The Gentleman Amateur and the Independent Scholar

No, that’s the not the start of a bad joke. As a historian who has spent the majority of my time researching sport, the notion of the gentleman amateur as the only kind of amateur there was in the sporting past has been a kind of ever-present. Thanks in part to the focus in a lot of the historiography on the role of public school’s in ‘inventing’ modern sporting practice – especially the work of James Mangan – the idea of the gentleman amateur as the only amateur is quite strong in people’s minds.

However, as sport spread its wings and many working-class, lower middle-class and plain middle-class amateurs began emerging in the hundreds and thousands of sports clubs that sprang up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth, the notion of the gentleman amateur as a distinct construct became even more important to reinforce. Or, as Duncan Stone has put it “while the aristocratic concept of the gentleman had social status inbuilt, amateurism – in the face of increasingly egalitarian social developments within and outside of sport – had to be constantly adapted in order to maintain the social status and distance between those calling themselves an amateur or professional.” [1]

Similarly, the idea of the amateur enthusiast in scholarly fields has been with us since the Enlightenment more or less. Today, we refer to people who produce academic material, but who are not affiliated to any University, nor have the benefits of same, as Independent Scholars. This is the category in which I have found myself since earlier this summer. But what does it mean? And what can we learn from the way the idea of the gentleman amateur was used in sporting circles to signify social stratification that tells us something useful about how the term Independent Scholar is used in the era of increasing academic precarity?

In her reflection on what it means to be an Independent Scholar, Kimm Curran notes that

From speaking to other colleagues who have made decisions not to go into academic positions (or are still struggling to find one), the failure factor weighs heavy on their mind. I am constantly reminded that the measure of success after the PhD is the coveted academic position. What about dedication to the discipline, teaching, supporting colleagues, advocacy and being part of the wider developments in your field and encouraging networks (research and otherwise)?

Kristina Busse, meanwhile writes that:

staying an independent scholar is actually quite hard: it requires the continuing desire to do research without the non-monetary but nevertheless quite real remunerations university positions afford. Depending on one’s institution, research constitutes different percentages of the expected workload, but most places encourage (if not demand) research and publication as part of the job description—and therefore as part of what’s done in exchange for a paycheck. As an independent scholar, however, research and publishing serves no quantifiable purpose. In a way, it’s love for learning and passion for knowledge in its purest form—or at least that idea is how I sometimes comfort myself.

In reality, though, it means that for the independent scholar, research is not and can never be part of one’s paid labor. It usually doesn’t feed into upper class teaching, as the general wisdom for the necessity of research at the university level goes. It doesn’t create lines on a vita necessary for tenure and promotion. And it doesn’t justify time spent away from one’s real jobs—be they family responsibilities, adjunct teaching, or some other way to keep yourself fed, housed, and comfortable. Being an independent scholar means that research and academic writing must be redefined as pleasure: I research instead of watching TV or reading a book; I write instead of meeting with friends or going shopping; I edit and do professional activities at the cost of my family time.

Both of these are worth quoting so extensively because they get to the heart of the matter. Being an Independent Scholar means having to rely on open-access, or still having people with institutional affiliation to loan you access codes. Of course, you could pack it all in. But why should you? But what about the wider idea of the Independent Scholar? What sort of figure do we imagine when we conjure them in our mind? For me, it is difficult not to think of some academic equivalent of the gentleman amateur of the late nineteenth century.

The idea of being Independent doesn’t naturally suggest to me being independent of the potential limitations that working in a university would entail, but being sufficiently independently wealthy of the pay an academic post would give you, to continue pursuing your research interests. Scholar too, has an old world feel to it. A pleasant word, but the construct ‘Independent Scholar’ has many negative connotations, as one myth-busting article proves.

I suspect – but would welcome someone who could furnish me with the figures – that many Independent Scholars these days are those who, in the face of less academic posts being available, or the rise of short-term contracts and little job security, must choose to be pragmatic about their ability to earn and live, as the two articles quoted above testify to. However, I am also sure that many Independent Scholars are retired people who have come to academia later in life, who explore it now as a passion and can look at that designation without the same sense of unease that young, early career researchers might. They can, and should justly be proud of it.

The designation Independent Scholar then is perhaps about as useful as the Gentleman Amateur. There are many types of Independent Scholar, but all are to some degree dependent on something: In my case, the generosity of friends to help me access articles via open access or other routes. Or, those for whom an academic career is not on the horizon, nor an ambition, they depend on their broader circumstances to enable them to conduct their research. There are many kinds of amateurism, and there are many kinds of independent scholars. Perhaps this is something we need to reflect on more.

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[1] Duncan Stone, “Deconstructing the Gentleman Amateur”, accessed online https://www.academia.edu/745795/Deconstructing_the_Gentleman_Amateur

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