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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Scholarly Writing For...Whom?

If I may add a link and two cents to Ethan's post below about Rosa Brooks's farewell to law reviews, and the useful discussion that's ensued here and on her blog.... 

First, a link.  Folks who are interested in this discussion, and in the earlier discussion here and there about blogging and legal scholarship, might enjoy Scott McLemmee's latest column for Inside Higher Ed, in which he writes about his experience meeting a number of blogging academics before and during the annual MLA conference, and ties it in to one scholar's broader work on the social history and culture of academic life.  McLemee quotes the scholar, Thomas Bender, as writing:

Academe is threatened by the twin dangers of fossilization and scholasticism (of three types: tedium, high tech, and radical chic). The agenda for the next decade, at least as I see it, ought to be the opening up of the disciplines, the ventilating of professional communities that have come to share too much and that have become too self-referential.

McLemee naturally sees blogs as offering the possibility of Bender's project realized: the creation of a "new sort of collegiality, stretching across both geographic and professional distances, fostered by online communication but not confined to it."  Maybe.  It is this promise of a broader, more heterogeneous and status-insensitive dialogue among and between scholars that offers one of the reasons that young legal scholars continue blogging (not why they start, I think; I would guess that a combination of excess energy, limited outlets, ego, and healthy self-interest offer a better explanation of that).  It seems to me that's one reason Brooks wants to opt out of the law review world, as evidenced by her observation that law review articles seemingly go ignored, and her query in the comments to her post: "Who are any of us writing to, and what for?"  I suppose in that sense that blogging offers an alternative to long-form, long-wait-for-reaction legal scholarship -- although most of the time it is an imperfect scholarship; most blog entries are neither as long nor as thoughtful as some of the entries on, say, Richard Posner or Larry Solum's blogs, which stand in for longer-term scholarship and evoke immediate reactions.  So, if McLemee is right, then blogging is at least one outlet that might be preferable in certain senses for law professors who long for more of a vivid and immediate and unconstrained dialogue than law-review scholarship can provide.  But I think there are even broader questions of professional identity tied in with the questions Brooks asks.  (More after the jump...)

Now, it seems to me that the answer to Brooks's question -- who do we law professors write to and why? -- is that we write legal scholarship largely for ourselves and largely because it is part of the role orientation of law professors -- and, usually, for no other or better reason.  It is what we do, what we like, who we are, and that's that.  To quote Rodell, "diddling while Rome burn[s]" is a perfectly adequate description of legal scholarship; whatever some legal scholars may tell themselves or others, legal scholarship is generally not about "solving the myriad of problems of the world" -- it's about doing what legal scholars do.  Except in some utilitarian sense, that's just fine or, at least, just life.  Some may find this perspective a little grim; I'm not sure I really do. 

But the converse point of this argument is that if someone is not especially jazzed by this part of the role identity of being a legal scholar, that's fine with me and there ought to be room to make other approaches work in the academy.  (Brooks suggests she might switch to academic books, among other things.  If so, that's an acceptable substitute for journal-writing, but it should be noted that it carries at least some of the costs -- the need for punctilious detail and the unlikelihood that anyone will read the work -- that journal articles carry, and that Brooks complains about in that context, so I'm not sure why she finds this alternative distinctly preferable.)  Not all alternatives should be equally preferable to an academic who enjoys the benefits of tenure, however.  If one became purely a writer of newspaper columns or of lightly reasoned books for general audiences, it seems less likely that one would be adequately fulfilling one's obligation to contribute to the scholarly leg of the tenure tripod (and, by extension, of post-tenure academic life).  If that's one's preference, why not surrender tenure and exist by the whims of the marketplace?  Nevertheless, there do seem to be a number of acceptable alternatives to pure journal-article writing for those who are so inclined.   

