Academic Publishing and Personal Demons

In my chosen career trajectory, I don’t have a huge need to develop any kind of staggering research profile. I’m sure my employers like that I do it, but I am not at all living under a publish or perish tyranny. So…why do I still invest time and energy in keeping up an academic research profile?  Simple answer, because I enjoy doing it, and it is useful to my career at some level.  Not so simple answer, because I enjoy the conversations I have with colleagues in that sort of academic space.  The really not so simple answer turns out to be a bit more disconcerting, though.  In musing upon my own motivations for publishing academically,  I stumbled upon some other parts of my journey related to my continuing project of understanding my complex relationship to academia.

I have not been a conventional academic for almost a decade, yet for some strange reason I have worked hard to try to maintain a “proper” and “respectable” (well sort of, anyway, given my unconventional research areas) academic profile.  Now, I’m not saying this has not had some benefits, especially since I really do enjoy publishing, attending conferences, and spending time with my research colleagues, and academic publishing does afford me some measure of academic legitimacy, which opens particular doors for getting grants and honestly to just being heard in certain arenas.  But I also have to acknowledge that academic publishing is not going to really affect my financial bottom line to any significant degree, and, in fact, it takes time away from other things I could be doing.  These days I’m primarily hirable because of my skill set and my teaching background, not because of my research profile, so if I am going to spend time writing and publishing, actually strategizing what I need to get from those publications is a useful task. And in my mind, “because I enjoy it” is a perfectly acceptable reason alone to direct energy and attention to publishing. But I realized that, in fact, I was still having attachment issues around academic publishing, and I was hurting myself in the process.

A little over year ago I cancelled a project that initially was very important to me.  I was attempting to work on a book that would compile all of my writings on Cornwall and economic policy.  For a number of reasons, primarily because the economic profile there is shifting so quickly, this became very difficult for me to accomplish without being on the ground more in Cornwall which just isn’t feasible for me.  The book was contracted with a fairly decent academic press, and a very respected editor.  Of course, the contract stipulated that I would get five free copies, or something like that, but absolutely no pay for completing the text.  The series editor informed me toward the deadline that I needed to complete the manuscript within a certain period of time, because it was possible that the press was going to start charging authors to publish their work.  Really?  This is just a vanity press in disguise! And not that self publishing is wrong, far from it, but if those are the conditions, why not just do it myself! Ultimately, I know who reads these books, I can publish the text myself, and distribute it if I want.  But within academic culture, the prestige of this series, which for some people is translated into promotions, is more important than being paid for your work.  At the end of the day, someone else is probably profiting far from my labor more than I would be, certainly in my circumstance where promotions are not tied to my research.  Is this a model that I want to endorse? Also, would it be available and of a reasonable enough cost to make it accessible to people? At the end of the day, completing this book was going to take away from paying work.  It was not a sound investment of my time.

But cancelling this project had an emotional cost for me, and I needed to take a look at why. I was really proud that this editor and this press wanted to publish my work, even though the contract arrangements were ridiculous.   I then realized that I have been punishing myself for a number of years by trying to publish too much, being hard on myself when I didn’t publish enough, and trying to maintain the right balance of publications on my CV.   While I still think the last of those has some merit, given my career path, why was I putting myself through that emotional torture?  It was clearly a conditioned response. Sometimes I could only focus on what I hadn’t done rather than all I had actually accomplished. Am I secretly in some form of competition with my colleagues? Am I still caught in the prestige trap?  And am I somehow tying my personal value and self esteem to my publication record? I don’t think that’s healthy, but I do think it’s common.  Academics certainly don’t need anything else to beat themselves up over!  At this point, I want to assess and focus on what brings me happiness.  I do like getting things published, I love research and I generally enjoy the act of writing, but these things take time, and I teach a lot of classes to earn a living.  I need to set reasonable expectations about how many kinds of articles I can get out, and what I want to accomplish with each one.  Yes, I’m slower than I’d like to be but writing is only part of what I do, ultimately it costs me money, and I need to be realistic about what I can get done and how quickly. I’m not alone in this, I think most academics suffer from feeling like they aren’t doing enough, or should be doing it all.

Honestly, these days I’m more interested in having my work read, and that is motivating some of my strategies.  Luckily, I am also in a nice position to be able to engage in academic publishing while still critiquing it.  Acceptable publications within an academic framework have become much more restricted.  To be counted for tenure, or even tenure track, you really need to be pushing for academic journals and academic presses.  Younger academics and people needing promotions frequently won’t even consider more popular publications, or even academic type presses that are not affiliated with a university, and sadly they aren’t in a position to.  I’m sympathetic to my friends and colleagues in those positions, but how does this model serve the public?  It doesn’t. It only helps to keep our research shrouded and our professional language and concerns even more specialized.  And particularly for those of us in the Humanities and Social Sciences, how does this approach to publishing help the general public to understand and value our work?  It keeps us from shaping public discourses.  The last thing we need is to be even more obscure.

I would really like to see a model emerge which rewards a balance of professional and accessible publications.  And I think that for some academics, self publishing, blogging, and working with smaller, quality publishers can be an excellent way of getting exposure to your work, which may ultimately be more valuable to you, and can generate other opportunities. As for me, I think this will still be an area of personal struggle, but if I keep some perspective and focus on the joy of writing and sharing my work rather than being driven by the conditioning of academic culture that is not overly relevant to how my career (and income) is shaped, I will be in a healthier position.





3 Responses to “Academic Publishing and Personal Demons”

  1. Angela V-C Says:

    I love this post. We should all think a lot more about why we do what we do in our jobs. What are we doing because we want to look good, what are we doing because we love it, and what are we doing for the bottom line? I’ve discovered a different research path from the one I had in graduate school over the last few years, and it does use a lot of my time. I wonder if I should be putting more efforts toward making money with my passions rather than doing research for no money. I really go back and forth on this!

  2. mike Says:

    well spotted!
    however what i notice is that *all* forms of publication, be they academic or otherwise, text or otherwise, tend to put one in ‘performance mode’ and thereby undermine the genuine authenticity of what one imagines one is about.
    any thoughts on this?

  3. Mysteria Misc. Maxima: September 21st, 2012 « Invocatio Says:

    […] Hale weighs in on the academic pressure to publish or perish. (Academic […]

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