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.