I do get the sense, though, that there is a broader risk (at least from the ponit of view of the rest of the academy) inherent in the temptation to slip the bonds and outlets of standard academic discourse altogether.  There is, however fitfully from an individual scholar's point of view, a broader intellectual conversation that takes place in the legal academy.  It may from an individual's point of view occur at glacial speeds, and it may ultimately serve no ultimate purpose larger than itself, but it does occur.  It's hardly surprising that this conversation, to the extent it is somewhat formalized and constrained as professional and somewhat discipline-specific conversation, takes place through standard accepted channels of communication -- law reviews, books in academic presses, conference talks -- and not others, such as newspapers.  Just about all conversations require at least some miminum conventions in order to take place.  And therein lies the risk. 

My rough conclusion is that some legal academics who exit these standard modes of communication simply exit the academic conversation altogether (again, with the caveat that I think folks who write books for academic presses are basically just offering a substitute for writing journal articles and remain in the academic conversation).  Columbia, my alma mater, seemed to offer a few prominent examples of this.  For instance, Patricia Williams may vastly prefer writing for the Nation, but is she any longer a prominent part of the legal academy conversation as such?  And greater or lesser variants on this phenomenon -- legal scholars who tire of legal scholarship as a writing outlet but also effectively become "dehors de la conversation" -- are, I think, sufficiently widespread that folks at most schools could probably name a similar individual at their institution, albeit sotto voce.

As I say, that's fine.  There are all kinds of reasons one might prefer a "conversation" with a general audience, or an audience of politicians and opinion-makers, or an audience of non-academic lawyers, or an intellectual but non-academic and generalist audience, and so on.  I do get the sense that it is possible for legal academics who opt to write largely or strictly in other fora to drop off the face of the earth as legal academics, but that's not the same thing as saying that they have actually dropped off the face of the earth; to the contrary, from their perspective they may have entered a newer and larger world.  But it is a different world, and the question is, how much enthusiasm do some of these dropouts from the tedious world of academe have for those aspects of the old one?

I hasten to add that these reflections were inspired by Brooks (and Ethan), and are not about her.  Let me not be so presumptuous!  In particular, I have no idea what mix of audiences she would like to address in the future, and through what media; and if those media include books for academic presses, then, as I've emphasized, such outlets would be well within the academic conversation.  I emphasize that these thoughts are freestanding and not about Brooks one last time because I end with this question, which I raised parenthetically above.  Say one is a tenured academic who wants to get out of pure scholarship altogether -- to continue teaching, but to write strictly for non-academic audiences, whether in the daily press or for magazines or in general-audience books.  Should such a person retain tenure?  Why?  And even if the university cannot revoke their tenure in these circumstances, would it behoove the tenured individual himself or herself to voluntarily surrender his or her tenure?*

* All questions posed herein are hypothetical; the author hereby disclaims any reader's right to hold this sentence against him in the future if he attains tenure but chooses to write for general audiences.        

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 18, 2006 at 06:26 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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» Does Scholarly Writing Have to Be Tedious? from Concurring Opinions
Over at the new and very engaging blog, LawCulture, Rosa Brooks writes: As a junior professor, I dutifully churned out law review articles to fill my tenure file. Some of those articles, I think, may even have contained a few... [Read More]

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» Does Scholarly Writing Have to Be Tedious? from Concurring Opinions
Over at the new and very engaging blog, LawCulture, Rosa Brooks writes: As a junior professor, I dutifully churned out law review articles to fill my tenure file. Some of those articles, I think, may even have contained a few... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 19, 2006 11:08:10 AM

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Tracked on Jan 19, 2006 2:33:19 PM

Comments

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Paul, you raise many interesting questions. But a) why be so quick to assume that books cannot possibly be written so as to reach a general audience and so as to contribute seriously to scholarship at the same time? I grant you that most books do one or the other, but surely there are books that do both.

