around them (creating, what is commonly called, a portfolio career). This is how I have ended up working as a copy editor (primarily for academic texts), dissertation coach, and independent scholar. Just as PhDs looking for non-academic careers need to articulate their “transferable skills,” I began thinking about how I could transfer or recreate the kinds of work I enjoyed performing in academia. Here’s what I did:
I moved my love of teaching and working with students one-on-one in the classroom into copy editing (where I assist people in improving their communication) and into dissertation coaching (where I get to practice mentorship). Basically, I have replaced “students” with “clients,” which, admittedly, is not really much of a stretch these days. I am engaged with people looking to improve their knowledge and skill base, but now I choose with whom I work and I never have to give or defend a C grade ever again. Down the line, I might want to pursue more active teaching avenues, such as working as a corporate trainer, and so I am already networking to keep that possibility open.
Working as an academic copy editor and coach also allows me the space to work with scholarly ideas and get paid at the same time. While a portion of my day-to-day work deals with subject matter outside of my immediate interest, I frequently get to edit challenging and thought provoking texts. In the year that I’ve been copy editing, I have not once been bored by the material I am hired to make better. I have learned about everything from pain management for recovering addicts to the intricacies of the Indo-Pak war of 1965. In terms of dissertation coaching, every client brings with them a unique set of knowledges and challenges. I’ve helped PhD students with all-things thesis, from developing writing schedules to reviewing what it means to “critically read” articles. The variety of work I encounter is fantastic … and it’s only becoming more interesting as time goes on.
And the best pay-off from doing this fun, engaging, and fulfilling work? It allows me the flexibility and opportunity to pursue my science fiction research. When I’m not doing client work, I turn my attention to reading SF, watching SF, writing about SF, and going to SF-centered events. Yep. It’s pretty freaking amazing. Being an Independent Scholar is way more awesome than I first thought. My worries about not being taken seriously by “real” academics? Gone. Going to ICFA confirmed to me that, in the field of SF studies anyways, my contributions to scholarship are valued and desired. I am now even more determined to put my head down and research/write my heart out.
I should add that I am able to maintain my portfolio career (copy editor/coach/scholar) because I am in a unique and privileged position. While I am certainly far from wealthy, I earn more than I did as a graduate student (which was practically nothing), I live in Canada where my healthcare is covered by the state, and I have a supportive partner (both in terms of financial and emotional support) and no dependents (only one little cat). We decided together, long ago, that we would work jobs that we love, even if it meant a materialistic minimal lifestyle. We rent. We have a hand-me-down vehicle. We don’t go on costly vacations or buy things we don’t need. But we work at jobs of our own creation and on our own terms.
All in all, I’m happy with my career success to date. The pay might not be the same, but I wouldn’t trade the freedom I have – to choose my work, clients, hours, research direction – for a tenure track position, even if one was magically dropped on my lap. What makes me really excited is knowing that I’m only at the start of my new career. There are so many opportunities, both known and unknown, ahead of me and I can’t wait to take them as they come. It’s a revelation (and a welcome one): I dared to quit the university and I’m doing okay. Actually, no. Scratch that. I’m doing great.
It has almost been a year since I launched Academic Editing Canada (AEC) and nearly year and half since I finished my PhD and bid farewell to academia. In the time that has passed, I have slowly progressed through all the various emotions that attend any large transition. When I set out on my own last year, I had two major goals for myself: (1) heal physically and emotionally from the stress of grad school and (2) establish a business that provides me with steady part-time work so that I can continue pursuing my independent SF research in earnest. Despite working diligently towards these goals, it nevertheless has come as a shock that I have succeeded in reaching them.
I still have a way to go on the health front, but day-by-day I am learning how to better balance work and body demands. I am more acutely aware of the connection between stress and my chronic pain – when I’m anxious and binge working, I am not well. Being a sole proprietor definitely helps me control my working hours, but I am still unlearning many of the bad work habits I developed while in grad school. On the business front, I have established myself in the marketplace and developed several excellent long-term client relationships.
