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How to Scholar

As thousands of law professors prepare to descend on San Diego this coming weekend for the annual meeting of the American Association of Law Schools (AALS), the lawprof blogosphere is again gurgling with advice for junior scholars.  Gordon Smith framed the conversation with a great post about scholarship from the point of view of someone who writes tenure review letters.  Dan Solove endorsed Gordon’s comments, and one in particular, as did Paul Caron – though Paul’s emphasis differed from Dan’s. 

I like most of Gordon’s points, but I differ in places.  Most important, as someone who has written my own share of letters recently (and read my share as well), it’s important to recognize out loud that tenure letters, like almost anything that academics write about the academy, reflect as much on the interests, ego, character, and background of the writer as they comment on the person and work under review.  As a Research Dean, I find myself giving lots of both formal and informal advice to junior colleagues, and necessarily what I say reflects my own tastes as well as my read of the academic environment.  Of course, law professors don’t have a monopoly on any of this;  wannabe law profs and appointments committees could learn a thing or two about attitude over at Rate Your Students, which Ann was generous enough to point me to below.  But junior scholars of any stripe need to walk a line between carving a scholarly identity on their own terms — and carving an identity on terms that are given by their seniors.

To the details, then; Gordon’s tips and some brief reactions:

1 — “My advice is that you build a scholarly identity, either by your method (e.g., bring the insights of organizational theory to bear on legal issues) or by your subject-matter focus (e.g., venture capital contracting) or both. As you build your identity, other scholars writing in your area will be forced to account for your views.” 

There are at least a couple of ways to do this, and neither is inherently superior to the other.  One way is to have a clear methodological or subject-matter focus from the outset, and to use that focus to drive what you write and talk about.  Roughly, this is a top-down approach.  A second way is to derive your identity (and your methods and subject-matter) over time.  Roughly, this is a bottom-up approach.  Tactically, the first is probably more effective in attracting early attention to your work, builidng a body of citations, and impressing reviewers.  Substantively, I’ve found that the latter is more intellectually satisfying.  My suggestion:  Don’t disregard tactical concerns, but avoid adopting a style or cultivating an identity that’s inconsistent with how your mind works.  Like others, reviewers can smell inauthentic work.  To borrow something that Jerry Maguire said in a different setting, write with your heart, not (just) your head.

2 — “Ask big questions, but write about questions you can answer. . . . The goal now that you are a professor is to advance knowledge, not by the discovery of legal arcana, but by giving the rest of us a better way of understanding big issues.” 

I’m all for intellectual ambition and better ways of understanding big issues, though there is a place for technical work, too.  But I am not so focused on ensuring that junior scholars have answers, or that I have them myself.  If we’re serious about the advancement of knowledge part, and I think that law faculty should be, then we should recognize that both knowledge and advancement come in a lot of flavors, and not necessarily all at once, and sometimes the answer is simply not there to be had.

3 — “Worry first about quality, then about quantity.”  

A first “Amen” to that.  But quality over quantity is easier said than done, when good and commonly accepted measures of quality are hard to find and tenure and promotion are in the hands of people who, almost by definition, are not in your field.  The best of all worlds is quality and quantity, of course, and that’s even easier to say than to do.

4 — “Plot a trajectory, preferably upward. You should ask big questions, but you don’t have to produce all of the answers in your first publication. Remember this guideline: one new idea per article. Think of that first article as the entry point to a series of articles addressing your big question. By the way, it’s all right if one or more of your articles is merely descriptive, as long as the description is thorough and original. Young law professors are too eager to reach world-changing proposals, usually based on facts and analysis that cannot withstand the burden being placed upon them.” 

I like the recognition of the value of descriptive work, and I agree that no one should have to produce all of the answers in a first publication, or even in all publications taken together, but I hesitate at the threshold of the one new idea per article theme.  I worry that this kind of advice advances a tendency in the profession as a whole toward simplistic, one-dimensional thinking.  Both the advice and the tendency can be reductive (though they don’t have to be), and they can encourage reductive scholarship (though they don’t have to).  My reaction, then, is that you should write one-idea-at-a-time if that’s your intellectual bearing.  Combine ideas if that’s the way that you think.  In all cases, have an idea (surprisingly, some scholarship by junior scholars does not), and in all cases, write clearly.  Combining ideas shouldn’t be an opportunity to confuse.

If you’re a multi-idea person, in theory you could save your “extra” ideas for books.  My view is that for reasons that are beyond the scope of a blog post, this isn’t a viable strategy for most people.  (That is, should you put ideas into articles one-at-a-time, earn tenure, then after tenure channel intellectual ambition into books, where time and space permit exploring more themes?)  Most of the law professor monographs that I’ve read recently are little more than collections of articles, re-edited and re-packaged for slightly broader audiences.  Genuinely novel monographs by legal scholars are great — but they’re rare, and they are especially rare for junior scholars.

5 — “You probably can’t afford a publicist, so you will have to market yourself. This piece of advice comes from a very basic insight: if I haven’t heard of you before I get the call or the email inviting me to review your work, that’s a bad sign for you.” 

And a final Amen, with a coda.  What I look for in scholarship at all levels, not to the exclusion of other things but as a leading indicator of distinction and promise, is intellectual engagement.  Engagement with the history of the field (fields), with other scholars, with knowledge that’s outside the boundaries of specific disciplines, legal or otherwise, and with knowledge beyond “scholarly” knowledge.  It is difficult to get known if you aren’t engaged, and if you are truly engaged, then it is difficult not to get known.

1 thought on “How to Scholar”

  1. Mike —

    Thanks for the pointers and the thoughts. This is one of the biggest questions for the legal professorial profession, so I think it is worth discussing at regular intervals.

    Your first (pre-points) point is really essential, I think. Carving on your own terms has to be balanced against the fact that junior scholars are inevitably carving, at least in part, for the recognition and approval of those who will read and review their work. That’s a fact of life — and not a bad one.

    It seems most of the points being made are addressed to strategies to help writers get recognized and appreciated and cited. I’m pretty much in agreement with your comments — esp. on 2 & 4. I think an article can ask big questions and wrestle with multiple ideas, while not providing a simple answer, and still be a good article. (Though maybe this is just me talking in my own self-interest!)

    But one thing to bear in mind, I think, is that in the course of attempting to carve in terms that others will appreciate, it is important to remember that you can’t forget how to carve on your own terms.

    Scholarship should be interesting to colleagues, but it also needs to be an intrinsically rewarding process — you’ve got to enjoy it enough that it becomes both your work and your chief hobby. Too much focus on how to do things the “right way” to please others can have downsides if it takes the joy out of research.

    Ideally, scholarship should be both an art and a vocation. Eudaimonia, as it were. 🙂

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