B) as I wrote to Ethan's post, the social value of tenure is that it gives people freedom from market pressures and freedom to deviate from what their senior colleagues may happen to prefer. We value that freedom for political reasons, but also for intellectual reasons. Tenure enables experimentation and change. In market-dominated America, academia is the one place people who are not independently wealthy can think and write without being forced to live hand to mouth. It's the last refuge for public intellectuals. (Can you think of many public intellectuals who are not academics?) To the question

Posted by: profanon | Jan 18, 2006 7:12:22 PM

Sorry, I was being longwinded and your blog somehow cut me off midpost. I think I was trying to say that if universities refuse to value people who try to write about ideas for an audience that is not made up exclusively of scholars (scholars read blogs and magazines too :-)), there is no other place in this society that will value such writing about ideas. If universities push out people who try to be public intellectuals, we'll have precious few left. To my mind that would be a sad thing: it would increase the irrelevance of the academy, already a serious problem, and it would further lower the quality of public discourse, also already a serious problem. If academics can find ways to speak to a broader audience without pandering to the lowest common denominator, they should.

Posted by: profanon | Jan 18, 2006 7:17:04 PM

Let me add some mild agreement and some mild dissent. I agree that it is possible to write a book that is accessible to general audiences yet makes a serious intellectual contribution. Although it might fall more on one side of the line than the other, I think Noah Feldman's recent book Divided By God is an example of this. I also agree, however, with your observation that such books are rarer than those that largely serve one goal or the other.

And I agree that one value of tenure is that it permits experimentation; and thus, although I raise some pointed questions about Rosa Brooks's blog post, I think one value of her decision could be that, from within the security of tenure, she could find genuinely new ways of serving scholarship -- which I do think is a desideratum of tenure -- in new fora. There's some value to be had in questioning the received wisdom about how one goes about doing legal scholarship -- although, as I wrote, it seems to me that unless you find a way of doing so that is actually read by legal scholars, you risk dropping out of the conversation, and thus raise the question whether you are still participating in the scholarly enterprise in a way that contributes to it as a whole. Would a legal scholar who wrote only in his private diaries be contributing to legal scholarship? Would he be doing so if he wrote for a larger circulation but that circulation did not end up consisting, at least in some measure, of legal academics?

I do wonder to what extent your concerns about universities pushing out public intellectuals are right, though. Now, it is one thing to be both a scholar and a public intellectual. I suppose Anthony Appiah might qualify; in law, Feldman, Sunstein, Posner (heck, the whole Chicago faculty, just about), and many others. But what if you depart the pastures of scholarship altogether for pure public intellectual status? How concerned should we be if these individuals lack tenure? If they are unconcerned with scholarship per se, why keep them? If they are concerned only with public intellectual performance, are there not adequate alternative venues from which to write -- think tanks and the like? And if they're successful at it, aren't market forces an adequate protection and income stream? Given his essentially popular writing of the last 20 years or so, for instance, is a university Alan Dershowitz's true and proper home? Now, there are at several possible responses. One is that my focus on writing neglects teaching, which also is an important function of the academy, which also may require some or all forms of tenure protection, and which should be valued even if one is no longer a productive scholar. Another is that such writing has real value and has a place in the university. Another is that we should be hesitant to judge the value of an academic's writing by the simple rubric of category (academic vs. popular, etc.), especially ex ante, when evaluating his or her place in the university. Still another, one that you might favor, is that one value of universities is precisely that they contribute not only to scholarship but to the larger public discourse. What I'm suggesting, perhaps all I'm suggesting, is that these posts raise larger concerns about the role of the academic, the role and nature of scholarship, the role of the university, and the relationship of tenure to all these things. And although I'm not trying to rock the boat, I think a credible argument can be made that pure public intellectualism, of the op-ed/popular press variety, is only incidentally, and not primarily, the province of the university or the scholar, and thus that a scholar who leaves the field of scholarship for greener pastures might consider whether he or she has a moral obligation also to forego some of the benefits that accrue with a life of scholarship -- namely, in this case, tenure.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 18, 2006 7:48:31 PM

I think profanon (what's the matter? chicken? :)) has raised an extremely interesting point. But I guess I believe these "public intellectuals" could, for the most part, sustain themselves elsewhere, in think tanks or on the staff of media outlets. And why must the LEGAL academy in particular absorb all of them?

