January 2008 Newsletter, Vol. 37, No.1
First Person: Pamela O. Long
On Being an Independent Historian
After a slow start, Pamela O. Long made a successful academic career outside the university system. Here, she discusses ways and means of being an historian without a university paycheck.
There are plenty of us out here, so it seems
reasonable that we should claim some cultural space beyond the usually unspoken
designation of those who have failed to get an academic job. In my view, being
an independent historian is not only possible (both economically and
intellectually), but should more often be considered a legitimate alternative to
being a historian in the academy. In our profession, a tenure-track job and
thereafter, tenure, is taken to be virtually an absolute measure of success.
Certainly, I have not been immune and at various times have applied to
tenure-track academic positions, all of which were offered to better candidates.
There are other humanist and creative disciplines though, for which the position one holds is not the key indicator of success. Rather it is the work that one does. Take artists and writers. Many of them have academic jobs, but many do not. The measure of their success is usually based on what they paint or what they write. It would be good for our profession to move a bit closer to this focus on the work as opposed to the position. Unlike say, scientists, who need expensive equipment and virtually never work alone, most historians, like novelists, are able to work by themselves without permanent institutional ties.
An important issue for all historians is how to find the conditions to do excellent, original, or even ground-breaking historical scholarship at a reasonable rate of productivity. An academic position can certainly provide such conditions, but, as we all know, it may also provide just the opposite. I suggest, and my own experience proves, that it is possible to craft a reasonable alternative as an independent historian. And of course that crafting includes the necessity of achieving a basic income.
After I received my Ph.D., I was definitely a slow starter in terms of publications. I had a post-doctoral fellowship and a one-year teaching position, and had revised my dissertation into a book. When the manuscript was rejected by the first press I sent it to, I decided it was awful and never sent it out again. (I was clueless.) Initially, I didn’t have better luck with a long article I had written. Five years after I received my Ph.D., I did not have a single publication. I have been making up for lost time ever since.
In those early postdoctoral years, my partner and I and our infant daughter moved from Manhattan to Washington, and I found what seemed to be the perfect job for me – a permanent half-time position (with benefits) as a literary examiner in the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress. I worked four hours a day at my job, walked across the street to my study facility in the L.C. and worked on my own research for two hours before going home to spend time with my daughter.
During this time, I decided that since I was a complete failure at being a historian (no one would have disputed this), I was free to do whatever kind of history I wanted to do in the way I wanted to do it, no matter what anyone thought about it. I recall how liberating this conclusion was, how it freed me from all kinds of imagined constraints as I plunged into my new work that concerned craft knowledge and craft transmission in premodern Europe. This was the ground on which I built all my subsequent work. In one of my favorite movies, My Architect, about the architect Louis Kahn, an interviewee was asked about Kahn’s failure (probably because he was Jewish) to get many commissions in Philadelphia. The respondent said something to the effect that one should never regret such negative circumstances in hindsight – that they may constitute in fact the very basis on which a person does his or her best work. Although I have not yet made my trek to Bangladesh to see Kahn’s superb masterwork, I take this comment to heart. It was certainly true of my own circumstances.
Key events furthered my own work. No matter how many publications I accumulate, I will always remember when my first article on the Vitruvian commentary tradition was accepted at a peer-reviewed journal, the process overseen by a diligent editor who had read the manuscript carefully and seemed to truly appreciate it. No matter how many grants and fellowships I receive, I will always remember my first NSF grant in 1987, which I viewed as a miraculous event. Both circumstances gave me hope in the real world. I happily quit my tenured job at Copyright to take the NSF grant and a chance to work on my research full time.
Over the years I have constructed a patchwork of grants and fellowships, contract work, and visiting teaching positions. Along with my partner, who is also self-employed, we have constructed a perfectly satisfactory middle-class (by no means wealthy) life in which his contribution has always been more or less equal to mine, and mine to his. I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture – at times I panicked and felt genuine despair.
I kept working and developed a few practical strategies along the way. Apply for grants every year. If an application is rejected, absorb the feedback carefully, and then apply again. In addition, years ago I decided to never again teach an adjunct course – meaning a course for which I was paid $2,000-3,000 with no benefits – and I never have. My private slogan became: “For McDonald’s wages, I work at McDonald’s.”
Every scholar has his or her own way of working. Despite my best intentions, I often am working on three or four major projects at the same time. Being an independent historian allows me to do this and also maintain reasonable productivity. I have also taken on complex tasks that I could not have managed as an academic. One has been the co-directorship of the Michael of Rhodes project, a forthcoming (MIT Press) three-volume edition of a fascinating manuscript written by a man who began his career in 1401 as an oarsman on a Venetian galley.
An on-going project consists of research for a book about engineering in a 30-year period in sixteenth-century Rome. My approach is to read entire 30-year runs of particular types of archival records – time consuming, but I have made many discoveries thereby. It’s doable because I can apply for grants every year without waiting for sabbaticals.
I read widely in a way that would simply not be possible if I had an academic position. When I’m at home (not on a research trip), I get up whenever I feel like it, usually at five or six in the morning, make coffee, and read for two or three hours before I start writing or go to the library. I find this reading and thinking essential to the work I do.
Every scholar has his or her own trajectory and I’m not suggesting that mine could or should be followed by anyone else. But I have discovered that independent scholarship is not just a default position, but a real alternative. We independent historians are in many places working away, often within constraints economic and otherwise, to be sure, but also free of the often onerous restrictions imposed by routine academic employment. Like the work of many painters and poets, my work (in this case historical scholarship) is at the very heart and center of my intellectual and creative life. I actually spend all my time doing it. What could be better than having work that you absolutely love to do, and the chance to actually do it, all day every day?
Pamela O. Long