Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 12: Research and Institutional Support

I don’t teach on Thursdays, and early in the semester made the decision that I would spend that day working on things that don’t relate to teaching: research, when possible, but thus far mostly job market stuff (and not incidentally, most blog posts have been on Thursdays). I’ve  stuck to that, generally, though I’m sure I’ve spent some Thursday time grading.

I’ve been thinking about research a lot this week. Almost by definition, graduate students come from big research universities, with lots of resources — and VAPs are often at smaller colleges, without them. I’ve been lucky that my contract includes money for research travel, and the college subscribes to the major databases like Project Muse and JSTOR. While the library isn’t huge, I still have access to anything I need through ILL. And while the department isn’t big enough to have multiple faculty in my field, I’ve been participating in an interdisciplinary reading group, and so still get some of the conversations I’d been missing. I also signed up to give a talk next semester, part of the college’s Interdisciplinary Scholarship Series. So while I’m at a “teaching college,” it’s one that is committed to faculty research as well — even for VAPs.

I’m becoming increasingly aware, though, just what a privilege this is. I rely heavily on Project Muse and its ilk, not just for research but also for teaching: in composition courses or upper-level literature courses I assign articles or sections of articles. Yet as Dino Felluga has cogently argued, these are commercial products:

corporatisation is transforming the university, profit margins are dictating what scholarly presses can publish, and commercial entities have been quick to capitalise on the Internet by selling back to our cash-strapped libraries our own knowledge in the form of password-protected online databases (from, for example, Gale Cengage, ProQuest, InteLex, SpringerLink, and Elsevier). If we do nothing, others will decide—have already decided—what we as Victorian scholars are allowed to research and publish

Felluga is talking specifically about Victorian studies (of particular interest to me), but what he says is true of all fields. The internet has the potential to increase access to everyone, but that potential won’t be realized if the materials we need are behind a prohibitively expensive pay wall.

I bring this up here because it’s an issue of particular concern to VAPs, and to tenure and tenure-track faculty at smaller colleges. It’s not the big, Ph.D.-producing universities that will be most affected (they have the resources to provide access to their students and faculty), but the smaller and more teaching-focused colleges. Which also means that an even bigger wedge could be driven between research and teaching — another issue close to my heart (I firmly believe the two are interrelated).

This isn’t meant to be doom-and-gloom. An initiative sparked by NINES, NAVSA, and Felluga “to fix the problem of access to commercial databases by helping to set up a mechanism by which scholars can gain access to the databases through their scholarly societies” is already underway. This kind of collective bargaining would leverage the influence of big research schools, and help all members of the scholarly societies like NAVSA. Felluga discusses the initiative in an article that will appear in Critical Inquiry in the next year — which you can read if you have access to the journal or a subscription to JSTOR.

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