The joys of publish or perish


English and environmental studies professor Christopher Schaberg (Loyola-New Orleans) addresses the old academic chestnut of “publish or perish” in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In graduate school, when I first heard the saying “publish or perish,” I remember it uttered as a dire warning: If you want to make it as a professor, you have to publish, publish, publish — and never stop, no matter what. It made publishing sound awful (at best, a miserable fate to be endured) and necessary.

Now, as an associate professor, it recently occurred to me that I don’t think that way anymore, and haven’t in a long while. I have come to think about “publish or perish” in an entirely new light. It doesn’t have to be a threat or a gloomy mandate to live or die under. It can actually be a spirited affirmation of a certain kind of academic life.

I’m delighted to read someone turning that famous phrase on its head! 

Many years ago, when I began what has turned out to be an academic career, I was more attracted to teaching than to scholarship. In fact, I regarded the writing of law review articles — a law professor’s typical scholarly currency — as more of an obligatory burden in order to earn tenure than a core point of my engagement.

However, within a few years of embarking upon a tenure-track appointment, I began to see how scholarship allowed me to write about compelling issues of law and public policy, sometimes even breaking new ground. Two of the subjects addressed in my earlier law review articles — workplace bullying and unpaid internships — have become focal points of my academic career. This work has led to further academic publications, legal and legislative advocacy, speaking engagements and public education programs, blogging and other less formal writings, and media interviews.

In other words, my early scholarship has opened the door to potentially difference-making opportunities. Now, with the gifts of hindsight, I have used the term “intellectual activist” to characterize my approach to scholarly work. So when I hear the words “publish or perish” today, I think of them differently. If I don’t publish, then I will surely perish as an academician. Scholarship joins with teaching as the two most important tasks of my work as a professor.

I have written two law review articles setting out my practice and philosophy of scholarly work, and those who want to dive further into those weeds are invited to check them out by clicking the titles:

“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (forthcoming, Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice) — I recently posted a revised draft, and here’s a snippet from the article abstract:

How can law professors, lawyers, and law students use legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest? How can we bridge the gaps between academic analyses that sharpen our understanding of important legal and policy issues and practical proposals that bring these insights into the light of day and test their application? How can we bring an integrated blend of scholarship, social action, and evaluation into our professional practices?

I explore these and related questions by invoking a simple framework that I call intellectual activism, which serves as both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation.

. . . This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) researching and authoring proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) playing a visible role in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships.

. . . The article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books related to intellectual activism, public intellectualism, and the uses of scholarship to advance social change.

“Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — Here’s the article abstract:

The culture of legal scholarship has become preoccupied with article placement, citations, and download numbers, thus obscuring a deeper appreciation for the contributions of scholarly work. This article proposes that therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a theoretical framework that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law and legal practice, provides us with tools for understanding and changing that culture.

More prescriptively, the article applies a TJ lens to: (1) identify a set of good practices for legal scholarship; (2) examine the TJ movement as an example of healthy scholarly practice; (3) consider the role of law professors as intellectual activists; and, (4) propose that law schools nurture a scholar-practitioner orientation in their students to help them become more engaged members of the legal profession.


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