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Monday, May 21, 2007 | If you think arbitrage — trade that takes advantage of price differences between markets — is a modern financial practice, Aline Hornaday knows some medieval farmers who had it down cold. In fact, they were so good at arbitrage that they blocked the emperor Charlemagne from imposing uniform weights and measures across his empire, even though his public works and political reforms laid the tracks for modern Europe.

Hornaday, an independent scholar, discovered that the farmers resisted Charlemagne’s standardized measures, because they were avid arbitragers, profiting on commodity trading with uneven measures and prices. Even in the 9th Century, globalization had its wrinkles.

UCSD’s Stanley Chodorow cites Hornaday’s insight about medieval arbitragers as an example of what the independent scholar can bring to knowledge. Her experience as a businessperson gave Hornaday the understanding that had eluded academic scholars.

Hornaday worked for 20 years as editor and owner of the San Diego Transcript, which her father had acquired in the early 1900s. After the family sold the newspaper, she headed to UCSD for an undergraduate degree and never stopped, earning a doctorate under Chodorow’s tutelage.

If research into millennium-old economies seems arcane, think again. Hornaday said that in the middle ages, a well-defined culture and economic culture was falling apart and a new one was taking its place. The same is happening today, with attendant barbarity and cruelty accompanying the shift in economies.

Hornaday is still going strong; she is working on a new book. (She still refers to Chodorow, a historian of medieval law, as “my teacher;” although she refuses to disclose her age, I suspect she is an octogenarian, some decades older than her mentor.)

San Diego has a bunch of people like Hornaday; a recent story in The San Diego Union-Tribune described Jacqueline Bacon, who has recently published a new book about the first African-American newspaper, as an independent scholar.

About 75 of these free-wheeling intellectuals belong to San Diego Independent Scholars, which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary. I’m one of the newer members. A quick disclaimer: I’m not a scholar in the strictest sense. My education stopped at an MA; I’ve never been associated with a university as a faculty member, never did academic research. I’m a plain-Jane journalist. My favorite picture of myself is interviewing a source, head bent, listening intently, taking notes. That’s what I do: listen. Now, however, I’ve got a duly researched and footnoted book about to be published by an academic press (though in its mass trade division), so I guess I’m technically a scholar.

I found SDIS by accident, at a big cocktail party downtown that brought together alums from several schools who live in San Diego; I was in the sizeable NYU contingent. There I met Sandra Joss, an Australian native who had worked at George Washington University.

She too, is not a scholar, strictly speaking, but after 25 years of work at the World Bank, she acquired a Ph.D in anthropology, and then went back to her home country to do research on Australian aboriginal art, for a book in progress. I went to Sandra’s talk and slide show on her subject at an SDIS meeting.

Around the room, most of the heads were white or gray, but the discussion was lively, easy-going, free of tension and rich with shared observations on aboriginal arts around the world that many had either experienced or studied.

I was hooked and joined up.

Stanley Chodorow, who helped SDIS get established, said that independent scholars are not dabblers. Rather, because of their unique position, they can make real contributions. Their success comes in part from being outsiders. They are not faculty members, so without the pressure of teaching, they can focus on research.

More importantly, the independent scholar is not subject to the academic intellectual and career imperatives, especially remaining in the mainstream of scholarly thought, without risk-taking. Finally, like Hornaday, the independent scholar can bring a perspective from life experience that advances understanding.

Still, the world of academe is important for independent scholars. When the founders approached Chodorow for help, they asked for a few basic tools: library privileges, especially borrowing and access to inter-library loans, and connections to UCSD. He felt that the university, as a public institution, had an obligation to the public, to these serious scholars, and that as an intellectual community, the university would benefit.

Library cards in hand, the independent scholars took off, working on their projects and expanding their organization’s activities.

The group invites speakers for its monthly meetings. Some are members, like Victor Ramirez, an attorney, former Congressional candidate, and retired judge, who recently talked about the impact of the Patriot Act on citizens’ ordinary lives. SDIS also provides small research grants for members. Delina Halushka received this year’s grant for her new book on the oral tradition of Bolivia’s Quechua Indians.

SDIS has put independent scholars on the national map. In 1986, the San Diego group spearheaded a conference here that led to the formation of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. The Coalition today has affiliates in communities across the country, such as Washington, Princeton, Raleigh/Durham, San Francisco and New Haven — and in Vancouver.

SDIS has several study groups. A works-in-progress group reads members’ manuscript, an invaluable service. A literature group functions as a kind of book club. The Colloquy Café meets simply to talk about subjects of mutual interest.

Beatrice Rose runs the science group, which is currently reading and talking about the brain and how it functions. They don’t write books or papers, they’re just still learning —for the hell of it. “We enjoy meeting, exploring each other’s minds. It keeps us very happy,” Rose, said.

A retired physician and professor of public health, Rose also tutors eight Pacific-rim students. She is 92, and many of the original founders are in their 80s and 90s. Joss, who is the membership chairman, said that the group is looking to recruit younger independent scholars, who, like her, are in their 50s and 60s or younger.

Conditions for independent scholars have changed. Chodorow said that many of the original members were spouses of faculty members who were well-educated and wanted to continue their work but for whom career opportunities were limited. For example, Joy Frieman, one of the prime movers for SDIS arrived in San Diego from Princeton when her husband Edward was named director of the Scripps Institute. Today, career opportunities for spouses in universities and corporations are more plentiful, and they don’t have the freedom for independent scholarship.

SDIS meets at 1:30 p.m. every third Saturday (except July, August and December) in Room 111A in the Chancellor’s complex on the UCSD campus. Membership is open to serious researchers, although advanced degrees are not required. The group is still constructing a web site, so for more information, contact SDIS’s president, Cathi Blecki, at 760-603-8930.

Cathy Robbins’ book, “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)” will be published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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