R. Stephen Humphreys, University of California, Santa Barbara
(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, Volume 23, no. 2 May, 2001)
Many of the problems confronting Middle Eastern studies are specific to that field. One thinks first of all of the persistent territorial, ethnic, and religious conflicts that blight the lives of so many in the region, but even apart from these grave matters of life and death, scholarship in and on the region confronts a host of obstacles: poor libraries, inaccessible archives, tortuous procedures to obtain research permits, etc. Such issues are all too familiar to most of us, and we have become fairly adept in overcoming or at least compensating for them. Obviously we desperately want to see the kinds of structural changes that would ameliorate research conditions, and each of us needs to work, patiently and tactfully, with his or her colleagues in the Middle East to help bring these changes about. Equally obviously, many of these changes cannot begin to happen until the region’s endemic political tensions are resolved or mitigated. In that effort, the great majority of us can expect to play only a very small part, however expert we are and however strongly we feel.
Beyond such region-specific challenges, however, Middle Eastern studies faces others that are common to every field of scholarship and teaching within the American academy. These include rapid change (not always for the better) in the nature of scholarly publication, fluctuating levels of federal support and degrees of involvement (ranging from indifference to serious interference), the growing number of part-time faculty in many universities, the promise and threat of distance-learning, the increasing sense of consumerism and entitlement among our students. Everyone will produce his own list of worries.
Among all these, I find myself increasingly preoccupied by issues of copyright. Rules that were once clear, or at least seemed well established and little questioned, are now up for grabs. In the humanities and social sciences, the endeavors of most scholars made very little money for anyone. Hence neither authors nor their institutions worried too much about copyright issues. Except for a very few spectacularly successful textbooks, royalties and subsidiary rights were exiguous at best. External grants were carefully keyed to one’s academic salary and so produced little additional income (except for “summer money” and some travel expenses) to the scholars who obtained them. Even the most talented teachers could only reach an audience made up of the students on their own campus. The financial reward for extensive research and publication or (on a far smaller scale) for outstanding teaching was a nice merit raise – an add-on of a few percent to the salary one was already making. The real reward within this system was prestige and the esteem, or perhaps the jealousy, of one’s colleagues.
All this is changing very rapidly. The Internet throws all the traditional understandings of fair use, first purchase, and ownership into confusion. On-line publication is very different from the traditional printed journal or codex; it is paid for differently and accessed differently. What does that mean for the standard publishers’ contracts that we have so mindlessly signed for so many generations, in the sure and certain knowledge that there was really no money in it for anyone. Perhaps a graver matter, some universities have begun to ask whether their faculty are in some sense producing work for hire – that is, whether a university has some claim to the scholarly publications and teaching products (including classroom “performances”) of its faculty. After all, faculty members are hired to teach certain subjects and do research in certain fields of inquiry, and they carry out these tasks in large part with university resources, on university property. Needless to say, the legal issues in all of this are novel, exceedingly ambiguous, and strongly contested. They will become the stuff of our professional lives in a very few years. I cannot begin to deal with them in this letter, but I think it essential to call attention to them, and to ask whether MESA – already active in some many professional arenas – has a useful contribution to make to the debate.