Publish or Perish?

This tired, old, politically charged (yet apt) saying has finally caught up with me, just not in a way I ever would have expected. In the midst of cooking my way through The Grit Cookbook (a gift received during a recent visit home – thanks, Mom!), trying (sadly, like Sisyphus) to get through at least of few pages of my summer reading list, and swimming, biking, and otherwise trying to keep up with a tireless soon-to-be second grader, I’m debating the future of a publishing project I’ve devoted the majority of my research time to over the last year, and I’m confronted with a kind of bifurcation I didn’t anticipate: Should I proceed toward publication? Or should I let the project perish?

The perish prospect is appealing and frustrating at once. Publishing is demanding. I’ve been teaching for nearly ten years, and it’s one thing to evaluate stacks (at least they’re virtual) of student papers and, reluctantly, eventually, to terminate the research, writing, and peer review processes students are (ostensibly) engaged in by assigning grades (grading is a thorny topic on its own, so I’ll save further comment for another day…). It’s another thing to reject an author’s manuscript.

Researching and designing a publication; developing the publication; announcing the publication; and engaging in the editorial process that ensues? These are tasks (much like engaging students in the writing process) I care deeply about and am willing to invest inordinate amounts of time on.

And although awarding a student the grade he or she has earned when that grade is an F and rejecting an author’s work are tasks I’d gladly relinquish to someone else, it is possible to accomplish these things with an eye toward positive outcome by encouraging revision or by supporting an author in identifying another venue for publication.

It’s the politics I’m not so keen to wrangle with. And, I am more than a little confident that I am not disclosing any big secret here when I point out that, eventually, the politics are inescapable.

Like, what happens when colleagues want to take equal credit for work they haven’t contributed to?

Just now I can imagine the expressions of my own students who, I hope, only very, very, very occasionally, run in to a comparable problem (esp. since I require group work – ‘it simulates a real-world working environment,’ I argue — and, students, if you’re reading, you already know that I recognize that in rare and troubling cases, the rewards of a ‘supposed’ collaborative effort are outweighed by the difficulties*). My own students can attest that I acknowledge openly that this can happen. Thus, when they complete group work in my classes, they are required to complete an anonymous evaluation rubric where they evaluate the work of every member of their group (including themselves). Since I grade individually rather than by group, the rubric is each student’s opportunity to identify inequities (positive or negative) that may not be otherwise apparent.

What I suppose I haven’t acknowledged openly enough with my students is that while my collaboration-based assignments are designed to emulate real-world working situations, my evaluation practices reside in a more idealistic realm where I work very hard to ensure fairness and to honor individual differences.

In the real world, unfortunately, (I’ll put this gently) things can get a little dirty.

And when I am not taking dirty as a sign on my son’s knees that he has had a good full day of nature, I am taking it as a sign that it’s time to seriously re-evaluate my investment in a project. Do benefits like the possibility of contributing positively to a field and supporting others in disseminating thought-provoking, important, and useful work outweigh drawbacks like months and months of trying, and trying, and trying to make the best of working with a difficult colleague?

Do I really care that much if someone else shares credit for work I’ve done? Most of the time, no. In fact, if my work can support someone else’s, that’s an excellent outcome, a sign that scholarship is accomplishing what it ought to: supporting others in doing more, even better work. But some situations are just different.

And just because I’m the kind of person who once thought that a plump little horned tomato worm deserved at least a little share of the veggies in my garden doesn’t mean I’m a total sap. It means that, sometimes, I err on the side of being a little too trusting and a little too generous.

So, my position on politics and dirt? No thanks. That really is my exit sign, or at the very least a sure sign that a serious shift in course is in order.

I do admit that leaving my project to perish would be a bit extreme. And I am working toward a positive outcome, for everyone involved.

But I will need to be a lot more vigorous to ensure that my garden doesn’t get devoured by tomato worms – I did discover that the ‘sweet little fellow’ was anything but, and a day after I’d found him, my son and I used a scissors to cut off the more-than-a-dozen branches inhabited by the creature and his buddies. But we were kind; we set them off – far off – in the woods on branches containing ample leaves and green tomatoes to feed them for another day, at least.

(and for my students who can’t relate to gardening, in situations like these, a little music therapy always helps)

*A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States. See section 4.6.2 “Unsuccessful Partnerships,” which points out that “[s]eventy-eight percent of centers reported partnerships that were, in some measure, unsuccessful” and lists some of the reasons why (34-35). So, even though it, well, it just sucks when things go badly, it turns out that it’s fairly common. On the other hand, section 4.6.3, “Elements of a Successful Partnership,” suggests that we do get it right much of the time, and this would be consistent with my experience in every other collaboration I’ve been involved in.