Here's the slightly disconcerting thing: these so-called public intellectuals trade on their affiliation with a scholarly institution without having to do the work of scholarship. That dilutes the very claim of the authority the identity with the institution has -- so the institution has cause to complain, I think. Obviously, these are the extreme cases -- but that is the threat about which we (and tenure committees of the future) are most worried. I take it we all concede that if people start writing long-form scholarship in book form, no one in the academy will really complain (though I've offered a few reason in my comments to my own post to believe that you'd be crazy to forego articles completely). And I appreciate Paul's point that book-writing mostly requires a similar albeit different set of hoops to jump...

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jan 18, 2006 7:54:28 PM

Given his essentially popular writing of the last 20 years or so, for instance, is a university Alan Dershowitz's true and proper home?

Not to defend Dershowitz, but don't professors teach classes where you come from? Dershowitz, by all accounts, is a stellar teacher who is admired by his students. Why isn't that at least as valuable to a university as a "scholar" tucked away somewhere in the corner of a library, writing some arcane and bloated article that will be read by 12 people, half of whom are L&E guys who believe that it "advances" a field (whatever that means), and half of whom are suspicious of rational choice theory and think the article is actively destructive?

I make the latter point because I keep hearing you guys say things like "advance the field," as if all legal subjects were able to be "advanced" in non-contestable ways, such that once a particular proposition has been put forward, all other scholars will agree and move on from there. I.e., as if all legal subjects were even more scientific than physics (which, after all, has undergone serious paradigm shifts over the past 100 years).

Posted by: Niels Jackson | Jan 19, 2006 10:54:17 AM

Niels, see my comment above for the acknowledgement of teaching as a factor in this ongoing dialogue about the role of the scholar. My institution, at least, values teaching, and generally I have no problem with a faculty that, in addition to scholars, includes members whose primary value to the institution ultimately lies in their commitment to teaching rather than writing, although I'm not sure that someone who solely teaches (I'm not describing Dershowitz here, mind you) would or necessarily should be fully rewarded by the tenure process. I'm not sure, incidentally, that I used the phrase "advance the field," although I wrote a heap and I'm not sure. Mostly, I talked about participating in a conversation, which may be but is not necessarily the same as advancing a field.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 19, 2006 11:04:39 AM

Well, with all due respect, I'm getting the impression that some parts of the academy might be forgetting the reason that their jobs exist: Because students pay money to come and learn from them. If not for students, about 1% of y'all would find a job at a think tank, and the rest would be working at Starbucks or an auto body shop or middle management somewhere, and thinking deep thoughts on your own time, late at night. In this context, I just don't see why teaching should be begrudgingly rewarded, as opposed to given first billing.

As for "advancing a field," I suppose I was thinking of Mr. Leib's remark in his post: "More, law professors who write [books] only very rarely radically advance a field through them (and those who do often have already made their contribution through an article)."

As if most legal fields are capable of being "radically advanced" in the first place, and as if more than maybe a handful of law review articles from all time could be said to have accomplished "radical" advancement.

Posted by: Niels Jackson | Jan 19, 2006 11:18:27 AM

Now, it seems to me that the answer to Brooks's question -- who do we law professors write to and why? -- is that we write legal scholarship largely for ourselves and largely because it is part of the role orientation of law professors -- and, usually, for no other or better reason. It is what we do, what we like, who we are, and that's that. To quote Rodell, "diddling while Rome burn[s]" is a perfectly adequate description of legal scholarship; whatever some legal scholars may tell themselves or others, legal scholarship is generally not about "solving the myriad of problems of the world" -- it's about doing what legal scholars do.

By way of comparison, I hear that the intellectual standards at Harvard Medical School are so degenerate that most of the faculty see it as their job to identify new and better treatments for diseases and infirmities and to improve medical care generally. Sadly, their publications reflect those base aspirations.

Posted by: alkali | Jan 19, 2006 3:51:49 PM

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