All of this progress is great, but I am most proud of the independent academic projects that I am undertaking. I am actually a real, live, breathing Independent Scholar – and I am having a bit of a hard time accepting that fact. It just seems too surreal and ridiculous to be true. I was unwell all of last week, so I had lots of time to reflect on the past year and on all the gains (and missteps) that I have made. When I left grad school, I felt worthless and foolish. Even though it was my decision to leave academia, there was always this little voice in my head telling me that I was a quitter, that I simply wasn’t good enough to make it into tenure-track. The voice goaded me constantly: “Where are your publications? Where are all the grants? You have done nothing. You failed as an academic and that is why you left.” Over and over again, the word failure plagued me, daring me to give up on the alternative career aspirations I had for myself.
I didn’t give up or take an easier, safer path. With the encouragement of my partner Andrew (who is an exemplar of self-directed learning and achievement), I took the risk on working for myself while expanding my scholarly experience. The biggest turning point for me, mentally, in transitioning from graduate student/academic to entrepreneur/independent scholar happened last August at WorldCon. I presented a paper in the con’s academic track and it was an awesome experience. Not only did one of my dissertation subjects, SF writer Laura J. Mixon, attend my talk (on her work, Proxies), I also had the chance to explore interest in my current project, an edited essay collection [working title] Technology as Cure? Representations of Disability in Science Fiction. Since the feedback I received at WorldCon was overwhelmingly positive, I jumped right into writing up a CFP for the book and receiving submissions. Now, I am eagerly waiting to read essays from 12 amazing SF and disability researchers from across the globe!
In addition to working on the essay collection, I am also taking the financial hit and attending (and presenting at) several conferences and conventions this year: ICFA, WisCon, WorldCon, and WFC. Admittedly, going to these events is fun, but I am also aware of the power of networking in person. While I already connect with other people in the SF community (both fan and academic) on-line, meeting individuals in person is immensely more effective and fulfilling. Again, I will be using these cons to test out my latest research interests, but I am also viewing this year as my public coming out as an Independent Scholar. I wish that I had access to the same funding bodies as institutionally-affiliated scholars do, but that is the only aspect where I feel that I am at a disadvantage.
Being an independent scholar is incredibly liberating. I always felt weighed down by the politics of the university and the backroom whispers of who’s (not) getting funding or who’s (not) getting tenure. Feeling like I was being constantly judged – and worrying that I wasn’t meeting the bar of academic success – held me back from pursuing what I wanted to do. Not because I was worried about derision from my peers or mentoring faculty for choosing to study an unpopular subject, but because the constant worry and stress of “measuring up” literally made me sick. Maybe it’s because of my class background or that my personal beliefs of equality and fairness are simply at odds with the current institutional system of higher education, but academia is not the environment to which I am suited.
I am excited about the upcoming year and the scholarly work that I am undertaking. I already have another book-length project in mind once I complete work on the essay collection. Being on my own has given me a level of intellectual and professional confidence that I never had as a struggling grad student. Throughout the last years of my PhD, several respectable people told me: “You know, Kathryn, you can succeed in academia if you want to. You have the skills.” I *do* have the necessary skills, but I lack the desire to compete for a tenure-track job. I think that my lack of hunger for tenure, combined with my deep and thorough academic burnout, was read by some of my peers as inadequacy. This past year has proved that I am anything but inadequate. I want everyone to know that they too have the same options for success outside of academia. There is no shame is leaving the ivory tower – and being on the outside doesn’t mean that you have to stop doing research.
Calling oneself an “independent scholar” is laughable to many people still entrenched in the university system. I know because I used to make fun of the concept myself – for individuals who only know scholarship within the walls of academe, the thought of it legitimately existing outside is both absurd and threatening. Of course, with experience, I’ve changed my tune and proudly call myself an independent scholar, even including the title on my business card. I want everyone I meet to know the kind of work I do and deem important. Sure, I probably won’t save any lives writing about feminist SF or disability in Star Trek, but, on my own terms, I am helping further conversations that I believe are important in establishing a more inclusive society.
I will be writing more about my life as an independent scholar because (1) not a lot of people write/discuss what it means to be one and (2) it is a natural extension of my advocacy for higher education change. I have been doing some research into organizations that support independent scholarship (through networking, grant applications, etc.) and I will post about those resources soon. If you also identify as an independent scholar – or are considering being one – and want to connect (for support, networking, etc.) please feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly.