On Feedback

Michael Risch’s post below about the norms of the cyberlaw colloquium (“The Virtues of Getting Shredded“) prompted me to revisit some thoughts that I collected during my recently-concluded term as Research Dean at Pitt.

The problem, or the issue, is the form and tone of “feedback” to give colleagues who are presenting or sharing preliminary versions of their scholarship.

Michael’s post illustrates the fact that there environments where “tough love” is the norm.  Jacqui Lipton’s comment to his post mentions another such environment, at Case Western; I have also heard of a few others.  (I have also heard of at least one or two where the emphasis is on the “tough” rather than on the “love.”)

But my sense is that in legal scholarship, and outside of a handful of small group settings, “tough love” norms are exceptional.  Descriptively, this isn’t a big surprise.  The colloquium that Michael described (and that I have participated in, from time to time) comes with some heavy costs.  Chief among them is the proposition that all of the presenters make their papers available well before the colloquium date, and that all of the participants read all of those papers, in some depth, ahead of time.  In addition, anyone participating in the colloquium needs to have a reasonably thick skin.  This is especially true of presenters, but it’s also true of the commenters.  And as Michael notes, there is the worry among junior participants that they might do long-term damage to their reputations.  This “trust” concern has a secondary dimension:  There is the potential cost to a larger civility norm.  Participants need to have a degree of confidence that when all has been said at the conference table,  they will remain colleagues, not combatants.  There is some historical investment in trust relationships that pays dividends at the colloquium table.  (This last statement isn’t invariably true; the current cyberlaw colloquium benefits from its own traditions, but the first few cyberlaw colloquia did not.)   But — and this is a big and positive “but” — once those costs are out of the way, then the benefits of “tough love” are substantial.  The work really does get better because of the in-depth critical feedback.  The rewards are big.  The risks are big, too.

Normatively, the question is whether more of the “working papers” conferences that are popping up more and more frequently (in IP and tech law:  IPSC, WIP(IP), the Drake Roundtable, Junior Scholars in IP at Michigan State, the upcoming WIP in Internet Law at Santa Clara) should adopt “tough love”-style approaches.  Perhaps not precisely to mirror what I’ve described above, but to encourage the adoption of norms that push both presenters and other participants to engage the merits of the work more deeply than is the custom.  Both for presenters and participants, the benefits of these conferences are usually pretty modest, in terms of the content of the work.  Papers are rarely read ahead of time (or even afterward).  Presenters talk for 10-20 minutes (depending on the conference) and respond to a small handful of questions that are, in the main, pretty polite.   There are other benefits.  Informal conversations about a presenter’s work may carry on beyond the assigned presentation slot.  More important, I think, the default WIP format has civility, collegiality, inclusiveness, and acceptance benefits; presenters get visibility, experience, confidence, and positive reinforcement.  (Not everyone has a thick skin.  Critiques of scholarship are sometimes — even often — interpreted as personal affronts, or worse.  Descriptively, of course, this isn’t a surprise to anyone in academia.)  But on the whole, and added up, the benefits are pretty modest — note that most of my list of benefits refers to benefits to the person, and little of my list refers to benefits to the work — and they’re commensurate with the costs.  These are low risk, low return affairs.

Is there a third way?  I understand why a lot of people might be uncomfortable with the full-contact “tough love” environment; I wonder whether more people would like more intensive workshop formats than the standard WIP approach offers.  “Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends” goes the Shakepearean motto (Taming of the Shrew) that is often applied to trial practice.  Might it apply more broadly in  scholarly settings, too?

Update:  Jeff Lipshaw extends this conversation with a post at PrawfsBlawg.

3 thoughts on “On Feedback

  1. Being a Chicago grad, I didn’t realize for a long time that there was any kind of love other than tough. I prefer it for my work – tell me how good my article is after I’ve published it!

    That said, I think there is real benefit to the other kinds of conferences, though I agree with you that it is mostly for the person and not the work.

  2. Not sure if this qualifies as a “third way,” but I’d be interested in experimenting with a seminar-type format: a small-ish group in which participants have read the paper in advance; the discussion is led by a facilitator; and the discussion takes place among the participants about the paper, rather than as a Q&A with the author.

    This procedure may have its own costs, in that the author may come to feel invisible or “talked about.” But it may also have some benefits, in the form of a more developed analysis of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses, avoiding the (mild, to be sure) dissertation defense feeling that some conference Q&A’s have.

  3. Having come from a discipline (English lit) in which conference Q&As are bloodsport masquerading as constructive criticism, I’ve been thankful for the civility and general decency that are the current norm at venues like IPSC and the Drake Roundtable. I’ve met, at those conferences, people who are willing to read my work “offline” in a more critical way, so that even if the conferences themselves don’t result in substantial improvement of the work I’m presenting, they lead to conversations that do.

    With that said, I think that getting people who trust each other around a table to engage in more probing critiques of one another’s work is a really productive idea. That structure takes away the nastier performative aspects of the “tough love” conference Q&A, where questions often seem calculated to do little more than display to the rest of the audience the brilliance of the person asking them.

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