Did you Publish Today?

Advice for academics about writing and getting published

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, May 22, 2008

My friend Jeff is an assistant professor of economics. Every day when he comes home from work, his girlfriend, Mo, asks him the same question. “Did you publish today?”

It’s a joke. Sort of. Mo understands that when it comes to tenure, Jeff will be evaluated on his teaching, his service, and his publications. It’s easy to see him working on the teaching (buried under piles of papers and tests, exchanging hundreds of e-mails with students, logging hours of meetings in his office) and the service (endless fancy dinners during job searches; meetings in the morning; meetings in the afternoon; meetings, meetings all the time).

But what to make of the publishing part?

People far removed from academe can spit out the tired, if still pithy, phrase “publish or perish.” But explaining the process that leads to publication to the average Joe, or to a supportive and understanding partner named Mo, isn’t easy.

Before I came over to the faculty side of academe, I spent years in the publishing business editing the results of people’s research. But even I was blind sometimes to what it actually looked like to do the kind of work necessary to have something to send someone in publishing like me. That was particularly true of fields I knew little about, like all of the sciences.

When my friend Mike was a graduate student in physics, desperately trying to finish his dissertation, I would check up on him and ask what he had accomplished. Many times he would say that he had spent the day writing code so that he could start to analyze his data. Or that he had spent 15 hours trying to find a mistake in the code he had written. Often, at the end of the day, he had no writing, no analysis, and, to me, no visible work to show for those many hours.

Jeff the economist spends a lot of time manipulating data, telling his computer to look at certain variables, and then at others. You can go down a lot of false trails that way, he says. You can spend all day in front of a screen (or two) and have nothing to say about what you’ve seen. You’re just inching closer, trying to get an idea to take root, trying to find the pearl in an ocean full of clams.

I’ve spent many a blissful day sitting in an archive sifting through boxes of letters written 100 years ago. I’ve looked at ragged, yellowed newspaper clippings about the weather and scanned advertisements placed by the railroads in the era when certain Indian reservations were opened to settlement.

I’ve pawed (carefully, I promise) over thank-you notes and invitations and birth announcements, studied report cards and diaries, and perused scads of photos. For every 20 hours in the archives, I’ve been able to write, maybe, a couple of paragraphs. I’ve traveled miles to see what a place I was writing about looks like now, nearly a century after the time period about which I was writing.

It’s work, but I suspect that someone watching me would think I was just snooping, or messing around. The fact is, much of the time when academics are working, it can, from the outside, seem more like we are slacking off. Not many of us pose like Rodin’s sculpture when we’re thinking.

What does it look like to do intellectual work? What does it look like to have an insight? To formulate a theory? To solve a philosophical problem? What does it take to get to the point at which you’re ready to sit down and write something, ready to present something to the world?

Experience tells me that sometimes it looks like playing Spider Solitaire. Or twirling one’s hair, talking to oneself, or sitting stock still and staring into space.

My friend Andrew, a psychiatrist, is an expert in the physiology of sleep. He has come up with a host of good ideas that have resulted in a fat sheaf of academic publications. He believes that sleep is the result of conditioning, ritual, and circumstance. You can’t force yourself to go to sleep. What you can do, he says, is set up the conditions and rituals that will allow it to happen. You let the dog out (or put the rat back in her cage). You change into your footy pajamas. You brush your teeth. You get into bed. And then, having provided the right environment, eventually, you fall asleep.

That process, Andrew believes, is similar to what academics go through when trying to solve an intellectual problem. We shuffle off to our offices and plant ourselves in front of a computer. Or slink into the library and sink into a comfy chair. Or walk around the block 43 times.

We go through the motions that have led us, in the past, to cerebral success. We can no more force ourselves to make an intellectual breakthrough than we can will ourselves to sleep. All we can do is prepare the environment and perform the rituals associated with thinking.

I once asked Seymour Benzer — the noted Caltech geneticist who also happened to be my great-uncle — what, if anything in his long career, had surprised him. He thought a moment and said it was that he had actually had a eureka moment.

Many years ago, Uncle Seymour had been lying in bed next to Aunt Dottie, thinking about the fact that when he spread a particular bacterial strain onto a Petri dish, there hadn’t been any phage plaques on it. While Aunt Dottie snoozed, Uncle Seymour realized that with sufficient resolution of genetic recombination, he would be able to map the internal fine structure of a gene.

That, he said, kept him busy for years. (Until he died recently, at age 86, my great-uncle went into his lab every day and worked late into the night; the last e-mail I got from him, a month before his death, was time-stamped at 12:27 a.m.) If Aunt Dottie had woken up, what she would have seen was a man lying in bed, not someone who had, in that instant, gone a long way toward creating the field of molecular biology and laying the foundation for modern neuroscience.

It’s not always easy to trace back the evolution of our thoughts or to be able to point to a specific, eureka moment. (That is, perhaps, a good thing. Archimedes supposedly left his bathtub — after realizing that the volume of an object could be calculated when it was submersed in water — to streak naked through Syracuse proclaiming his discovery. I prefer to think of Uncle Seymour lying demurely in bed rather than zipping naked through the streets of Pasadena.)

When I first started running competitively, each time I told my brother that I had run a race, he would ask me the same question, “Did you win?” It diminished any achievement I may have felt — a personal best, feeling good the whole time, having a great day. Perhaps the fact that he thought I was fast enough to win the Boston Marathon meant that he really loves and believes in me. But it also meant that the months of hard work I did training for the race were made invisible by the way he had framed the question.

This column, I’m sure you realize, dear fellow academics, is not for you. You don’t need me to tell you that when you’re working it can sometimes look to the rest of the world like you’re curled up in front of the fire petting the cat. This column is for your husbands, wives, partners, parents, siblings, friends, and strangers who ask questions like “When are you going to graduate? It’s been five years already.” Or “Why hasn’t that book come out yet? You’ve been working on it forever!”

It’s for the people who believe that academics have the summers off, for those who argue that we have cushy jobs because we have to teach only a few classes a week for a couple of hours at a time, and for those who think that reading books isn’t work. This column is for those who think that getting published is as easy as winning the Boston Marathon.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, in Spokane, the M.F.A. program of Eastern Washington University. Her Web site is www.racheltoor.com, and she welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.