Writing for the Masses:
The Trick Is Not to Mind

Paul Martin Lester
For Media Ethics (13:2).
E-mail and home page, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

"Publish or perish." We've all heard that mantra.

"Perish," I'm sure, is chosen not only for its catchy alliteration, but for its shock value. In my dictionary, to perish is to "become ruined, spoiled, destroyed, or die" like in a 19th century novel--and like the idea graduate students have of those poor souls who don't make tenure. I'll pick PUBLISH every time!

The origination of the pithy phrase is, unfortunately, lost. However, F. A. Hetzel gives us a little insight when he or she writes:

Although no one seems to recall who coined the phrase Publish or Perish to describe the assertion that a university or even college teacher will not be promoted within the system of American higher education unless he conducts original research and proves his capabilities by publishing, the words have provided scholars and their publishers with an unparalleled opportunity to defend the faith. ["Publish or perish, and the competent manuscript," Scholarly Publishing, 1973, 4(2),101-102]
I first heard of this "choice" as a new assistant professor in my first teaching position. I was assigned to a mandatory mentoring session with a tenured member of the faculty. In his office filled to the ceiling with papers, folders, and books, the professor explained what I needed to do to get tenure, even though I was convinced that I didn't want to spend my entire academic career at this place as he had done. Top on his list was that although this university was all for me getting good teaching evaluations and making sure my grade point averages were below those given in the fine art department, I HAD to publish. He then went on about volunteering for various committee appointments in the department and the university. I should move up the ranks in AEJMC or some other organization, but in the end he said, "You still have to publish or," and he took a deep breath and looked me right in the eye, "you will (pause for dramatic effect) PERISH!" Jeez...I was convinced.

But publish what? Books were highly frowned upon by the department chair as they might get published too late to help in the tenure process plus, if written for undergraduate courses, they might not be viewed as sufficiently academic. Most of us young, untenured faculty members got the message--to publish meant academic research studies that hardly anyone except motivated graduate students might read. Nevertheless, we worked hard to complete research and send papers to conferences so we could use the reviewer comments to beef up our work before we sent it to an academic journal.

And then, when we received tenure and promotion to professor, we could relax. Wrong. Because in this age of tight budgets and raises based on merit, rather than automatic steps, even long-time professors still have to publish...or let inflation cause the perishing.

But the question remains, publish what?

Journal articles, reviews, and books are, admittedly, written for a narrow, specific audience. And there is no doubt that such an audience needs to be served. But there are other audiences that need to hear from us as well--professionals and the lay public.

I'm at the tail end of a two-year leave from my home institution, working and living in the mountains outside of Missoula, Montana. I have been given the great opportunity and privilege to venture into all kinds of non-academic writing.

For example, I write a monthly ethics column with philosopher Deni Elliott, Director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana, for News Photographer magazine. It's the trade publication for an organization of still and video photojournalists called the National Press Photographers Association. (You are welcome to read our columns here). In over a year and a half, we have written columns on such topics as the meaning of photojournalism ethics, still and video picture manipulation, the use of gruesome images, appropriation and fair use issues, paying for video, living an ethical life, and images and image makers from 9-11. I have also written "first-person" pieces that you can read on the Web site of the Chronicle of Higher Education that have discussed such diverse, yet academic, issues as a bill of rights for job candidates, coping with speaker anxiety, and life as a visiting professor.

I am also most challenged and interested in continuing the commentaries I give for Montana Public Radio. Although there are only about 30,000 listeners in towns spread out east and west of the Continental divide in this under-populated state (after all, the postal service's abbreviation is MT, as in Em-Tee), this format gives me a chance to explore personal opinions I might not otherwise get a chance to do. For example, my radio commentaries have included such topics as finding meaning for the World Wide Web, making Web sites accessible to those with disabilities, defending a particular form of public graffiti, and my most recent column titled, "An 'Axis of Evil' and the Death Penalty."

In that column I was able to make the case that, no matter what President Bush claims, that the United States is a member of what might be considered an "Axis of Evil" when it allows the death penalty--as do such bright lights of human rights as Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. The column was inspired by a trip to Sweden in which I gave lectures to media ethics classes at the University of Stockholm. One of the issues that caught the interest of the students and faculty members in attendance was the question of whether executions in the U.S. should be televised.

It is my opinion that there are some deaths that the American public is morally required to see, that the state is morally required to reveal, and that news organizations are, thus, morally required to show. Those are the deaths that happen in our name. State sponsored killing, whether through military action or execution, is indeed the business of the American public. Capital punishment happens in the United States because of the will of the people. Federal executions should be televised nationally as part of network news programs. States that execute prisoners should do so under the scrutiny of local news outlets. And, people should watch.

One of the Swedish faculty members forcefully commented, "I would never be a citizen of a country that had the death penalty." The professor's remark led us all on a general discussion concerned with the true nature of terrorism and evil as defined by governmental leaders and as reported by the news media.

Professionals and the general public need to hear from academics on every possible subject. I trust you are doing what you can to spread your work and opinions in a variety of venues--including newspaper columns and letters to the editor. Having a ready forum to express my own opinions is one of the reasons I am proud to be a citizen of the United States. But will such writings get me a merit raise? And here's where that ugly "Perish" word pops up again--will tenure, promotion, and merit raise committees care about this form of popular writing? Those of us with tenure and on personnel committees have a responsibility to our fellow faculty members and to the profession to make sure such writings get counted.

There's a wonderful scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence holds his hand over a candle's flame for far too long to be comfortable (G. Gordon Liddy reportedly did the same feat at a party during the Watergate era). In the film, someone asks, "What's the trick?" Lawrence, played by Peter O'Toole, calmly replies, "The trick is not to mind."

Publish or perish, the trick is not to mind. You will certainly never perish if you explore all the possible venues for academic and non-academic writing available to you. And in that way, you just might help change the phrase to "Publish and FLOURISH."

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