Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Blake Ostler

1) Tell us about your background, education, and career goals when you were just starting out? Did they change over time?

I grew up in Sandy, Utah at a time when it was growing from around 8,000 to 75,000 residents over 10 years. I am the second of 6 children. My parents were both pioneer descendants — 75% Swedish and 25% English. My mother was active in the LDS Church and for many years my father was somewhat active. I have told the story of my questions at age 14 and how they led me to gain a testimony elsewhere:

2) How did you decide to become an independent scholar?

After my testimony experiences in high school, I had numerous questions that arose because my beliefs were challenged. I learned about and researched as best I could while still at Jordan High School about issues presented by evolution, materialism and the relation of the mind to the brain, changes made to both the Doctrine & Covenants and Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the Book of Abraham, the challenges of higher criticism to the Bible (and hence also to the Book of Mormon), the Kinderhook plates, etc.. I think that if I had not had the spiritual experiences that reoriented my life I would not have maintained my faith. Although we often had gospel related discussions in my home, there was no one to talk to about these issues that required so much more investment in time and thought to really grasp. I was on my own. In a sense, going it on my own left me with a deep sense that I was accountable to learn all I could about these issues and deal with them as honestly and with as much integrity as I could. I was already an independent scholar all own my own (cue music from Les Miserables here).

I also read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance while in high school (still the best selling book touching on philosophy of all time). I was hooked. For a guy who raced motocross it was the perfect intro to philosophy. I began to read every philosopher I could find. I found that I had a particular affinity for Kant and William James and so read everything I could find about their thought.

I also read Les Miserables in French and then excerpts in English. I discovered that Hugo’s own prose was so much more powerful than just reading in English that even the best translations really failed to convey the power of the text. That experience convinced me that an entire world of literature in other languages waited to be explored.

Perhaps the most formative event for a career choice occurred while I was a senior sitting in Trigonometry and Calculus and thinking to myself: “What can I do for a career that makes lots of money but does not require trigonometry or calculus?” The thought occurred to me that I could be a lawyer, which would use my skills as a debater on the debate team and I would never have to do any trigonometry. My heart began to burn within me and I knew that I would be an attorney — and a litigator at that.

I served in the Milan, Italy mission from February 1977-79. While on my mission I had a deep desire to read the scriptures in their original languages to capture their power. I decided to learn Koine Greek and “biblical” Hebrew while in Italy by taking ten (10) new words and two (2) verbs in full conjugation each day. I wrote the words down and looked at them every time I had a break of a few minutes. I would go over the list the first thing in the morning and then go over it in my memory at night. When I woke I recalled the list without looking before getting out of bed so that the vocabulary and conjugations would pass from short-term to long-term memory. If I could not remember a word it went back on my list. After 5 months I bought a Greek New Testament and started with the Gospel of John — by far the easiest Greek vocabulary in the New Testament but the most profound in its meaning. I was aiming at reading Isaiah in Biblical Hebrew and started on that after 6 months with a Hebrew dictionary at my side. New worlds of meaning within the semantic field of words and phrases opened to my view. I have continued to study languages using this method. However, when I learn a modern language after about 3 months I find people with whom I can converse because speaking is light worlds away from reading a language.

When I returned from my mission I looked into becoming a philosophy major at BYU. I found out that at the time the major required two modern languages, two ancient languages, and another major in either business or one of the sciences. (Yup, they had pretty much assured that no one would ever waste time becoming a philosophy major because they did not want people to become dependent on welfare). However, I already wanted to study as much as I could about the relation between brain states, consciousness, behavior and moral accountability and so neural physiology (they called it psychobiology at the time) was a natural fit and the languages were doable for me.

I fell in with a tough crowd at BYU who published the 7th East Press. I did the interview with Sterling McMurrin that got it kicked off of campus. I was well on my way to being a Maverick.

I was lucky and quickly made friends with great mentors, including Truman Madsen, David Paulsen, Sterling McMurrin, James Faulconer and others. I believe that I received a world-class education in philosophy at BYU. My last three semesters I had mostly directed readings classes with a ratio of three-professors-to-one-student (3-to-1) in each class. My grade was dependent on having a publishable paper (where proof was in publication).

I then transitioned to the University of Utah for Law School where I also studied with a Jurisprudence or philosophy of law emphasis and I co-taught several classes in history of philosophy with Sterling McMurrin.

I have since taught adjunct courses at the BYU Salt Lake Center in philosophy and co-taught with David Paulsen in Provo. I also co-taught a class with Richard Sherlock at USU and have lectured at several universities on Mormonism and sometimes other areas of philosophy. I also have published in professional philosophical and law related journals.

I never made a choice to be an independent scholar. I discovered that I was going to be an attorney and I am just a guy who studies and writes.

3) What are some lessons learned along the way?

