Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Publishing and Perishing: Myths and Obligations

Over at the ever excellent RateYourStudents Blog today, the perennial issue of publishing verses teaching in academia came up. As regular readers will know, publication, or more specifically the lack of it, is one of my pet peeves. The discussion today at RateYourStudents was admirably balanced and well informed.

One particularly welcome thing about this discussion was an inclusion of a link to a paper by Historian James Axtell, that appeared in The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 29/1 (1997). The paper is simply called "Twenty-Five Reasons to Publish". I strongly recommend this paper to all academics, or interested parties, with academic interest. Indeed, this paper perhaps should also be recommended to students, as it is a paradigm of well-reasoned, amply referenced, academic prose.

Axtell attempts to dispel the myth of the alleged tension between teaching and research. He also provides a cogent set of reasons why professors who are active researchers have higher self-esteem, greater job satisfaction and are overall more healthy and functional members of the academic community, than those professors who do not. In addition to discussing the obvious arguments, he also offers some relatively novel ones.

One point (Reason Two), which was especially interesting was the observation that,

"Higher education is the only learned profession that requires no recertification at suitable periods after the award of the terminal degree and no regular upgrading of skills and knowledge."

He then argues that the process of scholarly peer review serves the function of ensuring that faculty members knowledge of current literature and issues, are adequate for them to be able to be effective teachers. He also maintains (Reason Five) that

"...academic meritocracy believes that peer review by fellow professors is the only reliable and justifiable way to evaluate its activities."

This he believes is far superior to teaching evaluations. In Axtell's view, academics actually have a moral obligation to publish, in addition to the more obvious mere professional and societal obligations to expand the boundaries of knowledge in a rigorous and disciplined manner. I have not seen this point argued before (although I have heard a fair few excuses given for contrary behaviors). As I say, I cannot recommend this paper highly enough. Indeed, there are a few of my co-workers, including one who has an office just down the hall from me, who I am tempted to print this article off for. I doubt that it would get read by the inhabitants of 'Deadwood' though.

Having found this paper, I decided to take a look at the table of contents of The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, as it is a journal I have not come across before. Also, as this Journal is published by the University of Toronto Press, it should probably be pretty good. I was not disappointed.

One of the papers I discovered had to do with blogging! This naturally grabbed my interest. Some time ago, around the time of the MLA panel on blogging, there were some interesting reflections on blogging and academia on various academic blogs. The consensus that seemed to emerge from the various cogitations was that blogging should, at best, be categorized under the general heading of 'service'. This seemed like a pretty reasonable conclusion to me.

A slightly different perspective on this topic is taken by William W. Savage, Jr. in his article "You Can't Spill Mustard on a Blog" [warning: .pdf format], that appeared in The Journal of Scholarly Publishing 38/1, (2006), pp. 47-51. Savage argues that the lack of peer review in blogging means that it should be assigned a status analogous to self-publishing. Savage offers an entirely reasonable argument in support of this position. When combined with the notion of 'blogging as service', it seems reasonable to assign blogging a value akin to producing pamphlets to educate the general public about one's subject. This to me seems an entirely reasonable analogy. I would never put making such a pamphlet on a year end report and analogously, I did not report my blogging. However, that being said, I know of co-workers who have claimed that, due to the nature of their field, even writing a letter to the local newspaper, should count as a publication for them! I find this claim frankly preposterous.

The consideration of the status of blogs and the importance of publication in academia, got me thinking about the ancient adage that in the Ivory Tower, the options are 'Publish, or Perish'. I realised that this adage is only true until a person gets tenure. After that, it becomes simply a myth. Once a person is tenured, it doesn't really matter too much if they do not publish anything in peer reviewed journals. OK, they might not get much of a pay raise and promotion is highly unlikely, but if they are happy just tending their garden, playing golf, or whatever it is these folks do with their time, then, at least at my institution, they can often get away with it. This makes me a little sad.

As I reflected on this conclusion, I paid a visit to the notorious RateMyProfessors web site. I looked up my co-worker who has the office down the hall and a couple of other folks who are non-publishers. Guess what! Axtell is right. These people get very poor reviews from the students too.

Although I know that it is a generally unpopular idea amongst many academics, but as a result of all this, I find the notion of post-tenure review more and more attractive. I believe that academics fear this proposal, because they believe that it would provide administrators with another potential tool of oppression. This is not an entirely irrational fear. However, if some sensible bench marks were set, then surely we could use such a device to police ourselves? For instance, if a lax standard (say nothing in print in a half dozen years), was adopted as a 'trigger' for such a review, then it would be hard for the 'suits' to use such a mechanism for devious purposes. This would mean that for most normal, productive faculty members such a review would never even be an issue. However, it would provide a mechanism to cull the Deadwood, to open up spaces for eager new Ph.D's who desperately want to find a tenure-track position.

I'd be interested if anyone has any thoughts on these matters, either for, or against. Now, I have to get back to working on the conference presentation that I will be giving later this month. ;)

The CP


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Listed on 
BlogShares web stats Site Meter