By Robin Wilson
It might be easy to mistake Thomas Ernst for a traditional academic. His CV has a long list of journal articles, and he can often be found on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He attends lectures, works with graduate students, and spends time in its libraries. But Mr. Ernst is not on the tenured faculty at UMass, nor is he a professor anywhere else.
He is an independent scholar, who does most of his research and writing from the solitude of the second bedroom in his small apartment near the Amherst campus. In the past 20 years he has written a book, published a dozen journal articles, and contributed two chapters in encyclopedias.
"Tom is a known quantity in the field. He is an expert on adverbial constructions and how they contribute to meaning," says Rajesh Bhatt, head of linguistics at UMass. The department has given Mr. Ernst the title of visiting scholar, which comes with an e-mail address and access to the university's libraries and to academic presentations by UMass professors and visitors, but nothing more. "It's remarkable that he has persisted," says Mr. Bhatt. "It's not an easy life."
Independent scholars like Mr. Ernst, however, are a growing part of the academic landscape. They may have been jilted by the academic job market, or are uninterested in either being on the tenure track or in cobbling together full-time work as adjuncts. Like traditional professors, they perform research, secure grants, and publish books and papers. In some cases, their work is having an impact on their disciplines, challenging established views and advancing knowledge in the field.
But independent scholars say their contributions are frequently discounted by tenured professors, who, as gatekeepers of scholarly conversations and the distribution of intellectual ideas, tend to exclude those who lack university credentials. Some prominent professors acknowledge that such scholars do important academic work. Yet professors question whether the blogs, podcasts, Facebook posts, and tweets that independent scholars sometimes depend on as alternatives to journal publishing are more harmful than helpful to the quality of scholarship.
The work life of an independent scholar—with its freedom from the performance requirements of the tenure track—can be attractive to those with young children and those who can't or don't want to relocate for a faculty job. Yet theirs can be a spartan existence, lacking intellectual colleagues or recognition, a calling that most can afford to pursue only by working extra part-time jobs or relying on a partner's income. The financial needs of independent scholars can also get in the way of academic freedom by limiting the kinds of questions they are able to ask and the projects they are willing to pursue.