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Writing What I Want in a Publish-or-Perish World

August 26, 2008

By Brown, Kevin

Let’s stop telling graduate students that all jobs have the same publishing expectations. We toss around the phrase “publish or perish” without thought these days, especially in the humanities. Certainly, we tell our master’s and doctoral students that, should they pursue an academic career, they will be expected to present papers at conferences, publish journal articles, and, to receive tenure, produce a monograph before their sixth year as a faculty member. Even many of us who teach only undergraduates tell our students about these demands. Yet now that I’ve reached my sixth year as a professor, I realize that we aren’t telling them the truth – or at least not the whole truth, as the court bailiff would say.

It is true that “publish or perish” applies at some institutions. In fact, one book before the sixth year might not be enough. The book must be published by a certain level of publisher, make a certain ripple through one’s discipline, and be backed up by articles in certain journals and attendance at certain conferences. Attending local or regional conferences while publishing in online journals, for example, will not be sufficient, at least not at some institutions.

Such a state of affairs exists, however, only at a few, select places of higher learning. Most professors at most institutions do not publish nearly as much as we might think. The January 12, 2007, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education includes an article about the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index, which was produced by Academic Analytics, a for-profit company, and financed partly by the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

According to the index, Harvard University had the top-ranked program in language and literature in 2005. Yet only 13 percent of the professors in the field had journal publications, and only 37 percent had book publications – even though 1.69 books had been published for each faculty member. The index thus shows that a small number of faculty produce multiple books, skewing the average. In the 2005 book Our Underachieving Colleges, Harvard University president emeritus Derek Bok illustrates this fact when he writes, “According to the Department of Education, faculty members, on average, spend more than half their time on matters related to teaching and less than 20 percent on research…. In fact, fewer than half of all professors publish as much as one article per year.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Not only do we believe that more professors at certain institutions produce more publications than they actually do, but we also accept that all institutions must follow their lead. In other words, we use a few universities and colleges to talk about all of higher education, forgetting the many other options that exist for young professors-in-waiting. We need to tell our students about these other options, especially those available at the institutions where we teach or earned our degrees. According to the 2005 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, only 6.5 percent of all colleges and universities are research institutions, while master’s colleges and universities make up another 15.1 percent. Other types of institutions account for the remaining 78.4 percent of U.S. colleges and universities.

We need to tell our students that they can find jobs at smaller, liberal arts colleges and other institutions that cater to specific niches in higher education. There are, for example, faith-based colleges; institutions that focus on particular ideas or serve particular regions, such as Berea College in Kentucky, Sterling College in Vermont, and Evergreen State College in Washington State; and colleges and universities geared toward the arts. Schools such as these make up 36.5 percent of the four-year institutions in the United States. Our graduates who pursue careers in higher education can just as easily end up at one of these institutions as at a research or master’s college or university.

My Story

All of this brings me back to why I get to write what I want. I initially spent two years at my current institution, Lee University, before I became frustrated, partly because I had little time to read and write what I wanted. So I left. After a year as an independent school librarian, I missed teaching, and I came back. But I made myself a promise: I would not write anything that I did not truly want to write. I had made the mistake the year before I left of committing to a writing goal for the year. While I met the goal, every time I sat down to write a poem that year, I realized that I was doing it because I had to, and the joy of writing was gone.

What has helped me to write more than I’ve ever written before is the freedom not to have to write anything. Publication is not a factor in tenure at my institution, nor a major factor in promotions. Nobody cares about whether my publications are in major journals or if they’re freely available online; I’ve written poems, essays, and articles about movies, education, poetry readings, church-related issues, and the literature I teach. Every time my department chair finds out about one of these publications, she’s pleased that I’m writing at all and that I’m getting our university’s name out there in this way.

I suppose some would see drawbacks to my situation. I teach first- year students, a good many of them, in fact, and I don’t always teach in my specialty. So I’ve evolved into more of a generalist. I’m expected to spend time at campus events, getting to know students and working on department and university projects. I don’t get any release time to work on research projects during the year (but summer teaching is optional, and it’s often well funded). One conference a year is paid if we present; beyond that, we’re on our own.

In the end, though, it is worth whatever trade-offs I have to make. I will not perish here if I do not publish, and I will not perish if I don’t publish the right articles in the right journals or the right book at the right time with the right press. Instead, since all of the pressure to publish is off, I can pursue whatever research project I want and explore it for as long as I want. If it never leads to a publication, I’m a better professor for the exploration. If it does, the school will appreciate my work.

Rather than presenting the academic world as a place full of cutthroats and rules and regulations about when, where, and why to publish, we need to show our students that there are other models. Before coming to Lee, I taught English at an independent boarding school; when I told my dissertation director about the job, he warned me that they would suck all of the life out of me. Instead, I had more free time to write and research there than I have ever had in any college or university. Instead of limiting our students’ views of academia, let’s expand them and show them a world where they do not have to fear perishing if they choose to write what they want. We can show them possibilities they have never thought of before, and we can live them out ourselves.

KEVIN BROWN

Writing What I Want in a Publish-or-Perish World

Kevin Brown is associate professor of English at Lee University.

Copyright American Association of University Professors Jul/Aug 2008

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