February 7, 2008

Publish or Perish Shut Up

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education's newish blog Brainstorm, Gina Barreca chides whiny academics for complaining about the pressure to publish:
OK, so you not only have to show up and teach, you also have to publish. But in our line of work, that’s how you tell a professional from an amateur. The professional is somebody who does it all the time, does it publicly, does it well enough to be recognized by peers as a formidable presence, and who does it in such a way that other people can make use of and follow her example. (read the rest here)
While I take Barreca's point that getting stuff into print is an "initiation rite" that proves we belong in the "gang" of professional critics, I'm disturbed by her suggestion that it's pure self-indulgence to want to wait until you have something worthwhile to say.
Imagine, if you will, a nasal voice contorted into a faux-Brit accent passionately reciting the following lament: “I do research for my own particular and personal purposes. Why should I, I who have been the top student in my class since my mother took Lamaze, be pressured into publishing before my ultimate opus is up to it?”


Because a commitment to work is what is expected whenyou are a professional. Look, I brush my teeth twice a day but that doesn’t make me a dentist. I cook dinner five nights a week but that doesn’t make me a chef. Just because you read novels, you wouldn’t call yourself a novelist, would you? Because you read the paper everyday, you wouldn’t call yourself a journalist, right?

So why is it that after you’ve read a stack of critical volumes, you feel free to call yourself a critic?
Journals and bookshelves are overflowing with the results of the current insistence on publishing more and more sooner and sooner. To argue that scholars should just shut up and put out because that's the game they've agreed to play is realistic, no doubt, but shouldn't we at least pretend to believe that we publish when we think we are ready to make a genuine contribution to scholarship? Shouldn't we also worry about whether scholars publishing for the sake of doing so produce anything like the best work they are capable of? Further, it's a long way from writing to publishing; those academics I know who protest the pressure to publish are not objecting to the requirement that they develop their research into articles or books but to the way professional survival now hinges on a hugely competitive, often arbitrary, and supremely slow-moving process in which you have no recourse against even the most patently inept editorial decisions (as the MLA itself has remarked in recent years, tenure decisions have effectively been handed over to publishers). Certainly no one without tenure could afford the luxury of refusing to publish; it's disingenuous at best to describe resentment at these pressures as no better than prima donna posturing. And given what it takes to achieve tenure these days, isn't it perhaps a good thing if scholars take the opportunity afforded them by their hard-won security to think hard about their research and writing priorities and to take more time, if they want to and need to, to change directions, learn new things, and produce work they are proud of?


Joel Rodgers said...

Thanks for mentioning that post, Dr. Maitzen. I couldn't resist responding to it, because Barreca really seems to be suggesting that publishing necessarily translates into a right to speak as an authority on a subject.

Antinormative Geek said...

I think there is a dilemma between writing articles on very arcane books and running the risk of not getting them published, or wanting to get your articles published to get ahead towards tenure by writing about topical books which don't really need rehashed criticisms.

Rohan Maitzen said...

AG: If I understand the dilemma you see, I'd say you have it backwards, at least in the publishing areas I'm familiar with: in many ways it is probably easier to get published by writing on something arcane (less competition, more novelty value). But I'm not sure what you mean by 'topical books'.

Antinormative Geek said...

I mean books that have got literary prizes, or books by much vaunted/"classic"/"canon" authors...I understand the "less competition, more novelty value" argument, and I think it's a good one. Yet I would tend to think that one runs the risk of having very few people interested in actually reading a criticism on a really arcane book. I could be wrong - in which case, that's fantastic - but it seems like if more people read the criticism (if it's about a book many people will want to read about) then this will enhance one's way towards tenure. Am I misguided?

Rohan Maitzen said...

I think the perceived prestige of the journal matters a bit, but beyond that, I don't think anybody on a tenure committee thinks at all about how many people will read any particular article--something that can hardly be measured anyway. If it's a refereed publication, it counts towards tenure. Period.