Publish or Perish: It’s Not What You Think

We all know that in academia, publication is the coin of the realm, no matter what they say about teaching. The old maxim “Publish or perish” nails this harsh truth to the door.  But there is more to it than meets the eye, as I learned years ago from my undergraduate mentor, who gave me my first lesson in staying alive.

I met Peter Bien as a freshman at Dartmouth.  He was recently tenured, renowned as a teacher, famous for packed lectures and demanding assignments.  I was a hotshot freshman, infatuated with all kinds of arcane knowledge from quantum physics to Finnegans Wake and eager for a career in teaching.  I took his freshman seminar, where we read Ulysses, and the next year he invited me to give a talk in his course on the modern novel.

At the time I thought Finnegans Wake was the coolest thing ever written, and lecturing in his class would be like playing basketball with Michael Jordan.  I spent weeks generating nifty ideas, choosing evocative quotes, and diagramming narrative structures and cosmogonic cycles. (This was the 1960’s, long before Powerpoint).  When the big day came, I arrived at the lecture hall laden with books and notes and lugging an overhead projector. The talk went smoothly and ended with a burst of applause.

Professor Bien and I walked back to his office, he silent, I flushed with excitement. I expected some sort of acknowledgement, at least a pat on the back, but he said nothing.  Finally, I mumbled something like, “Well, that went well.”  More silence.  Desperate, I added, “I hardly expected applause.”  He turned to me with a faint smile.  “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t put too much stock in the adulation of undergraduates.”

Talk about a punch to the gut! This was my mentor and role model, a campus legend, and I was certainly one admiring undergraduate.  How could he say that?  Worse, how could he feel that?  He must have realized at once that I was way too young for this kind of truth offered straight up with no chaser.  He quickly added , “You must realize, and you will, if you get into this business, that your students are always coming in fresh and new, while you are always growing and learning.  It is important to subject your ideas to the scrutiny of your peers; otherwise you will never know if they are any good.  You need to publish in order to stay alive.”

Over the years this conversation has stood in my memory as a landmark.  Even then, Professor Bien led a very convincing life, balancing teaching and scholarship with fatherhood, citizenship, and spirituality. He respected his students too much to withhold the tough love that was intertwined with his passion for the material.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that scholarship is about more than making the grade or clearing the tenure hurdle.  It’s about feeding the fire of your curiosity and creativity to produce enough light and warmth to nurture your students, your community, and your own life as well.

One Reply to “Publish or Perish: It’s Not What You Think”

  1. Well, yes and no. I agree with John that an active mind involved in research and scholarship feeds the spirit as well as the classroom. But publish or perish is one among many ways of describing the demands and potential pitfalls of faculty work. For as John’s message suggests, it is not publication that should be valued; rather, it is meaningful scholarship. Our thinking about faculty work remains embedded in the structure of graduate education, the reward system, and the conservative values of the university. This conservative model of faculty work makes it especially difficult to communicate effectively and realistically the roles and obligations of faculty in specific institutional contexts. For the tension between the research and teaching mission of colleges and universities exists at all levels of higher education, from the community colleges to the university. So while it may be the case that research remains the highest mission of faculty work (“publish or perish”), actual working conditions, job duration, and satisfaction of faculty caries widely not only across but within schools in the same category. Research and teaching schools may differ in size, mission, job security, material support, choice and range of teaching assignments, reward system, and so on. And yet individual opportunities are determined by faculty size, commitment, and collegiality, to name only a few of the variables that shape faculty work.
    For me, the representation of faculty work in terms of research and teaching as separate activities (and in conflict) is a debilitating but pervasive subplot in the narrative of the profession. It is rooted in a representation of faculty work that transcends the local institution and the ways that departments and institutions define the parameters in which this relationship is configured. And it thereby constrains the ability of aspiring members of the profession to imagine what it is most faculty actually spend their time doing. Re-imagining faculty work as embedded in actual institutional conditions requires a more frank acknowledgment of what we collectively know about the profession and a willingness to challenge complacent assumptions about intellectual work (“publish or perish”) and the institutions that support the activities of reading and writing that we value as teacher and as scholars.

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