Saving Tenure, or Helping to Kill it?: A Few Words about “Publish, then Filter” /Sharon O’Dair


Saving Tenure, or Helping to Kill it?:  A Few Words about “Publish, then Filter”

Sharon O’Dair, Department of English, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL


Now the Method of growing Wise, Learned, and Sublime,
having become so regular an Affair, and so established in all its Forms;
the Number of Writers must needs have increased accordingly,
and to a Pitch that has made it of absolute Necessity for them to interfere continually with each other. . . .This I am told by a very skillful Computer,
who hath given a full Demonstration of it from Rules of Arithmetick.

–Swift, A Tale of A Tub

Dark Ages of the mind are not necessarily ushered in by material collapse,
but can occur in times of material abundance; a major cause is overabundance and dispersion of the material means of intellectual production. . . .

–Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies

The OED lists the first use in English of the word “computer” in 1613, and I am delighted to cite this early use, so apt for this forum, of a computer’s arithmetic, one that tells Jonathan Swift’s speaker about writers’ continual clashes and collisions (OED, “interfere,” sense 2a and 2b).  But I am delighted more by the speaker’s assertion that these clashes and collisions stem from an increasing number of writers, especially, as it happens, of critics and scholars.  Swift’s clashes and collisions reverberate in Randall Collins’s massive and erudite sociology of intellectual life, in which our work is described in terms of struggle, conflict, and competition, “an implicit shouldering aside and grasping of one another to get as much into the focus of attention as possible” (Collins, 1998, 31).  Clashes and collisions, shouldering and grasping, all in the service of being the focus of very limited possibilities for attention—this is a far cry from the goal of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s vision for peer-to-peer reviewing and for academic publishing, which is that they will foster helpfulness:  “for network-based publishing to succeed, the communal emphasis of network culture will have to take the lead over academic culture’s individualism” (Fitzpatrick, 2011, 17).

I wish to suggest that the opposition Fitzpatrick posits is both inaccurate and a red herring. Is intellectual life as individualistic as Fitzpatrick suggests?  Is network culture, particularly when stitched into intellectual life, as communal and as helpful as she suggests?  Will a computer-networked intellectual culture be less competitive, less grasping, less fixated on fixing attention than the one we currently inhabit?  I think not.  One can point to Collins, whose thousand-page tome demonstrates that intellectual life always has been structured through social networks: “the particularity of the individual is the particularity of the social path” (Collins, 1998, 74).  The individuals who develop ideas that matter, that stick, “are located in typical social patterns:  intellectual groups, networks, and rivalries” (Collins, 1998, 3); without the groups, networks, and rivalries, the individual (and her intellectual accomplishments, even her thoughts) would not exist.  But one can point to one’s own career for evidence of the same.  Pedigree, status, networks, rivalries, clashing and collisions, shouldering and grasping, all of it, engaged in or not, continually or not, these, as much as or more so than one’s individual intelligence, determine the success of one’s intellectual career, how much attention one—and one’s ideas—will receive.  If so, if the intellectual world already is networked as well as competitive, the introduction of computer-based networks will likely heighten, not lessen, the competition: more networks of intellectuals will vie for attention, in the hope that one computer-based network will do what intellectual networks have always done—propel a given individual to fame.  But of course, most will not, almost none will, for as Collins observes, “the fate of almost all intellectuals is to be forgotten, most of us sooner rather than later” (Collins, 1998, 79).

Sooner rather than later, indeed: today, tenured or tenure-track faculty comprise only 25% of instructional staff at colleges and universities; even smaller is the percentage in so-called research positions.  Under these conditions, it is a red herring (or just breathtakingly elitist) to focus on faculty’s ability to publish. Fitzpatrick suggests that until a revolution in scholarly publishing occurs, one that will make it easier for young scholars to publish, “the processes of evaluation for tenure and promotion are doomed to become a monster that eats its young” (Fitzpatrick, 2011, 18).  But this seems like overstatement, the concern misplaced. On the one hand, opportunities to publish abound and, as any number of intellectuals have noted, already “we are almost literally buried in papers” (Collins, 1998, 521).   Indeed one might suggest, not facetiously, that since humanists publish articles by the tens of thousands each year, even into six figures, already we publish first and filter later; our “human filtering system” works hard now—and arguably not very successfully—to “determin[e] . . .  what of the vast amount of material that has been published is of interest or value to a particular scholar” (Collins, 1998, 15).  On the other hand, according to the MLA, of those who persist in a position for the requisite five years, 90% obtain tenure (MLA, 2007, 10).  And they do so regardless of the state of scholarly publishing; most of these assistant professors work at institutions—liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities, for example—that do not require a book for tenure, much less progress toward a second book; most profess at institutions that do not discriminate between Representations and The Fairy Tale Review.

The profession eats it young not by denying tenure or opportunities to publish but by indulging the primitive deceit of bait-and-switch:  training young scholars for research while denying them positions suited to that training. In 2011, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported significant growth before and during the current recessionary period in positions that are full-time but not tenure-track (‘It’s Not Over Yet’, AAUP, 2000).  A positive development this is if it suggests departments are not asking Ph.D.s to adjunct.  But worrying it is if it suggests departments are not hiring at the tenure-track, which is what the AAUP thinks, or if it suggests a blurring of the distinction between the tenure track and the non-tenure-track, which I would like to suggest soon may happen, perhaps already is happening. Over ten years ago, John Guillory observed that “the most marginal differences” in peoples’ qualifications may result in “‘good’ jobs at Research I institutions, . . . [in] jobs quite unlike those for which they believe they have been trained”, or even, of course, in a lifetime of adjuncting.  But Guillory did not consider another scenario, which I would like readers to consider now.  What happens, if, or let me say when “persons with the same degree, the same training” (Guillory, 2000, 1161) and even with the same records of publication, end up on the same faculty, one person on the tenure-track and one not, one teaching two courses a semester and one teaching four?  What happens three or four years later, if, given proliferating venues for publication, perhaps even more accessible than now, with the institutionalization of “publish, then filter,” the latter’s publication record continues to rival that of the former?  What happens later still, after tenure?  Nothing?  A building resentment on the part of the latter?  A numbing complacency on the part of the former?  A calling “into question the legitimacy of the system as a whole”?  (Guillory, 2000, 1161)  And what might that the latter mean?  Perhaps this: a provost, facing continual financial exigency, is concerned with staffing lower-division courses.  She is not much interested in the difference between Representations and The Fairy Tale Review.  She looks at her two similarly credentialed and similarly productive faculty and wonders why one is teaching so much more than the other?  Curious, the provost turns to Inside Higher Ed and reads about the hip notion of “publish, then filter” and in doing so, she wonders aloud, in a moment of insight, “why make decisions about tenure early in a professor’s career? Indeed, why tenure professors at all?”

“Publish, then filter” may become, I suggest, an argument against tenure, which is the opposite of what Fitzpatrick desires and which is perhaps not surprising given that it arises from the neoliberal, capitalist engines of Silicon Valley.



American Association of University Professors. ‘It’s Not Over Yet.’ (, accessed on 11 April 2011.

Collins, R. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fitzpatrick, K. 2011. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy.  (

Guillory, J. 2000. The System of Graduate Education. PMLA 115: 1154-63.

Modern Language Association of America (MLA), “Report of the MLA Task Force on
Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,” Profession
2007, 9-71.


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