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Publish or Perish

Is there another phrase critical of major universities which is also more uniformly known and understood by even those far outside the rarefied world of academia?  It is a phrase that is instantly recognized even by young children as dark and dangerous. (I mean perish? . . . Really?) The phrase has just the right hint of alliteration and an almost musical sibilance as it rolls off the tongue. You just know it’s true and represents a great evil. And, as you dig further into the practice that the phrase is meant to decry, you can’t help but agree with your initial impressions. Don’t we all realize that in pushing our teachers to research, produce, publish and authentically participate in their field of study that we are diminishing their ability to focus on teaching? Well . . . uh . . . wait a second . . . when you put it like that it’s not . . . no . . . wait . . . PERISH! I said “PERISH for goodness sake!”

In all seriousness, there must be a reason this practice is common enough to warrant our scorn. Is there any wisdom hiding inside this practice? Is there a positive side to the philosophy that teachers must be producing original work in their field to stay relevant? Do we have the right to demand in this contract that instructors trade the publication of their work in order to maintain or even achieve tenure? Well, I don’t have any tidy answers, and at the extreme it invites some less than sound practices but I can also see some validity in the university's point of view.

Let’s investigate just what “publish” in this scenario really means. I would argue that at the heart of conducting research, producing an artistic work or publishing an original scientific paper is a special form of learning. After all I need to do some research, craft a hypothesis, do more research, revise my hypothesis, conduct my study or experiment, honestly critique my skill and my procedure, and then write the whole process up and submit it to an audience for evaluation. Almost by definition, I am learning something at every step. This is not dissimilar to the process of producing original artwork is it? We have to hatch a theme, craft a motif and then fully explore that theme until we understand it well enough to express it a way that will entertain and/or illuminate. How many teachers of the fine arts devote significant time to the production of artwork? I don’t mean how many of us play regularly enough to keep our chops up or even how many of us maintain a gig schedule. I’m talking about creating art and sharing it with an audience.

I honestly don’t know the answer to the question above. I would love to learn the answer. I think it would teach me something important.

I’ll take this inquiry a step further through my own experience. I used to be a professional musician. Music was my occupation and my avocation. Hurricane Andrew changed that just over twenty years ago when it destroyed both my residence and primary place of work and I moved to Georgia and became a teacher. My first year in the classroom I decided that in order to be a “serious educator”, I should focus all of my time and energy on teaching. And so I neglected my instruments and music in general. I also became increasingly miserable that year and the quality of my teaching slipped further and further. (In truth it probably wasn’t that great to begin with.) The more I “focused” on teaching and doing teacherly things, the more it seemed to recede from my grasp. I dried up as an artist, as an educator and as a person. I started running out of ideas in every aspect of my life. By the time I entered my second year in the classroom, I was getting ready to quit and move back to Miami. I started cheating on teaching by playing pick-up gigs and taking a few clients in my home studio. I went back to school to finish my degree in English literature as a buffer while I got my music career back on track.

Well I didn’t move back to Miami. In fact, the minute I began playing again, studying and producing work for an audience again well everything just started flooding back. I was inspired to try new things in the classroom and mix in the things I knew and loved. In short: I got fired up about everything by realizing that I could find inspiration everywhere. And this paradigm shift is probably the most important takeaway from this short, rambling essay.

So, dear reader, you say that you are playing, learning and maybe writing to boot. That’s awesome! Now comes the last ingredient: you have to take what you do and share it with others. A piece of art without an audience doesn’t truly exist. The viewer or listener is the final participant in the process of creation. To be authentic, there needs to be an external evaluator. Get on stage. Find a spotlight. Get published. Some feedback will be positive. Some criticism will be constructive. The sum total, however, raises your profile and increases the worth of your words which can only lend authority to your lessons and invigorate your classroom. And that, my friend, is the opposite of perishing.

Wayne Langford - mttn Pro

Wayne LangfordComment