Technology and Tenure
Yesterday I learned that my university’s library bought a database of 180,000 scanned historical documents relevant to the eighteenth century. This database (like so many others available at major universities and research institutions) makes doing historical research immeasurably easier. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in many cases, a scholar can accomplish in a half hour what might otherwise have taken, literally, an entire career.
Consider my own recent experience. I was interested in writing an academic piece on the general perception of weeds in early America. To undertake this research, I accessed an on-line database of several hundred thousand documents from roughly 1640-1850. (Note: my university cannot afford this particular database, so I’ve gained access through the account of a close friend who works at an institution with ivy on the walls.) Within an hour, I’d found and printed out more than 74 documents (out of 187 found) with references to “weeds”-my chosen search term. Making matters even more convenient, the term was highlighted, thus obviating the need for me to read the full text.
Given the range of documents that came up, it’s safe to say that-had this powerhouse of a search engine not done the digging for me-it would have taken decades for me to find these obscure references to weeds, most of which are buried in documents living in a vault under some research library in Boston or Philadelphia (I live in Texas).
This experience is becoming increasingly common for those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences. And 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. Which brings me to my question-one that I ask with some trepidation in light of the recent shootings at a University of Alabama faculty meeting: Should publishing requirements for tenure go up for scholars in the humanities and social sciences?
Right now it’s typical for a history department to require the publication of a book for tenure-some places, like my own institution, will accept five peer-reviewed articles (which basically means you can cannibalize your dissertation).? Writing a serious book in six years (the average time for tenure review) is no mean feat, but keep in mind that every newly minted Ph.D. has already done most of the research for his or her book when the tenure clock starts.? It’s just a matter of revising the dissertation into a book.? Not easy, but then again, not a project that necessarily demands six years. It’s perhaps for this reason that some universities are starting to demand the publication of a book and “significant progress” toward a second.
But, to my knowledge, that’s as aggressive as upping the tenure requirements have gotten. Again, I’m entertaining this claim with many reservations-for example, upping tenure requirements will most likely lead to an increase in mediocre work-but I think there’s a case to be made that a university’s tenure demands should keep pace with technological advances. Recall, it took me an hour to generate a decent document base for my weed article, a couple of days to see what other historians have said about the topic (not much), and a few weeks to write the piece.
But, to keep this idea in check, I should note that my piece was not outright accepted, leaving me to settle with the purgatorial “revise and resubmit.” So, as you might guess, it’s back to the databases for me.