Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Friday, January 4, 2013

Independent Scholar Conundrum

I began to use the title "independent scholar" two years ago when I started presenting at conferences, and they asked for an institutional affiliation, and I had none to give. I had two masters degrees, but was not currently a student, and I was not yet an adjunct, so couldn't even claim that as my institution. From reading other people's name tags at conferences, it seems to have become a catch-all phrase that means a lot of different things to different people.

There are a couple of issues I've come across though as an independent scholar, that were brought home to me today as I opened a packet from a journal I'd sent an article off to in hopes of having it published. It was an expansion of a paper I presented at a conference over two years ago. I had quite frankly given up on hearing anything, as I'd submitted it over two years ago, and emails asking (politely) for a status update, had gone unanswered. However, it was accompanied with a lovely cover letter apologizing for the delay, and explaining what happened (lost in university mail). Very professional, and I appreciated finally knowing what happened, and having an answer.

It was a rejection. But it was the notes from the reviewers that made me think of the issues I encounter as not just an independent scholar, but one who lives two plus hours from the nearest university, and has no access to an academic library, or sources.
Let me be clear, I don't disagree with any of the notes, and welcome the feedback (as hard as any rejection is to read). But the reviewers had two main complaints:
  • "an inattention to scholarship" and "naive assumption that nothing has been written about" this subject
  • "citations do not furnish available printed sources"
According to the reviewer, these problems are "fatal" to the effort. Both address, for me, the same issue/problem I have struggled with since I found myself adrift.

If I become interested in a topic, and I start to research it, I generally do two things as I don't have an academic support system, or university library to go to. The first is I research authors who specialize in that topic/field and what books they've written. The second is a scouring of JSTOR for journal articles. With the first, once I've identified books I think will be helpful, I email the titles to Sharon, who is in charge of interlibrary loans at my public library. She is wonderful, and has always been able to get me everything I've asked for from the big university libraries. And I use JSTOR because frankly, I can't afford subscriptions to the journals that cover my field of interest and few of these journals are completely online.

And here's the problem- just because I can't FIND the research, doesn't mean it doesn't EXIST. If I build an argument on what is available to me, the risk is I am building a house of cards that possibly leaves out some crucial, seminal work on the topic. And worse, I have no idea.

So, what's the solution? The easy answer is to get myself into a situation where I do have access to everything I need to be successful. While that it certainly my end goal, what's the solution in the meantime? How do I avoid appearing out of my depth, or worse, an academic hack? Compounding this problem is that not only do I lack access to many academic resources, but for a large part, I also lack the academic contacts that could perhaps steer me in the right direction. While the Interweb, and Twitter are great for making contacts you probably couldn't make without technology, they do not take the place of being part of a collective, face to face, pool of people and knowledge.
I have to say, when I read the reviewer's comments, I was mortified because I could see exactly what he/she meant. I know some people get rejections/constructive criticism and their ego causes them to reject it all out of hand but that isn't me. This is THE journal in my field, and I looked like an idiot. In a field so small, and with a name so distinctive, am I now branded as a hapless amateur? Will it color future hopes?
One hopes not.
However, because I'm not sure what the solution is, I am very aware that this is an issue that could come up again, and I really would like to avoid that. Now, I find myself nervous about other articles I've sent out to journals, and am waiting to hear from. Did I make the same colossal mistake?

Comments, suggestions, and helpful advice welcome!

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