The modern university is largely an invention of the 20th century. Before departments were designated and disciplines formed, students earned degrees in the broad fields of philosophy, natural science and especially theology. The first political science department was established in the 1890s at Columbia University, and the American Political Science Association was formed in 1905. Other disciplines experienced similar developments around those times. With compartmentalization came specialization and with that came formal and large-scale research.
In the 1960s and 1970s (at least in political science, but I imagine this observation could be generalized to other social sciences and humanities), the demand for professors was great and new positions were in abundance. As more PhD’s were hired, more were produced, leading to significant growth in the academy at large. Shortly thereafter, however, the demand for PhD’s stabilized while the supply continued to grow unabated.
As this trend advanced, and as research became more rigorous and widespread, the emphasis on publishing in academia also increased. The maxim “publish or perish” became more instructive of the academy altogether. Today it can be said to constitute a reality that, like it or not, greets ignorance with detriment.
To gain a fresh perspective on the primacy of publishing in academia, I spoke to political science professor Richard Clucas. Dr. Clucas earned his PhD from Santa Barbara in 1990 and wrote two books, “Willy Brown and the California Assembly” and “The Encyclopedia of American Political Reform,” before coming to PSU in 1996. In addition, he is currently co-editing a book on Oregon politics and does research with the Oregon Poll.
“It was incomprehensible that I wouldn’t write,” Clucas said of his works. “Research is one of the defining expectations [of academia], and most everywhere these days expects professors to do some.” Clucas observed that the hiring process has become more competitive, and research is often a major criterion in making such decisions. Indeed, writing and research have become unspoken and accepted requirements of a career in the university.
Some critics of the emphasis on research have claimed that it often comes at the expense of teaching, especially at highbrow institutions that scramble to hire big-name scholars with little regard to their merits as instructors. But Clucas denies a necessary trade-off: “sometimes you are in a place when you have to do either and can’t do both, but often it’s a toss-up,” he notes. The best professors seek to balance their time between research and class, with different degrees of success.
For students considering going on to graduate school, writing is a prerequisite, part and parcel to larger academic pursuits. This is not likely to change anytime soon. More and more schools are looking for PhD’s who have published. PSU is a case in point; all tenured professors in the political science department have produced works of some sort, and many of them have authored several articles and books.
The modern university – or multiversity, as some have deemed it – has assumed many functions. Technical, liberal and medical education and research are among these. As long as the multiversity assumes these different roles, research and publishing will be demanded of academics. As a student moving on to a PhD program next year, I have accepted this reality. Whether I will pursue an academic career beyond that, or whether it is advisable for other students, is a mix of one part opinion, two parts (in)sanity and three parts whim.
Academia is a still a good option for students considering long-term pursuits. For those who make that decision, I offer you one suggestion: write often, write well, cross your fingers, and be prepared to endure the proverbial laundry-cycle of publishing.