“Publish or Perish”: Addressing a Common Misconception

It is not uncommon to hear an academic say something like, “I have no interest in publishing or building my CV. I just want to be a great teacher and invest my time and life in students. Not get my name out there for people to recognize.” Or perhaps even a slightly different voice, “Doing advanced scholarship is great and everything, but I want to write for the church; I want my writings to be accessible, so I am going to write for the average layperson.”

There is a place for great teachers and a place for popular-level books and articles. In fact, most of what I read as an early student of the Bible were popular-level material, and these materials make basic knowledge accessible for someone who is just getting introduced to the subject. But infants need to grow up one day and eat solid food. (I mean, do you want to milk cows for the rest of your life, or do you want to be a chef?) These popular-level works are what I would call second-tier writings, based on first-tier work. These popular-level works wouldn’t exist without the foundation created by scholars who produce first-tier work, who think through issues and attempt to discover answers to questions they (and others) have asked. Questions like: what really is the meaning of the middle voice in Greek? Some say reflexive, others say direct participation. Well, we need thinkers and researchers (who publish their answers!) to address these difficult questions we still have. And teachers who provide these answers in the classroom.

ferris-bueller-teacher1-490x200I want to provide three reasons why I consider publishing to be an important activity for post-secondary educators, and why teachers should be actively engaged in publishing (whatever the frequency might be). Whatever the number of publications, I think being a publishing teacher contributes to being and becoming a great teacher for the following reasons.

First, publishing forces you to think critically about a particular issue, whatever issue you are writing on. Say you are teaching a Greek Grammar course, and you are now going over verbal aspect. You may compare an instructor who has read a bunch of stuff on the issue versus an instructor who has actually written (and published) an article (or book) on the issue. Would you as a student rather take this course from someone who has read (and maybe erroneously read) on this topic or from someone who has a published article (which has gone through the scrutiny and accountability of peer-review acceptance) and has interacted with the major players in this debate? The accountability of publishing forces the professor to really know the material well, and this obviously transfers over to the classroom. It is not just the publishing part, but the research and writing behind the publication, that shape the instructor into a critical-thinker, which makes one a good instructor, one who teaches his/her students to think critically as well.

Second, I’ve mentioned this already, but publishing creates accountability for your thoughts and ideas. It is admittedly a bit scary, perhaps more so for inexperienced scholars, to have one’s work read and scrutinized by others, who may or may not be more knowledgeable in that area. I submitted a paper to a journal not too long ago, and the reviewer wrote me nothing short of a scathing review. It hurt; but it encouraged me to be a better writer and researcher. When I don’t actively publish, I don’t know whether I’m doing good or bad work, or whether my thinking or approach to a particular issue is right or wrong. I only have students who affirm that everything I do is great (because they want that A so badly!).

Third, publishing takes discipline and hard work—especially quality publishing. We live in a culture and period where things come easily (and immediately), and it’s much easier to write a blog post than to write a rigorous essay on a specialized topic, submit it to a journal where it may or may not get accepted, and, if accepted, edit the essay and conform it to the proper style-guide, where it will appear maybe six months to a year from when it was accepted. Teachers who shy away from research and publishing because of the amount of time and work it takes will probably treat the classroom in a similar manner. There is a place for a blog (or else I wouldn’t be writing this); but it should not be a substitute for the hard work of researching and writing for publication. They are two distinctly different things. There is something about the accountability and checks-and-balances of an academic publisher or peer-reviewed journal that cannot be replaced.

Having said all of that, I know that there are certainly those who publish but are not great teachers. Maybe they have no social skills, or are lazy when it comes to the classroom, or have no interest in their students. But I don’t think this is because of publishing and research; it is just a (sad) coincidence. I think that, when done properly, publishing is a necessary complement to being a great educator. And that’s why the well-worn mantra of “publish or perish” exists in academic institutions—to prompt the faculty members to continue to be great educators.

— David I. Yoon

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2 thoughts on ““Publish or Perish”: Addressing a Common Misconception

  1. Thank you for this post Dr. Yoon. I have always assumed that those who have taken the time and put forth the energy into getting a PhD and are teachers have done so to contribute to the academic progress of their field. After reading Inking the Deal and your post here I realize this isn’t the case. Who are some of teachers you have had that are both great publishing scholars and teachers?

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  2. Dan,

    Thanks for your comment. (By the way, I’m still writing my dissertation, so not quite yet Dr. Yoon!) I would say that of course my own doctoral advisor, Stanley Porter, has been a huge example for me as a biblical scholar and teacher. But aside from him, I appreciate the work of F.F. Bruce and Anthony Thiselton, both of whom I think exemplify rigorous scholarship and yet care for spiritual things as well. As a scholar and educator, I want to bring excellence and rigor to what I do, and I think that ultimately glorifies God.

    — David I. Yoon

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