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Does Publish or Perish Academic Culture Foster Intellectual Vice?

by Mark J. Ortwein, Stacey Britton & Amber Carpenter-McCullough - March 28, 2014

In this commentary, we suggest that the contemporary publish-or-perish academic culture stands to negatively impact pre-tenure professors—particularly professors at R1 institutions. Indeed, we believe that the present overemphasis on publication, and its attending de-emphasis on teaching quality and meaningful service, provides rich soil for the cultivation of intellectual dereliction. To this end, we assert that the development of “intellectual virtue” ought to be a primary aim of doctoral and pre-tenure mentorship. Such virtues include intellectual honesty, conscientiousness, creativity, and open-mindedness. We conclude the piece with some remarks on cultivating intellectual virtue in the academy.

Here’s a simple experiment: Gather a group of pre-tenure professors together. Give them coffee and comfortable chairs. You can mix it up; pepper the group with faculty from Education, Accounting, and Biology if you like. Now wait. It won’t take long before talk of tenure requirements, publishing venues, teaching loads and so forth takes over. It’s simple. Careers are at stake and the key to safeguarding one’s future in higher education is to publish, publish, and publish.  It wouldn’t be surprising, then, to find among our imaginary assistant professors an onychophagiac (nail biter), a hedonophobiac (one who fears pleasure), or the occasional alektorophobic (look it up).  This is not to suggest that all tenure trackers suffer from a diagnosed mental disorder.  There are also those fortunate souls whose nerves are made of titanium alloy. “Twelve articles in 5 years—no sweat!” Nor is it a marginalization of the very real worries new faculty feel upon entering the profession.  Indeed, it is precisely these concerns that prompted a disquieting thought: If the pressure to publish is so great, and the stakes are so high, what sort of effect (if any) does this have on the intellectual character of those working under such conditions?

The renewed interest in intellectual virtues provides an interesting vantage point from which to ask this question: Briefly, the intellectual virtues are cognitive character traits associated with excellent thinking—traits like intellectual honesty, conscientiousness, curiosity, and open-mindedness. Intellectually virtuous persons, the argument goes, are more likely to acquire true beliefs and avoid errors by dint of these cognitive qualities. Admittedly, talk of virtues does have about it a tweed jacket stuffiness that may turn some readers off. Nevertheless, in an academic setting such traits are undoubtedly valued and expected of faculty. So how does one become intellectually virtuous? Like their moral counterparts, the intellectual virtues are developed over time though habituation. For this reason they are often referred to as “habits of mind.”

Suppose, then, a dewy-eyed new professor joins a highly competitive and research oriented department. What happens next? We’d certainly hope that she’d find herself in a supportive and intellectually stimulating environment. Indeed, we’d go one step further and hope that she’d find herself in an environment that supports growth in the intellectual virtues. After all, professors should and generally do value intellectual honesty, curiosity, creativity and the like. Likewise, we’d hope that her doctoral training would have begun the ongoing process of shaping her intellectual character for the professoriate. Unfortunately, the tremendous pressure toward “productivity” can override these principled aspirations in favor of self-preservation. And for the nervous new professor this disjunction can generate a measure of moral and psychological distress. Worse still, we contend that such an environment may actually foster deleterious habits of mind—so-called intellectual vices.

To be clear, intellectual vice (e.g., intellectual dishonesty, cowardliness, close-mindedness, carelessness, and so on) does not necessarily or even usually take the form of gross acts of moral failure: forged data, plagiarism, and outright lying, for example. It manifests itself in smaller acts of bad faith—endorsing intellectual positions one doesn’t fully believe, hastily cherry-picking quotes, or dubiously signing on as “9th author” when one hasn’t actually meaningfully contributed to a manuscript.  And intellectual vice is not merely restricted to research activity; the holy trinity of professorship also includes teaching and service. Indeed, perhaps no other area of academia suffers more than teaching. We likely all know colleagues whose intense emphasis on publishing and securing lucrative grants far outweighs paying due diligence to quality student-centered teaching. Indeed, in some departments an overemphasis on excellent instruction is even discouraged.

So it goes with service. Tenure track faculty members are well aware that service is a large portion of the proverbial tenured professor pie. Search committees, curriculum meetings, undergraduate and graduate advising, and program coordinating are just a few of the important, yet burdensome, activities required to check off the “service” box for tenure purposes. It would seem a necessary evil. We are not beyond granting some merit to this perspective; yet we also hold that professors have an essential role to play within their communities and disciplines, and that the intellectually virtuous scholar will generally pay proper heed to these (often) essential tasks.

At this point, we should like to reaffirm that creating works of scholarship is an essential part of academic life, and a healthy dose of pressure to do so is important and necessary. But an excessive emphasis on quantity over quality undermines real and lasting intellectual growth. So we urge our colleagues to remember that assistant professors are—generally speaking—novice researchers and budding scholars; the values of the academy must be learned quickly.

Nevertheless, we are also encouraged that the present system is already structured to provide just the sort of environment necessary for cultivating intellectual virtue. Junior faculty members enter apprenticeships lasting 5-7 years, a considerable timeframe that could and should be used for serious reflection on the nature of intellectual excellence. Naturally, the implications of our claims will depend in large measure on departments’ existing tenure requirements and discipline-based particularities. Some general recommendations, however, may characterize most discussions about internal reform. We envision open conversations about the purpose of scholarship, the place of tenure in the university, and an emphasis on honest personal introspection about one’s own habits of mind. Furthermore, our earlier use of the word, “apprenticeship,” deliberately suggests that mentor/mentee relationships provide an important format for growth. Well-established and respected senior professors might be persuaded to share their insights about the “life of the mind” with pre-tenure professors through close and committed mentorships. While many departments already have arrangements like these in place, we suspect that few have fully capitalized on their potential. Finally, we urge greater attention to the moral nature of reasoning—in particular, we recommend discussing the concepts of intellectual virtue and vice. A quick run to the library will yield many excellent books on the subjects.

The publish-or-perish ethos of the modern academy sends the wrong message; it puts new professors in the vexing position of having to choose between self-preservation and their commitment to the ideals of scholarship. While we recognize that moral culpability always remains with the professor, and that many young scholars overcome this dilemma, it is nevertheless the case that these pressures can and do foster cases of intellectual dereliction. We would like to challenge tenured professors to support their new colleagues in ways that foster depth and appreciation for academia. We further challenge the new professor to remain true to what is right and just, to succeed based upon your convictions and curiosity. Indeed, a career in academia presents greater opportunities for the cultivation of intellectual virtue than any other career pathway.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 28, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17479, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:44:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Mark Ortwein
    University of Mississippi, Desoto
    E-mail Author
    MARK ORTWEIN is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Mississippi, DeSoto
  • Stacey Britton
    University of Mississippi, Desoto
    E-mail Author
    STACEY BRITTON is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Mississippi, DeSoto
  • Amber Carpenter-McCullough
    University of Mississippi, Desoto
    E-mail Author
    AMBER CARPENTER-MCCULLOUGH is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Mississippi, DeSoto
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