Publish or Perish, Musings of an Anxious Integral Alumnus
Matriculation into Grad School has roused some emotions in me. Like, it really got me twisted up. I am, beyond all things, so pumped to dive into the world of research and academia. However, I’d be remiss to not write about my lurking anxiety over that expression used so readily by many who were or are still in the Academy – that is, “publish or perish”. To add to the mix, mentors and friends constantly remind me that success in Academia is NOT solely based on a meritocracy. Hypothetically, I could write some of the dopest papers for coursework assignment, maybe even write an awesome dissertation, teach some classes, earn some fellowships, speak at a conference, and do it all at an Ivy League institution. I could earn the respect and admiration of my peers and colleagues while doing so. But, so I’m told, none of that will secure me a position in Academia unless I publish some papers in a reputable journal related to my field. Even if I do meet the right people, publish enough papers in the right journals, get an interview and then a job as a professor (adjunct, associate, or tenure-track), I would still need to continue churning out publications until I receive tenure. Just about all of the awesomeness that comes in the total-package of Ryan VillegasTM means nothing in the academic market if my CV is void of publications. There are thousands of other PhD holders who have the same, if not better, qualifications as me. What’s more is that many PhD holders will apply to new positions having already been published in well respected journals. Some of them will have successfully published whilst in their PhD, others will have written the seminal text in their field. This is my competition.
My GSI (graduate student instructor) at Berkeley in the summer casually told me and my classmates that he is writing his dissertation while also writing another book on the side. He had been published for the first time during the fourth year of his program. Intimidating? Yes. Daunting? Yes. Debilitating? Not really but almost. Due to the obscure and tenuous nature of the humanities in Academia, there will probably only be a few professorial positions on the market for which I am qualified to teach when I get my PhD. I’ll toss my name into the ring, of course, but what are the chances that an institution is going to hire me when/if I have no publications? More to the point, why do publications matter so much? I am the product of a Great Books program, which really just means that I was able to indulge in learning for the sake of learning. My undergraduate tutors, professors and mentors encouraged me to satiate any intellectual curiosity that came across my mind, so long as I grounded my interests in logical arguments and analysis of primary texts. I did what they said. I read a lot of books, ones that I wanted to read simply because they were interesting and ones that were mandated by the curriculum. The world of publishing seemed like such a non-issue for me as a young, naive, but avid student of the liberal arts. But now that I leave my nest and make way towards the real world of Academia, I remain fixated on that dilemma. “Publish or perish?” I thought to myself as I walked from Berkeley’s campus to Casa Zimbabwe, “Says who? I want to speak to the manager! Why do institutions of learning and knowledge value so highly the act of publishing? How the hell did this come about?” And then I realized something rather remarkable – my questions regarding the present value of publishing has merit in its own right, but it ironically serves as a damn interesting research topic for grad school.
I began, that very same day, scouring the internet to see if I could locate any texts that would shed light on the history of publications, and history of the book. What I found was more interesting than I could have imagined. Enmeshed into this question is a half-millenium-long debate regarding notions of patenting systems, literary proprietary, copyright, and intellectual property law1. I began to study the history of the book and discovered that there was a growing drive to capitalize on the intellectual world when the printing press was introduced to Europe in the 15th century. With the introduction of the printing press, people could write, edit, publish, sell, and transmit knowledge so much easier than ever before. Yet apprehensions over authorial rights began to take hold over people who wrote texts or were in possession of some craft knowledge. This was a valid concern because, as some of us unfortunately know, people will steal your stuff or take credit for your work in a damn heartbeat. Fricken piracy.
I cannot stress this enough: the following narrative on the history of the book and the history of publication is a major oversimplification. I merely paint a picture with very, very broad strokes. From that moment on, patents were granted on a more regular basis. Once a patent was secured, no one else could claim that the work/craft was theirs. This effectively meant two things: 1) anyone violating the patent (by reduplicating the author or craftsman’s work without permission) would be breaking a law. This endeavor sought to eliminate the rampant piracy practices taking place when people discovered that they could simply counterfeit works and sell them as their own and 2) anyone in possession of a patent, i.e., an “author” or “inventor”, could legally gain as much financial compensation for the mental labour exerted in the writing as was sold in the form of print. The potential for a mercantile enterprise in the form of a book trade became apparent. In $hort, people learned that you can $tart making $ome cheddar a$ an author and producer of knowledge (or a$ a counterfeiter).
