Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Five Readers Want to Talk About Research and Publishing

I will be the first one to admit, I have been know to complain with the best of them about deciphering university policy or departmental norms concerning ‘what it takes’ to get tenure.

How does one weigh the differences between first and solo-authored publications? What if you have several publications in mid-level journals, and someone else fewer but published in the top tier journals? How many grants do I need to have to show the university I have value? Does teaching really ‘count’? I have heard on many occasions, “Good teaching will never get you tenure, but poor teaching may keep you from getting tenure.” Let’s just all gather together and read the tea leaves…

But regardless of the countless discussions with my colleagues, one question I have never asked was, “what is the point of research and publication?” I can only assume this question is from someone who has not yet earned a Ph.D. in their chosen discipline; someone who is unfamiliar with the process.

Simply put, the purpose of earning one’s Ph.D. is the production (research), dissemination (publication) and teaching of knowledge. Clearly, there are a variety of ways a person can utilize their advanced degree (e.g., university, research shop, think tank, public agency, private sector). What is reflected in the majority of our complaints is the difficulty in finding balance among these competing tasks.


In response to the perennial adjunct: There are many good reasons to publish. Historian James Axtell set out twenty-five of them in an essay that every prospective professor, regardless of field, should read.

A few choice points from Axtell's piece: Beyond the whole "advancement of learning" thing -which I don't mean to dismiss; it's why I became a historian rather than a stockbroker -publishing keeps us honest. There's no re-certification in higher education. Regularly presenting our work to peer review reinforces habits of scholarly honesty that could get lost if all we did was teach ignorant undergrads. And the professor as researcher acts as a model to students: really mastering a field requires seeking out new knowledge and criticizing received views, not merely repeating what is already known.


Tell anyone coming into the academy that they must publish, but that it means nothing.

Imagine that there is a large produce scale inside the conference room at each and every tenure and promotion meeting, and you'll be on your way. Fill that scale up with enough chapters and you're on your way.

I've been reviewing people for tenure for 10 years now, and I have never read a single word of their monographs and books - beyond the title perhaps. It's a carny game. Yes, you must publish, but it almost doesn't matter what, with whom, or how.

Anyone who tells you differently is at an Ivy or simply deluding themselves.


At last someone has dared broach the research question. In an increasingly competitive student market, how can self-serving heads of school keep toeing the line that research rules, regardless of the teaching fallout? I work in a very large journalism department, and it has always been the same: money and prestige can only be gained through research and publication, and undergrad classes will never have priority over these endeavours.

But when there’s only a handful of new research students each year and in-house journals that no one else reads versus 300 or so beginning undergrads, the research myopia seems not only misguided, but a serious threat to what is surely a more reliable (and historically consistent) money maker.


Academic publishing has long been a joke. We all can pretend that scholarship and research may fire our own teaching, but really it's just masturbatory indulgence. I don't write for any other reason than to thicken my tenure portfolio. I rarely write about things that interest me; I never write about anything that would mean a bit to my sophomore seminar students.

I saw the way the game was laid out when I started grad school, and I've followed the rules as they have been. I've worked my way through monographs of my favorite professors and they almost always make my vibrant mentors seem like dunderheads and dolts. They have learned a language that obsfucates enough to sufficiently charm the editors and readers at the various outlets. It's ridiculous, but at this point in my career (tenure year minus one), I'm not about to suggest the system be changed.