Talk about fortuitous coincidences: Julia Gergits' "Created in Their Image" (IHE) appeared just one day after James McWilliams' "Technology and Tenure" (the NYT Freakonomics blog). Gergits examines how working at a regional comprehensive affects one's professional profile, especially when it comes to research and publishing; McWilliams suggests that, given the rise of electronic resources, perhaps it's time to intensify tenure requirements for the non-science types. Noting that his access to a specialized database had turned up all sorts of "obscure references," McWilliams comments that "while I think there are many downsides to relying too heavily, or exclusively, on this form of research, there’s no doubt that it allows the engaged scholar to pursue questions in a much more streamlined (and inexpensive) manner." Ergo, he cautiously argues, "I think there’s a case to be made that a university’s tenure demands should keep pace with technological advances." Of course, McWilliams also admits in passing that his access to said specialized database wasn't quite legit: he "gained access through the account of a close friend who works at an institution with ivy on the walls."
This argument, when taken alongside Gergits' (quite good) essay, reinforces my suspicions that the New Golden Age of Electronic Research, far from subverting, transgressing, or doing any of those other popular verbs to the boundaries between Those Folks at R1s and Those Folks at Other Places, may well shore them up. My library does not subscribe to any of the major primary text databases in my field. Nor, at present, does it subscribe to all of the bibliographical resources I need to use, like the most recent incarnation of the RHS bibliography. (Needless to say, there was dancing in the streets when we at least managed to get our hands on Project Muse.) This could be because, well--let's just make a random guess, shall we?--we don't have the money to do this. (Actually, that's not a random guess: I used to be the department's library coordinator, and I know we don't have the money.) There is only one Ph.D. granting institution in the area, the University of Rochester, so if we're desperate, we can trek over there--although, in fact, they don't have that many subscription-only databases, either (my early modernist colleagues can get their hands on EEBO, at least). In other words, unless something is available online for free, I have no easy way of getting my hands on it. (Of course, I could always--wait for it--travel. Which kind of does in the savings, there.) If we're thinking about possible discrepancies between a scholar's profile at My Sort of Place and a potential job at a R1, then "let's hike publishing requirements!" only accelerates the discrepancies in question.
In and of itself, that's not an argument against McWilliams' position. However, as Gergits points out, R1s and comprehensives are already split when it comes to the very definition of scholarship. For example, as she notes, textbooks, which "garner little respect on the national academic market, count as scholarship at YSU: they require research and careful writing, and they can have a huge impact on the field through guiding and directing students." (In the past, I've pointed out that there's much more freedom at a comprehensive like mine to write whatever actually interests you, which is how I've come to specialize in authors nobody else has ever read. The flip side: people ask me why on earth I'm writing about such things.) Obviously, schools with more $ will fund more research that involves spending $--I'm not railing at this state of affairs. But I am railing at attempts to discuss the New Golden Age of Electronic Research in ways that do not acknowledge how localized that Age is currently proving to be. Yes, we have more free stuff; we also have lots more stuff that only a few, relatively well-funded colleges can purchase. Somehow, I don't think piggy-backing on somebody else's account is going to be the approved wave of the future.