This guiding principle of commercialization governed the book trade henceforth and, therefore, the culture of intellectual life as well. It originated through trade secrets in the guilds of the 12th century before manifesting into the attitudes towards craft knowledge and literary authorship. It was present when Filippo Brunelleschi refused to unveil his craft knowledge of how to construct the Duomo in Florence unless he received a patent; it was present when Aldus Manutius established his printing press in Venice in the late 1400’s, and when he warned readers against counterfeit printers of Lyon who were selling his editions of classical Greek and Latin texts; it was present when the Stationer’s Company in England during the 16th century was tangled up in legal battles of who deserves credit for what idea, and therefore who would receive what financial compensation; it was present during the Scientific revolution when Boyle, Fitzgerald, and Walcot all raced to develop a machine for desalinating salt water, so as to be left with “pure” water and salt alone, and by extension also discover a means to carry out nautical operations more conveniently. When navigating the oceans, whether it be upon endeavors of international trade or naval expeditions, seafarers had necessary cause to bring their ships to shore for the sake of acquiring fresh water. A desalination machine would effectively reduce this need by dramatic degrees, thus enabling seagoing expeditions to ensue more efficiently than ever before. A working desalination
machine, much like the other aforementioned examples, would arguably bolster the economic market while also augmenting the credited inventor’s monetary status.
On the other hand, some viewed the monopolization of knowledge as a sad, detrimental practice in the transmission of knowledge and learning. One such example (among countless others) is when Francis Moult acquired a published copy of Nehemiah Grew’s2 medical treatise written only in Latin, a text intended for a Latin reading audience only. Moult translated the text into English and sold it. He was concerned with accessibility of texts and knowledge, and found it abhorrent for some elitist dude to preserve medical information to Latin readers alone. For Moult, pirating a published work was not a ploy to elevate his financial status; he simply aimed to make the text accessible due to his sense of social responsibility. Hell yeah, Moult. Fight the system! Rage against the machine!
Moult’s sentiments are still relevant today. Criticism towards that reality of publish or perish is still ripe amongst graduate students and professors alike. This summer, I was privileged to live in the same Co-Op as a curious science-minded fellow in a science-related PhD program at Cal. Let’s just call him Derick. He appeared to dedicate much of his time to the indulgence of his curiosity by concocting random experiments as he so desired. He had a certain air to him, an aroma of experimental philosophy that emanates from the empiricist attitudes during the scientific revolution. His funky endeavors would always call to my mind the Baconian method of experimental, practical, empirical knowledge, elaborated and enumerated in Book II of Novum Organum Scientiarum, and in the “New Science” espoused in New Atlantis as well. Several times did I find Derick undertaking random experiments in the house with equipment that he jerry-rigged from household appliances. I once said goodnight to Derick as he was recording data from an experiment on the bottom floor of our co-op. It was sometime around 1:30 am. I woke up around 8 am and went to the balcony to have a cigarette. He was still there, wearing the same clothes, continuing on with the same task of data collection. He had hardly moved, save to record his data.
Nehemiah Grew is credited with the “discovery” of Epsom Salt, which was really just a specific kind of salt found in the town of Epsom.
In between the drags of our cigarettes, we lamented over the messed-up reality of publish or perish. “Why”, we bemoaned, “doesn’t Academia just let me live the life of the mind?” In the midst of those laments, he was procrastinating on writing his dissertation, and I was procrastinating on my upcoming research and writing. Like children complaining of a toothaches while throwing yet another jolly rancher in their mouths, we complained about the institutional demand for publications while not seeking to get published. Yet we both knew how prudent it would be to try writing and publishing some delicious stuff if we intend to survive in Academia.
I guess a certain question still looms under the surface of these apprehensions: do I want pursue a career in Academia? The notion of public or perish is a lot of pressure. After all, Academia, so I’m told, boils down to one of two things. Would I rather publish or perish in Academia? Honestly, dude, I don’t have an answer for that question. What I do know, however, is that I found a research topic that really butters my biscuit. I’ve been reading about the history of the book and history of publication since mid-summer as if my life depends on it. And, to be frank, it sometimes does feel like my life does depend on it, but only when I forget that I have back-up plans. The ball is in my court. Maybe I won’t get a job in Academia. Maybe I will. But regardless of whether I work in Academia later on, I can still weasel some private institution into paying me for half a decade to indulge my curiosity in the history of publishing without ever getting published. That would be some next-level irony. Take that, Academia.