quantity +/- quality

For a long time, I’ve felt that the pressure to produce MORE publications – more Things To Count, since the system as it is now uses quantitative methods to establish quality of academics – is doing everyone a disservice, with lots of half-formed publications seeing the light of day.* In this publish or(/and) perish world, I’ve been seeing it as a quantity VERSUS quality issue, and have felt that less might be more – a point that has been raised by many others, quite often using citing Nobel laureates of yore who only ever published half a dozen articles. Clearly quantity is not an objective measure of academic worth.

However, there is another way of looking at this issue, one which is highly important to anyone writing for a living. To paraphrase various authors, this is the general system:

  1. write
  2. finish what you write
  3. send it out and get it published
  4. revise texts only if and when necessary
  5. repeat from step 1

Which makes well good sense: it all comes down to writing things, finishing them, and getting them out into the world. On a conceptual level, writing a blog post and writing a monograph are par. Yes, my interminable monograph is taking forever to get done, but I also have a draft for a post on this blog that dates to December 2012. Things can – and do! – end up hanging in limbo, unfinished for a slew of reasons, all of which come down to one: not writing.

But the other step in the system – where step 1 is To Write – is To Write LOTS.

To produce Quantity.

If you’re a writer trying to make a living, I can see you need to sell your writings in order to feed your kids. But if you’re an academic..? And in any case won’t the quality suffer?

Generally speaking, I’ve tended to equate academic writing with something that takes a long time to accomplish. It takes time to do the background reading, to do the research, to do the thinking required. (To do the lab experiments, to run the programs (and correct the bugs), to process the results…)  Perhaps that’s what I find infuriating about the present state of affairs: here’s this thing which takes A Long Time To Do (never mind Do Well), and we are required – Demanded – to do more of it in less time!

But things can also get written very rapidly.

Now, I’ve written articles that took years to produce. But I’ve also written things at speed: there are a couple pages in one of the things I have published that I well remember writing – long hand (!) – in one sitting, in a pub in London.† And last fall I put together an article within a week – admittedly based on a presentation I gave earlier last year, but my presentations are not article-text read out loud. We all have moments when words just flow out, and it feels like you are channeling something or someone, rather than producing new text. But I can’t help feeling this is rarer in academia than in (some) other fields (I suspect this is something that gets easier the further along your academic career you get, ie. experience helps, even more so than with many if not most other genres).

..okay, so if I’m willing to concede, after all, that academic writing can be fairly rapid, what am I struggling over?

Maybe it’s the business with killing your darlings. Just now, I read a short but great post on Tumblr. Here’s an excerpt:

Pottery, particularly wheel-throwing, is wonderful for this, incidentally. You fail over and over and you fail fast and you are creating quantity to lead to quality. You throw and throw and throw and things die on the wheel and things die when you take them off the wheel and things explode in the kiln and after you have made a dozen or two dozen or a thousand, none of them are precious any more. There is always more clay.

..but it’s only a page long, so go read it on Squash Tea. I can wait.

Done? Groovy.

Here’s the bit that particularly got me:

after you have made a dozen or two dozen or a thousand, none of them are precious any more

Now, I am apparently able to pull together a blog post like this one in an hour or two, and even write one based on more extensive impromptu (not to mention ad hoc) research over an evening. Am I, then, just being overly precious about my ‘real’ academic publications? (Or even about ‘real’ academic publications overall..?)

To put it another way, perhaps my problem with the perceived Quality vs Quantity issue is just misguided?

Given that the system is what it is, churning out pots and hoping most of them will be servicable and at least some also beautiful, and also not forgetting to smash the ones that are downright bad, does not appear to be at all a bad approach to academic writing. It’s easy to get stuck on polishing texts – awareness of the impossibility of perfection notwithstanding – but it’s equally difficult to see, years later, what exactly were the faults that you so much wanted to redress.


Anyway, time to stop this rambling. I am aware that I have touched upon a slew of other points related to academia that are worth addressing (and re-addressing), but I will avoid all of them for now. This was supposed to be a short note..

But just one point as a coda. Not all academic writing is done for publications. In fact, probably the vast majority of it is produced when planning and preparing teaching and writing lectures, but also in putting together talks and conference presentations and guest lectures. And most of these are one-off shows. In the past, when I’ve attended dance, theatre or music performances, I’ve wondered about the ration of preparation versus performance in the arts. Choreographies will be practiced for weeks, scripts rehearsed and polished and rewritten up until curtain up, and bands spend hundreds of hours playing together in preparation for ten performances, or only five, or even just one single performance – to an audience of a thousand, a hundred, or just half a dozen people. But then it struck me that this is what we do as academics: I will spend days putting together a conference paper, and then give it to a roomful of scholars in 20 minutes – and that’s it. Potentially I will write it up for publication later, but this is by no means always the case (although making it so is a worthwhile habit to create).

I guess my point is that these, really, are our pots and dishes: we churn them out by the dozen, and they do include many duds. Sometimes you work for weeks but only on actually presenting it do you see why your paper doesn’t work. But most of the time, you produce a serviceable dish. And then it’s time to reach for more clay.


* This is meant to be a short blog post so pardon me for not engaging with questions relating to quality of academic publications over time, or any other parameter for that matter. As also with issues such as other reasons why texts of dubious quality get published in the first place.

† I actually wrote out twice as much as ended in the article but had to scrap everything written after the first pint. Alcohol can be a muse but when Clio morphs into Thalia you know you’ve had one too many.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve been reading quite a bit of old academic papers ~1900’s lately: the kind that were produced by single authors, over many years… They are certainly a different literary beast altogether. New papers seem nearly epistolary by comparison – incremental & all too polite !

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