My Short, Tragic Career as an Independent Scholar



Several months ago, I had what seemed like a fantastic idea: now that I was retired from teaching English at a community college, I could engage in critical research, something I’d missed during those years when I taught five or more classes a semester. I had managed to write a couple of critical articles in the last few years of my tenure at a small, rural two-year college in Northern Michigan, but it was difficult, not only because of the heavy demands of teaching, but also because I had very limited access to scholarly resources. Indeed, it is largely due to very generous former students who had moved on to major research institutions that I was able to engage in any kind of scholarly research, a situation which may seem ironic to some readers, but which is really just closing the loop of teacher and student in a fitting and natural way.

And so last fall, on the suggestion of a former student, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply to  a scholarly conference on Dickens, and my proposal was chosen. In time, I wrote my paper (on Dickens and Music– specifically on two downtrodden characters who play the flute and clarinet in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, respectively) and prepared for my part in the conference.

It had been close to 25 years since I had read a paper at a conference, and so I was understandably nervous. Back then, there was no internet to search for information about conference presentations, but now I was able to do my homework, and thus I found a piece of advice that made a lot of sense: remember, the article emphasized, that a conference paper is an opportunity to test out ideas, to play with them in the presence of others, and to learn how other scholars respond to them, rather than a place to read a paper, an article, or a section of a book out loud before a bored audience. Having taught public speaking for over a decade, I could see that this made a lot of sense: scholarly articles and papers are not adapted to oral presentations, since they are composed of complex ideas buttressed by a great many references to support their assertions. To read such a work to an audience seemed to me, once I reflected on it, a ridiculous proposition, and would surely bore not only the audience, but any self-respecting speaker as well.

I wrote my paper accordingly. I kept it under the fifteen-minute limit that the moderator practically begged the panelists to adhere to in a pre-conference email. I made sure I had amusing anecdotes and witty bon mots. I concocted a clever PowerPoint presentation to go with the paper, just in case my audience got bored with the ideas I was trying out. I triple-spaced my copy of the essay, and I–the queen of eye contact, as my former speech students can attest–I practiced it just enough to become familiar with my own words, but not so much that I would become complacent with them and confuse myself by ad-libbing too freely. In short, I arrived at the conference with a bit of nervousness, but with the feeling that I had prepared myself for the ordeal, and that my paper would meet with amused interest and perhaps even some admiration.

It was not exactly a disaster, but it was certainly not a success.

To be honest, I consider it a failure.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. In fact, I was satisfied with the way I presented it. But my audience didn’t know what to do with presentation. This might be because it was very short compared to all the other presentations (silly me, to think that academics would actually follow explicit directions!). Or it could be because it wasn’t quite as scholarly as the other papers. After all, my presentation hadn’t been published in a journal; it was, as C.S. Lewis might have called it, much more of a “supposal” than a fully-fledged argument. Perhaps as well there was something ironic in my stance, as if I somehow communicated my feeling that research in the humanities is a kind of glorified rabbit hunt that is fun while it lasts but that rarely leads to any tangible, life-changing moment of revelation.

Yet this is not to say that humanities research is useless. It isn’t. It develops and hones all sorts of wonderful talents that enrich the lives of those who engage in it and those who merely dip into it from time to time. I believe in the value of interpreting books and arguing about those interpretations; in fact, I believe that engaging in such discussions can draw human beings together as nothing else can, even at the very moments when we argue most fiercely about competing and contrasting interpretations. This is something, as Mark Slouka points out in his magnificent essay “Dehumanized,” that STEM fields cannot do, no matter how much adminstrators and government officials laud them, pandering to them with ever-increasing budgets at the expense of the humanities.

And this is, ultimately, why I left the conference depressed and disappointed. I had created, in the years since I’d left academia, an idealized image of it that was inclusive, one that recognized its own innate absurdity. In other words, sometime in the last two decades, I had recognized that research in the humanities was valuable not because it produced any particular thing, but because it produced a way of looking at the world we inhabit with a critical acuity that makes us better thinkers and ultimately better citizens. The world of research, for me, is simply a playground in which we all can exercise our critical and creative faculties. Yet the conference I attended seemed to be focused on research as object: indeed, as an object of exchange, a widget to be documented, tallied, and added to a spreadsheet that measures worth.

Perhaps its unfair of me to characterize it in this way. After all, most of the people attending the conference were, unlike me, still very much a part of an academic marketplace, one in which important decisions like tenure, admission to graduate programs, promotions, and departmental budgets are decided, at least in part, by things like conference attendance and presentations. It is unfair of me to judge them when I am no longer engaged in that particular game.

But the very fact that I am not in the game allows me to see it with some degree of clarity, and what I see is depressing. One cannot fight the dehumanization of academia, with its insistent mirroring of capitalism, by replicating that capitalism inside the ivy tower; one cannot expect the humanities to maintain any kind of serious effect on our culture when those charged with propagating the study of humanities are complicit in reducing humanities research to mere line items on a curriculum vitae or research-laden objects of exchange.

