Academic publishing and graduate students: Thought for the day

My grandfather was born in 1909: not old enough for the First World War and too old for the Second, he served in the US Navy between the two. He had, I think, about three or four years of elementary school before leaving to work; though I remember him as prone to quoting Scripture and Shakespeare and singing lines of Handel’s Messiah (interspersed, it is true, with saltier fare), he was self-taught in a way that is now somewhat difficult to fathom.[1] I moved around a lot from an early age, saw him and other non-nuclear relatives infrequently, and was never much given to family history. In consequence, I know little of it or of him besides a smattering of such disconnected facts and impressions.

The things I remember about him best are his things: his trumpet (with a mute that, for some reason, fascinated me as a young child), his tools (mostly for repairing furniture but including, exotically, a glass cutter and some beekeeping gear), the for me otherworldly decorations of his and my grandmother’s small-town New England house (old wooden relief of an eagle; framed map of Connecticut). When he died, I inherited — or chose to take, depending on one’s perspective — two of these things. One was a worn-looking hammer that I still regularly use. The other was a small, lined, leatherette notebook, the first page of which bears the pencilled heading “Thought for the day.”

The first and last entry in the notebook is just below: “Nothing so far.”

Obviously, we have a lot in common.

Besides clinching the case that the man had a great sense of humour (hey — just like me!), the blank notebook of thoughts for the day is a wonderful monument to writer’s, or maybe thinker’s, block. From another angle, though, it’s also a reminder that good work, probably good work of any kind but certainly good thinking, can’t be forced or even really routinized in a reliable or a reliably measurable way. That flatters the procrastinator and the academic poseur, but it is still true. And it certainly doesn’t flatter the ascendant model of academic work, according to which “productivity” is measured in numbers of articles rather than their qualitative content, numbers of citations rather than qualitative impact. Two empty notebooks that both get published trump one that contains real thoughts.

This is damaging for academic disciplines, including but by no means limited to the humanities. It is also, I think, a fatal lesson for students to learn. I can’t count the number of times when, as Graduate Program Director, I fielded questions from current or prospective graduate students who assumed not only that publications were a necessary part of completing the PhD but that they might even be necessary to get into a doctoral program in the first place. I started off by telling them: “Of course not! My first article was based on a seminar paper I gave in my last year of PhD study, and I only thought to submit that when I did because the convenor suggested it. You’re in graduate school — among other things — to learn how to do the work that leads to publishable research, not to show that you already know it.”

But the questions kept coming, along with stories of contrary advice from colleagues, so I began to wonder whether I should change my tune. And though we do not yet have an REF or equivalent, our universities are beginning to show interest in bibliometric criteria such as the Hirsch Index for tenure and promotion. And then there’s Delhi University’s recent announcement that, yes, peer-reviewed publications will be required of students before they can receive their doctoral degrees. We’re not there, yet, but shouldn’t we be preparing students for where we are headed?

In a word, no. One of the most embarrassingly revelatory moments in my own graduate career came when, in our first-year European history seminar, Caroline Bynum asked us to describe our research process — all the time-consuming steps from asking a question to finding sources to completing a piece of writing. After we’d described all the obvious (to us) stages, she pointed out one simple thing. We’d left ourselves no time to think. Simply publishing work may, in fact, not require much deep or extended thinking. (Which is not to say that it’s easy, only that it can be more or less mechanical. Article referees, tell me I’m wrong.) You don’t need to go full Thomas Kuhn to see that a fair amount of academic publishing is of the hole-filling variety. But doing your first truly original work, finding your own way into a field — or between fields — is another matter. That takes the kind of time, and I speak here as much about the quality as quantity of time, that cannot be reduced to a moment in a production process, a slot in a schedule, without being compromised.

I’m not suggesting here that a PhD should take a decade to do. I think the kind of time I’m talking about can, must, be found while reading, while travelling to archives, while writing a dissertation that is one’s first and often defining essay in a discipline. But I do not think it is compatible with worrying incessantly about a publication schedule. If that clock starts ticking on Day One of graduate school, as we seem to be telling our students it should, I don’t think the kind of time I’m talking about will ever be found. We tend to speak of students “floating” in programs, rather than progressing crisply from milestone to milestone, as lost. That’s often true, as retention rates attest. But, to change metaphors, some space for “floating” — from one interest, approach, field, language, purpose to another — is essential. It is often in that unregulated, unmarked, unmeasured space that students come to realize and begin to articulate how their interests and their ideas might touch larger audiences and wider worlds.

Further, as much as it is professors’ job to get their students through our programs, I think it is also our job to defend the space these students need to become scholars. Passively taking our pedagogical cues from the direction “things” are going in the university is an abdication of our unique responsibility to prevent them from going that way. Even if academic jobs are not in most of our students’ futures, we should at least fight to maintain this space, or claw some of it back, where we can — not least because it is our space as scholars, too. And for alt-ac or post-ac purposes, I have to think the existing routine of seminar papers, presentations, grant applications, secondary and archival research, language and other skills, and of course the development of deep expertise in one or more areas as well as the production of a book-length piece of writing affords job candidates quite enough to talk about without the need to tack on a handful of hastily pumped-out journal articles that mean even less outside the academic world than they do within. Who benefits?


[1] Correction: Better informed family members — his daughters — tell me that in fact he finished eighth grade, and that he took some correspondence courses in the 1950s. As my impressions of him are the point, though, it seems right to leave the text as is. And, to be honest, it’s still hard to fathom how he gathered and held on to all that he did.

4 thoughts on “Academic publishing and graduate students: Thought for the day

  1. Pingback: Social Media and the Serious Academic | memorious

  2. Pingback: Don’t Make Graduate Students Freak Out about Publishing | memorious

  3. While I agree with your reasoning, and I felt no pressure from my MA program to publish, I found that one PhD program that I applied to “required” publishing credit(s) in order to be competitive for funding. I was told that publishing a talk in that conference’s proceedings would count, and luckily one of the many conferences that I participated in does print their proceedings. I suppose it is one consequence of greater competition for fewer funding opportunities? :-/


    • That’s sad to hear. I’m sure there are other programs that do the like, just as there are programs that simply count publications or citations in making decisions about hires, retention, promotion, and tenure. It’s a lot easier and cheaper and requires less expertise to apply a simple metric than trying to judge the quality of the work, or (even more) the potential of a student who is just starting out. And I suppose if the point of academics is to produce as much print as possible, fair enough; but I don’t believe that and I don’t think I know any scholars who genuinely do, however they choose to act in committee. Even if volume of publication were the point, I don’t know that what a student can publish in the first few years of study (particularly in conference proceedings and graduate journals) necessarily tells you much about what they’ll do in an academic job, if they get one. And that’s another rub, because even if publishing early and often did guarantee a prolific career, the career itself is hardly assured. In an age of casualization and cutbacks, forcing students to spend time getting something, anything, into print — something that means next to nothing outside of academe, and neither predicts nor delivers success within it — seems pointlessly cruel. But it is presumably a cheap way of triaging applications.

      I’m not against students publishing, or graduate journals, or conference proceedings, by any means, to the extent that they build useful experience and are, hopefully, fun as well as work. But I think it’s unethical for universities and faculty themselves push students to turn the few years they have to digest and develop new ideas and interests into an unremunerated, overworked imitation of a career to which they may well never attain. If anything justifies a PhD in this day and age it’s that it is more than just training for the tenure track, not less.

      Liked by 1 person

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