Friday, June 26, 2015

Gentleman Scholar

Patrick Malahide as Edward Casaubon, gentleman
scholar par excellence.
When I left academic employment in 2012, one of the things I imagined for my future was that I would need to find some way to re-invent the idea of the gentleman scholar. I would, of course, be unable or unlikely to put myself into a position of being independently wealthy, but I hoped that I could earn enough each week and each month to leave me some time to write. I hoped, if nothing else, to be able to continue making the contributions to the academic enterprise that had brought me both the excitement of learning and discovery and the respect of at least some of my peers in the tiny little world of Anglo-Saxon literary scholarship. I still had ideas, and some ongoing projects, and the work of re-defining our understanding of Old English verse that I had undertaken was a project that could literally take a lifetime to see to fullness. I felt I still had much to do.

So, the first time I went to Kalamazoo (where the big medieval conference is each year) after quitting my academic job, I listed my affiliation as “Independent Scholar.” And as I told many people at that year’s conference, I was trying my best to wear that label with pride. I was anxious, of course, because I was wise (or experienced) enough to realize that “Independent Scholar” carries zero academic cachet. Indeed, I suspect it’s a designation often enough looked at with suspicion: if one judges a scholar by the scholar’s affiliation (which happens all too often, I think), then independent scholar is at the bottom of the hierarchy of affiliations. I wanted to be a gentleman scholar, as opposed to an independent one, precisely because it wouldn’t mark me so clearly as an outsider or wannabe.

Whether I thought of myself as a gentleman scholar or an independent scholar, however, I found it very hard indeed to get motivated to do academic writing once I had left the academic workplace. Not having an office on campus made it harder to manage the requisite library work, and many of my books were now boxed up in the basement. But these hurdles could have been managed, I think, if I had been more motivated to do the work. This year, after three years out on my own, I’ve finally started to feel like there’s a place in my life for a kind of academic work again, and I’ve seriously started drafting another academic book, finally. This blog, too, is a place where I am starting to do a kind of academic work: to say my piece, from the persepctive of someone who is out of academia, and yet is not, really.

Book V of Middlemarch's original
serial publication.
But given my recent thinking about finally trying to adopt the mantle of the “gentleman scholar,” I’ve spent a good part of the summer reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a huge and ambling (if not rambling) excursion of a novel: the kind of book that you might take on a trip to a foreign land, and one that might take you on such a trip as well. Eliot’s fictional town of Middlemarch is populated by a varied and diverse set of characters, from a wide spectrum of social levels: in fact, as I told Rosemary at one point, if I was reading a science fiction novel where social status was so finely sliced and so nearly determinative in its effects, I’d say it was completely implausible, and that no human society could possibly be so concerned with such social hairsplitting. Fiction is stranger than fiction, I guess.

Of course, part of my interest in the novel at the moment lies in the figure of Edward Casaubon, the gentleman scholar. Casaubon, like myself, has passed fifty, and his marriage to Dorothea Brooke clearly takes second place in his world to his own life-long academic project, A Key to All Mythologies. On their honeymoon in Rome, for example, Casaubon spends a good deal of his time in the Vatican library. Uh-oh—I guess I remember doing a bit of academic work myself when Rosemary and I traveled to London after our marriage.

Unlike me, of course, Casaubon is a churchman, responsible for the pastoral care of an entire rural parish in the neighborhood of Middlemarch. But he’s a wealthy heir, beyond his own expectation, and once he is able to, he’s happy to pass most of his pastoral responsibilities along to his curate, while he focuses his energies on his scholarship. But I was surprised by the shock of recognition I felt to read, at the end of chapter 38, that, “all through his life Mr. Casaubon had been trying not to admit even to himself the inward sores of self-doubt.” Casaubon has impostor syndrome.

Fortunately, I never felt the impostor syndrome that so many of my academic friends have described to me, in which they feel unworthy or uncertain of their place in the academic world. But to the degree that Casaubon seems to have impostor syndrome himself, he struck me, of a sudden, as more like many of my academic colleagues than like me. And then the idea took its hold on me: it’s not me, who is today’s gentleman scholar, but the institutional gentry of the tenured class.

I know some of my readers out there are themselves tenured, or on the tenure track. So perhaps I will not or cannot be forgiven for thinking that the essential and often unconscious or unacknowledged reliance of many tenure-track research faculty upon the heavier teaching loads of adjunct and untenured teachers has an uncomfortable parallel in Casaubon’s casual reliance on his curate. Nor, perhaps, can I be forgiven for suspecting that Casaubon’s curate has only a contingent guarantee of employment, if any guarantee at all. Nor will some forgive me for feeling like Casaubon’s unworldliness, self-importance, and prickly abrasiveness are too often matched by some in today’s academy.

And maybe, too, I have my own share of self-importance, unworldliness, and abrasiveness, even here in this blog: but I make my living these days in trade (in business, as Caleb Garth would put it, with a kind of awed astonishment). Surely the virtual sinecure of tenure should remind us all of the class implications of a term like “gentleman scholar,” regardless of the sex or gender of those in tenured positions. Casaubon’s impostor syndrome causes him to constantly compare himself (at least in his own mind) to his intellectual nemesis Carp and the others at Brasenose, but even in the novel, it’s clear that he’s more like the scholars at Oxford than he is like most of the folks in Middlemarch.

I think I am a working scholar, in comparison. This year, when I’ve gone to conferences and given lectures, I’ve had “Chancery Hill Books” listed as my affiliation, even though a business affiliation is probably even lower on the (always implicit) academic hierarchy of value than “independent scholar”—precisely because it suggests that I work for my living. But my scholarship is not independent of my work, any more than I am independently wealthy. Terms like “independent scholar” and “gentleman scholar” now remind me of the class structure of contemporary academia, in which non-tenure-line teachers are the working class, and the tenured folk are (in comparison, at least) a kind of metaphorical gentry. The tension between these two kinds of faculty status echoes and reflects the unreal reality of the American class system, which Americans can rarely think clearly or effectively about, because it’s part of the American ideology to believe we don’t have a class system at all. But it’s alive and well (or, perhaps, not so well) in academia.


  1. I've been an "independent scholar" for a long time now, and while the stigma once attached to the term has faded a bit, it certainly hasn't gone away. However, the good work of people such as yourself and others who continue to do thoughtful work from outside of the academy is helping speed up the change. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thanks for the response and encouragement, Kendra. There will be more posts on the way.

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