I can theorize no solution to this problem beyond inculcating a revolution of ideas within the academy in an effort to fight the now ubiquitous goal of bankrupting the study of arts and humanities, a sordid goal which now seems to characterize the age we live in. And I have no idea how to bring about such a revolution. But I do know this: I will return to my own study with the knowledge that even my small, inconsequential, and isolated critical inquiries are minute revolutions in and of themselves. As we say in English studies, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. And in the end, I feel confident that it will take far more than one awkward presentation at a conference to stop me from pursuing my own idiosyncratic path of research and inquiry into the literature I love.

6 thoughts on “My Short, Tragic Career as an Independent Scholar

  1. Bravo, Suzanne! I hear you reading this along with me as I enjoyed every word. Also, your analysis of academia as “business” is spot on; we saw this coming more than a decade ago when we were encouraged to treat our h.s. students as “the customers.” And to embrace the accompanying adage about them always being right. Suffice to say I am thrilled to have survived the classroom and am enjoying retirement immensely.


  2. I’m not sure how this relates, but here goes:

    I remember a birding trip I signed up to. I had not been on many, and most had been too large for me to nurture the kind of fascination I have with bird watching. Although I am not as obsessive about certain aspects of bird watching as others, and feel some shame about it at times, I still get great joy out of it. I do not check off a “life list”, but keep my list unpacked in my head and get a good deal of pleasure from knowing a bird when I see it or hear it, as opposed to having to look it up.

    This trip was through a wildlife preserve in the very southern tip of Texas, which I thought would give me an in to see some of the species that are found nowhere else in the U.S. It promised to be a small group traveling in a van, an idea that appealed to me, having, as I have said, bad experiences with other birding excursions that were too large and, in the end, too noisy.

    Much to my disappointment we spent the vast majority of the trip inside the hot little van. We would get out at certain spots where we were told a certain species frequented and, having seen or not seen the species (and having checked it off in our Petersons) would move on to ride in the van for another 20 minutes or so to the next spot.

    It occurred to me during those interminable stretches in that van that what I like most about birding was being out in the field where the birds were and watching their behavior, not just spotting them and recording it and moving on without noticing other key and often thrilling aspects of the bird’s livelihood where it lived.

    I laugh about it now. I remember a spirited (and long!) argument that edged toward catty and vicious between two of the birders. It was about whether one had seen a Little Egret (an “old world” species, one claimed, that had never been seen in the area, although it had been seen elsewhere not so far, at least in regard to where it usually lived) or just a lowly common every day Snowy Egret. There are important distinctions between the birds, of course, but once the bird had flown other facts about the habitat and the behaviors of the bird/s and others around it seem to me to be a more worth while focus… and after all, the alleged Little Egret was gone… so no one would ever know who was right, would they?

    Later we went on to see if we could spot an Alpomado Falcon… a once more common raptor in the area that had just started to be re-established; a smart and handsome bird that resembles in some ways a very over-sized Merlin.

    Our group, as was its habit, lumbered up into the parking lot, everyone got out with their books and binoculars and stood in a loose clump, looking in every direction. I attempted to wander off a bit and was warned against walking in the grass because there might prickly things. Ten minutes passed and no Alpomado Falcon. We all clambered back into the van. I picked a few prickly things off my pants.

    Later, when we drove in our own rental car back through the preserve and stopped at the same spot, we got out and stood quietly for quite a long time. There was a intercostal tidal flat stretched out before us that was filled with roseate spoonbills, several species of ibis, white pelicans and other identifiable and unidentifiable gulls, shorebirds and waders. Lovely lines of flight and settling in, wading and boundary setting all intertwined and mutually dependent. It was quiet and I could have stood there for even longer than I did.

    Suddenly, just as we were about to turn back to the car, a fine and energetic raptor flew up from below our somewhat elevated edge of the parking lot. It was an Alpomado Falcon… looking us right in the face, flapping a bit and then zooming off.

    Moral? Who the hell knows. But it seems to me to fit right in to your story and to the nature of how systems interweave and rarely can be appreciated by reducing them to their most infinitesimal acts or parts without a more concurrently acknowledged and expressed global viewpoint.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You didn’t say much about the specific circumstances surrounding your presentaion. Were you one of the first to speak, or were you scheduled when everyone was already half asleep after sitting through hours of interminable speechifying? Did your audience carry bitter memories of being force fed “Great Expectations” in high school? Was it near lunch time?
    I’m sure you did fine.


    1. I was the very first one to speak, so we can’t blame it on people being sleepy after lunch! I think I did ok, but it’s not an experience I’m looking forward to repeating any time soon….


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