February 26 2017

What Would a “Pretend” Scholar Look Like?: Interrogating Gatekeeping between Traditional and Flexible Academics

by Jessica Lee Ehinger, Boston University

large, decorative iron gate

As someone actively pursuing life as a “flexible academic,” I’m excited by the increased attention at AAR to nontraditional research. When I started out as a graduate student in 2008, I was, as far as I knew, the only one pursuing a PhD while actively considering roles outside of academia. I had never heard of anyone leaving academia, except for the occasional person “pursuing a career in politics,” and this was always spoken with a tone of disdain. When I started working full-time in 2012, the choice was purely pragmatic—my funding had run out, but I wanted to finish my degree, so I decided to try balancing my work and my writing rather than taking out loans for what I knew could be an indefinite number of years. I only first encountered the term “flexible academic” at the AAR-SBL Annual Meetings in 2013, and even then, it was presented largely as a theoretical—something academics could be doing, but not even necessarily something that we should want to be doing.

In the last few years, however, I’ve been excited to find myself part of a growing community, both at AAR and in religious studies more generally. Although the emergence of flexible academics is arguably a simple side effect of a limited job market, I believe these roles can provide context for useful conversations about academic culture in the 21st century, and it’s exciting to see AAR continuing to be at the center of these important conversations.

In my own experience, I’ve found two particularly strong currents of “gatekeeping” among traditional academics, both of which I think reveal something about academia’s own naiveté around its culture. First, there’s the continued expectation that anyone calling themselves a researcher should have a terminal degree. On the one hand, the expectation of a terminal degree can seem like a natural requirement for advanced research; after all, that’s the purpose of graduate school, to train students in independent research. However, the expectation that anyone who calls themselves a “researcher” necessarily has a PhD after their name glosses over the tremendous range of obstacles that still face those interested in pursuing a terminal degree. To start with, graduate schools still suffer from embarrassingly skewed recruitment rates in terms of race, gender, and socioeconomic background. This is particularly important for those of us in religious studies as we’re often working with real, lived experiences of people who may themselves find it impossible to become part of the conversation, so long as a PhD is the fee for entry.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to get into a PhD program and complete it, there’s a second set of gates to pass: the assumption that flexible academics, and flexible academics alone, cannot stay up to date on subject literature. Again, this one is certainly grounded in reality—as someone who works full time, it can be challenging to find time to review new journals every month. However, I hear the same thing from my colleagues in faculty positions: finding time for non-urgent work is always a challenge. When it comes to journals, this challenge is only likely to get worse for everyone, as, with the rise of online publishing, the number of journals has skyrocketed. Senior academics who are in the habit of reading a dozen or so “core” journals may be horrified to learn that, much like the mythical Hydra, each of those core journals may now have sprouted a dozen or more specialty journals, many of which are only available online, and some of which may only be available through subscription fees or a pay wall.  

Subscription access may be a challenge for flexible academics, but ultimately even those in faculty positions are at the mercy of their institution and its library services for this. At least in my own experience, I’ve found that my access as an Oxford alumna is actually better that of faculty members at several of the universities where I’ve worked as an administrator. This is to say nothing of the growing international market for “vanity press” journals, which may bear the appearance of genuine peer review, but with none of the rigor. Navigating this increasingly complicated network of journals is going to be a major challenge for this generation of scholars in general, and anyone who thinks that they’re safe behind a university-provided JSTOR subscription may be severely disappointed. Indeed, flexible academics may be able to provide important insights into how to de-complicate the situation, as many may end up working in publishing themselves, and provide first-hand knowledge into how and why these changes are taking place.

Similarly, it seems particularly relevant that we should have these conversations under the broader conference themes of revolutionary love and religion and hate, as they remind us of the continued importance religion plays in the day-to-day lives of many people, a lived experience that flexible academics are in a position to bring back into the conversation, through their myriad experiences with lived religion outside of the Ivory Tower. Although there are plenty of reasons why academics may want to maintain distance from the religious communities they study, the fact remains that the expression of religion, and the use of religion to justify acts of kindness and of violence, are still the real-life experiences of billions of people worldwide. The research that we do has the potential to impact those lives, and again, flexible academics may be well positioned to serve as a bridge between those two worlds, providing new insights into how research in religious studies is being received by religious communities and by the general public.

I don’t doubt that gatekeeping among traditional academics is well intentioned—after all, maintaining scholarly rigor is a key component of effective research. In focusing on flexible academics, however, I do think traditional academia may be overlooking some serious challenges facing the field as a whole. Similarly, in attempting to prevent the integration of work by “pretend” scholars, we may be cutting ourselves off from the real-world ramifications of the same concepts and phenomena we study. Barring a fantastic shift in the current job market, it seems unlikely flexible academia will do anything but continue to grow, so we need to be prepared to ask challenging questions about what our gatekeeping is actually keeping out.

Jessica Ehinger has successfully defended a doctorate in theology from St. Peter’s College, Oxford. She is currently the grants and administrative manager for the Boston University Superfund Research Program, and in her free time, provides career consulting for graduate students and terminal degree holders at RealWorldPhDs.com.

Image: "Gates" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  James E. Petts