Having mentors who can teach, prod, challenge, open doors and be close friends is very important. The mentor-student relationship is not only incredibly important in becoming a scholar, it is important in becoming a person. Choose wisely who will be a mentor. As I already mentioned, I think I had the greatest mentors in the world such as Neal Maxwell, David Paulsen, Truman Madsen and Sterling McMurrin. If one were choosing the best and brightest in Mormon scholarship at the time I was in college, these were the creme de la creme.

I learned to pursue my passion and study what really interested me. I discovered that passion creates a secret vortex of time so that there are more hours in the day and more energy to pursue questions and issues that just fascinate me.

I never cared what others thought. I learned early that I could be an expert in anything with enough time, enough study and enough commitment. The key here is “enough” – so refer back to what I said about passion.

Although I never cared what others thought, I knew what it was like to be facing deeply meaningful existential questions all alone. So I chose to be a resource where I could. In addition, while I have taken stances that challenged some orthodoxies, no one has ever raised any questions about my faithfulness or whether I should be disciplined — even when I had GAs’ children in classes and I presented arguments as strong as I could that are faith challenging. I also gave the best responses that I knew about. I just gave it the best I could.

I also had really good friends. I met Kevin Barney at BYU because we were in the same ward and we quickly became friends and co-conspirators. John Sorenson was our Stake representative and we also became friends. I loved just talking and exploring the issues together.
4) How do you balance your work as an independent scholar with your other responsibilities in life?

I need only about 5-6 hours of sleep so I study and write in the early morning hours. Refer back to what I said about passion. I get excited about the issues I study and ponder (not ponderize) and analyze and rip to part and put back together again. I am also passionate about my clients who I serve as an attorney. I could work from home much more than I do but I find that it is easier for me to focus by compartmentalizing work from family time and both from study time.

We have a saying in the Law: “The Law is a jealous mistress.” I do trial work and so sometimes it is just 24-7 dedication to the case I am working on. However, I find it so natural to study the issues in philosophy, science, philosophical theology and so forth that I just do it without having to think about doing it. It is just who I am.

I also reserve Friday nights, 7-9 every night and Saturday morning for family. I also think it is important to exercise and work out which I do every day either in the morning or at night. I have designed work-outs that range from 15 to 90 minutes so I can get it done fast if I need to.

5) What do you see as the biggest pros and cons to independent scholarship?

One challenge is that everyone else is getting paid to travel and attend scholarly conferences and I am paying for air fare, hotel, meals and so forth. When I was younger that was a much greater challenge.

Another challenge is that no one is sponsoring the work to getting published. The articles have to be more solid to get over the credibility threshold than someone affiliated with a university because the credibility has to be established without credentials from an established university. I am not saying that articles by independent scholars are always better; I am saying that they have to be pretty solid to get consideration.

Another benefit is that I can say what I want and there is no pressure to publish. But the greatest benefit is that I can engage in a profession that makes sufficient for my needs without having to put up with departmental politics. I once considered teaching philosophy and spoke to folks at several universities. My take away was that departmental politics were vicious and for a conservative there was a hidden undertow, never acknowledged or spoken, that would be difficult to swim out of without drowning from the unseen and unacknowledged force of the current. So I decided against it.

6) What advice would you give to undergraduates or masters students considering independent scholarship?

Go for it. Follow your passion. You can have it all. Life is too short to not explore every issue and learn everything I can.

7) What would you like to see the role of the independent scholar become in the future of Mormon Studies?

I believe that with official “Mormon Studies” programs that the field of amateurs will diminish. I have been disappointed in the lack of depth of philosophical issues and historical philosophy and theology in Mormon studies — with some notable exceptions. There is this quixotic relationship between those who study what Mormons do on the one hand, and those who do it on the other as if Mormons were animals in a zoo to be gawked at and analyzed. There are numerous studies about what others have thought historically in Mormonism, but very few developing that thought. In other words, there is a study of those who do without doing it themselves.

Such a result is the logical outcome of the unquestioned assumption that one must approach issues from a non-committed point of view in Mormon Studies. Apologetics are anathema and even arguing from a faith position is seen as too risky. I do not deny that it is risky for those looking for a home in the academy. That is why there is room for independent scholars who are willing to use their real names and assume the risk of taking a stand on an unpopular issue that may get one black-listed in the academy. If one cannot take such stands or make such arguments and remain in the academy, then so much worse for the academy.

Mormon studies seem to often reduce to the study of history. As important as that is, there is much more than regurgitating the past. I said that caustically on purpose. I would like to see those who have courage to enter the fray, to produce great works of philosophy that spring from their experience with Mormonism or studying Mormonism. I would like to see the Mormon Augustine, Aquinas or Plantinga (or if you prefer continentals, then the next Foucault), the interested-in-Mormons scholar who learns from Mormonism that there are really fascinating options that have not been explored and new vistas to see.

Above all I would love to see scholars who are so passionate about what they do, whether independently or in the academy, that they inspire others to love what they love.

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