Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rethinking publish or perish


College and university faculty usually experience the defining dictum, "Publish or perish." Faculty progression toward tenure – for the fortunate few hired in a tenure track job instead of as an adjunct (cf. my previous Ethical Musings post, Supply and demand in the PhD labor market) – depends upon the individual successfully publishing peer reviewed articles and books.

Peer review, when it works well, entails a blind review of the draft of an article or book by peers, i.e., acknowledged, reputable scholars in the same discipline. One purpose of peer review is to prevent the publication (or rejection) of material based on reputation (or lack thereof). Another purpose of peer review is to promote the use of current data and the best available scholarly methods. In general, peer review is not the problem.

The problem with publish or perish is, first, the presumption that every faculty member is a skilled researcher whose new ideas will significantly advance her or his field. That presumption is obviously false. Yet the presumption is deeply embedded in institutions of higher learning and has resulted in a proliferation of scholarly journals filled with articles that make marginal (or no) contributions to the authors' discipline, contributions more accurately characterized as chaff than substance. This assessment is especially true in disciplines other than the hard sciences, but even in those fields, some scholars conduct research of little or no value in order to publish the results.

The second problem is more serious: faculty members have little incentive to teach well. Promotion and retention is contingent upon publishing, not teaching well. And once awarded tenure, some faculty members focus on researching (many times, this was their original preference but in many fields there are no jobs that pay for research without some teaching). Other faculty members use the free conferred by tenure to do perform at a minimally acceptable level, teaching poorly while doing little or no research.

Incidentally, the purpose of tenure for college and university faculty members is to give individuals the economic security, and hence the freedom, to teach what they perceive is correct, able to ignore political correctness, social pressures, etc.

Two hundred years ago, before the proliferation of PhD programs, much college and university teaching was done by individuals who held a Master's degree, i.e., by individuals who had mastered their discipline but not contributed to advancing that field through the research that culminated in a doctoral dissertation. As the supply of PhDs increased, individuals with only a Master's degree filled fewer teaching positions. The greatest cost of this shift has been a precipitous drop in the quality of pedagogy at even the best institutions of higher learning.

Degree inflation has become widespread. Large corporations routinely insist that many new hires have a college degree, regardless of whether the position filled requires the skills (e.g., writing well, problem solving, or working well with others) or the knowledge (e.g., of biology or math) that the degree supposedly signifies.

Society and individuals would come out ahead if our public school system (K through grade 12) emphasized giving people basic life skills and then preparing people either for low skill jobs (but keeping this track narrow!), decent paying skilled work (e.g., many of the trades, lots of positions in healthcare, first responders, etc.), and college/university. Persons in the latter track would face greater expectations (no more teaching of basic skills in college!), have better teachers, and in the four years of college, supplemented by however many years of graduate school a particular profession might require, truly master their field. Ideally, we would no longer have PhDs unable to write a grammatically correct sentence (I once had one with this level of grammatical ability work for me).

In other words, let's restore integrity to teaching at all levels and ensure that diplomas and degrees are worth the paper on which they are printed.

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