I am sure I've complained in the past about access. Recently, I was flattered to receive a message requesting a copy of an essay I had in The Yeats Eliot Review back in 1999. The article wasn't available digitally to the grad student who was lucky enough to be at my alma mater and working with Dr. Jonathan Barron. He suggested to her that she contact me and see if I could help her. Fortunately, I answered the FB message and had a copy of the essay and a scanner. In return for my essay, she sent me a copy of her work, and for a brief moment, I felt connected to my field again.
I certainly don't feel that connection right now as I start making plans for research in 2019.
It's no secret that I've been considering writing a critical biography of Octave Thanet (real name Alice French). She's been on my mind since I found mention of her in Lilian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men. And, once I finish these other obligations I have, I hope to begin taking steps toward that work. I also would like to work toward a more updated study of American utopian text by women.
All of that requires that I have some access to resources. And, while my NCIS affiliation will get me 50% off an annual subscription to J-Stor, it won't help me get access to EBSCO MLA Bibliography Full-Text database. And so far I have yet to even get a price quote from EBSCO about how much I might expect to pay as an individual.
This all leads me to a larger gripe about academic research and writing. I've published before and would like to again. The difference now is that I want to do it solely for my own purposes, not for a job, not for merit points or a raise.
And shouldn't that be what we all want when it comes to publishing in journals devoted to our field of study?
And before anyone tells me that "well, you should still be teaching a class or two somewhere so you have access to the library there" know that this isn't a new problem for me. Back in 2005, I was lucky enough to be contracted to write an entry for American History Through Literature: 1820-1870. At the time, I had already left my brick-and-mortar job for virtual teaching. Luckily, I was in Little Rock, however, and had a girlfriend with access to UALR's library. I managed to get what I needed for that piece, but I remember it being a struggle even then.
Most of the schools I've taught online for don't have access to the databases that work for literary research. And their book holdings aren't usually great. So, even with a university or college affiliation, I didn't have great access. The last school I worked at had decent resources at one time, and they do have EDU degrees related to teaching English. By the time I left, however, they had cut practically all databases that would have even a fraction of the resources their English and Literature faculty might need to write essays that stand a chance of being published in a peer-reviewed journal. The librarians were nice to get me an occasional ILL article when I asked but between my duties with managing faculty, scheduling courses, helping with course design, committee work, and teaching that was a rare request from me. And I fought to get the databases and MLA bibliography back, as well as MLA style in literature courses for future high school teachers. I haven't asked, but I suspect nothing was done on either front.
Recently, a lot of emphasis has been on the "Vanishing History Major". I suspect that much like literature falling into the "just take what you need to get certified" that history is falling into the same hole. And, because much of my research relies on social, historical, and cultural forces, it's not surprising to me that history is suffering. The resources and databases that would allow me to do the kind of work I'd like to are the same ones that would be invaluable to anyone studying or teaching history beyond the basic general electives.
And, while the theory that students are simply choosing STEM and majors that they know are more "practical" on the job market holds some water, I also know that there's a huge amount of shift in terms of thinking of faculty as "professionals in the field" rather than "thinkers" in a discipline. While I often talked to students about my own research and academic writing, I was aware with each passing year that I wrote and published less and less. Not only was that due to the lack of time given a heavy teaching load but also on the lack of actual conversation and dialogue with my colleagues. I would say "peers" but in many cases that's not an appropriate term. Snobby as it is to say when you have an institutional "English Department Chair" who has the minimum 18 hours of graduate credit to teach undergraduate courses and an "English Language Arts Director" with merely a Masters in Tech Writing my full-time colleagues were not my peers.
A lot of my adjunct colleagues, though, are indeed my peers and are people I can have those conversations with when they aren't struck dumb by teaching too many classes or by the fact that the ELA director has designed courses where the final project is literally the student recording themselves reading out loud. And we're limited to discussing our own readings of things or what few resources we can find on the net because none of us have access to the tools that we need to fully participate in our field--even if we had time to read every issue of American Literature that came out.
Ultimately, this all indicates that we've reached that point where all research in my field is incestuous and only done as an obligation, really. We write dissertations to finish so we can teach undergraduates for a pittance. If we're lucky enough to teach where we have decent resources and access maybe we'll hit the jackpot and write an essay or two that shows up somewhere that matters and we'll get a job at a slightly better place with a slightly better teaching load. And maybe you move up by publishing, but does that publishing actually contribute to the larger discussion and advancement of the field?
My training (I have a PhD in American Literature) was as a researcher, thinker, and writer. And while my teaching career did not support that for the most part, I am now at a stage in my life where I can return to that work. The problem is that the tools are reserved for those who want to use them to keep running on the hamster wheel. I don't think it's impossible to do the research as an independent researcher, but like most of my career as a virtual professor it requires that I hustle more than those in the traditional tracks. And I'll shell out money to do it.
My larger sadness is that my peers who are still wanting to contribute through teaching are saddled with teaching so many undergrad general education courses that they have little time to pursue the work that would better inform that teaching. Classes are locked down and pre-created with little room for those of us with the skills and interest and drive to do the research and push the envelope to do so. And they are burdened with low pay, crappy digital access, and little time to do any real work beyond grading papers.
The students don't benefit from this, either. It's a scary time when students don't value history and literature and are ill equipped to read critically.