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Thursday, August 06, 2009

On Writing "Small"

Yesterday I posted about the SEALS panel I participated in on advancing your scholarly career.  (Of course I claim no special qualifications in this regard.)  I'd like to continue discussing these issues, and the other panel I participated in, on promoting your scholarship, over the next few posts.  Although most of these posts are aimed at beginning or junior professors, some of the advice will apply also to folks going on the market, and some may apply to mid-career or later profs as well.

The conventional wisdom, it seems to me, for profs who are just starting out is that they should write "small."  By "small," I mean that they should focus on a narrow problem and deal with it in a relatively narrow doctrinal way.  This advice has both strategic and epistemic roots.  Epistemically, the idea is that you don't know everything and thus should start modestly.  I approve of this advice.  Strategically, the idea is that you don't want to embarrass yourself starting off by biting more than you can chew, and that "writing for tenure" counsels in favor of writing carefully and narrowly at first as well.  

I have some problems with the strategic aspects of this advice.  To be sure, you always want to write the piece as it deserves to be written, and your early work does immediately start making or breaking your reputation, so there's much to be said for curbing your desire to do everything at once.  But there are two problems with the strategic advice.  First, I think it can be a mistake to "write for tenure."  Different institutions have different traditions and people, of course, so the first rule should be, know your institution.  But having said that, I continue to believe that tenure is nowhere near as high a hurdle as getting a job in the first place, and I think "writing for tenure" -- in the sense of not doing what you actually want to do, but instead doing what you think your senior colleagues want you to do -- can encourage bad habits, including a certain timidity about your own work and your own colleagues.  Those who argue that you can "write for tenure" in your first few years and then write what you really want to write later on give too little credit, I think, to the long-term effects of being inculcated in these habits.  A little bit of "toujours l'audace" should be part of your makeup from the beginning.

Second, I think there is such a thing as writing too "small."  Some problems are "small" problems because they deserve to be; they're not necessarily worth a full-dress article.  Moreover, just as you can hurt your reputation by writing too big at the outset, so I think you can limit your reputation at the outset by writing too narrowly.  You may write so small that you are ignored; or dismissed as a "mere" doctrinalist; or thought of as someone who is still writing student notes.  You may be thought of as writing only to practitioners; that's just fine if that's the audience you primarily want to reach, but if you want a broader name in your field you may be consigning yourself to a more obscure status.  You may reach a quick dead end by taking on discrete problems that don't lead to future articles; and these articles also won't help you develop a lasting name or set of ideas.  Finally, although it is possible to change course, I think some people start off by writing small and stay in the habit of doing so.  They say they will write their "big" piece when they have a bunch of smaller pieces under their belts, but that day seems to never come.  

So there is, I think, a certain golden mean to be sought here.  Humility is always important, and you shouldn't start off with a grand theory of everything unless you can really deliver the goods.  But writing too small has dangers of its own.  Insofar as it helps you get tenure, that's fine; but if, as they should be, your goals are larger and longer-term than that, then you should begin working toward these goals at an early stage.  In practical terms, I would advise this.  Pick topics you can handle, of course.  But don't neglect the "big" aspects of your "small" piece.  You might write on a big topic, but in a way that is admittedly exploratory and speculative; that raises and illustrates questions or offers a theory, but doesn't purport to do everything just yet.  Or you might write on a smaller topic, but in a way that helps to develop your larger theory or approach, and thus that both signals to others what your larger project will be and helps point you toward the next series of articles developing that theory.  In either case, don't write toward an immediate dead end and don't be so narrow as to be picayune.  Keep in mind the larger theory or approach that you want to develop, find connections and implications in everything you do, and begin developing and foreshadowing your larger project from the start (keeping in mind that the contours of that project may change as you write more and learn more; it should be a framework, not a straitjacket).  Your work should always be modest, but it should also always have a quality of ambition.

Much of this advice is targeted to new professors, not folks who are now going on the market.  But some of that advice applies to them too.  I think this is less of an issue than it used to be, because many candidates have already done some of their earlier work and are ready to expand.  Still, it is worth saying that successful job-talk papers, although they definitely shouldn't be grand-theory-of-everything papers, should signal that you have a long-term scholarly agenda, into which your job-talk paper fits and of which it is both an early piece and a preview of work to come.  It shouldn't be a dead end, such that when you are asked what the next article in the series will be you are forced to concede that the project ends here.  It shouldn't be so narrow that some of your readers conclude that you're "just" a practitioner who has developed some issue you faced in practice into a one-off paper; it's fine to build on a problem you faced in practice, but less fine to not have some sense of how this work links up to bigger themes.  And keep in mind that the narrower you write, the less of an audience you are likely to have at your job-talk; you want a piece whose implications are potentially accessible and interesting to everyone in the room.  In short, writing "small," although it is the conventional wisdom and has much to recommend it, can be a hazard too.  If you want to develop into the kind of scholar you want to be, with the kind of name you want to have, then this too should be a part of your early writing and thinking about your scholarship.

I wonder whether our readers have any thoughts on this.  In particular, I wonder whether anyone can share their own experiences on these questions -- on the dangers of writing either too "small" or too "big."  And I wonder whether others have examples of junior scholars who quickly developed a good reputation and whose early work, albeit in a modest fashion, foreshadowed some of their bigger themes in a favorable and skillful way.     

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 6, 2009 at 10:36 AM | Permalink

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This is, Paul, another characteristically thoughtful post. You are right that writing small is bad, one-size fits all advice. But I, for one, would be loathe to give any advice at all, except this: write what seems important to you -- be it large or small -- and, especially, give up on the idea of being strategic. I think (and I suspect you would agree) that being instrumental drains the life out of academics. Your goal should not be to please a bunch of other people on your faculty or other faculties, but to do the work that needs to be done. So if you want to write on 5 unrelated topics, then do so. If you want to solve small problems, go ahead. If you want to start working on the grand unifying theory of law and string theory, go for it too. You are writing for an audience, to be sure, but in a real sense, you want to tell your audience what is important, rather than letting others, even if they are senior to you, define importance for you.

In the end, and I think this may lead me to actually disagree with your premise, Paul, I think that writing for reputation is overrated. Give up now, I say, on the idea of even having a reputation. Get up each day and do your best. Don't worry if a piece makes or breaks your reputation, or if it's the kind of thing that law review editors will like. Good work, work that will stand the test of time -- that's what we want, and we just can't know, right now, what will ultimately fall into that category. If it takes three bad pieces to get you ready for the path-breaking piece, your path-breaking piece will be appropriately remembered, and the others forgotten in the end. Reputation is just ego, and we should all try to banish it. Not easy to do, to be sure. But I'm confident that we'd be better without it if we academics were not a bunch of insecure chickens running around worried about reputation and what others might think of them.

Posted by: Zen Academic | Aug 6, 2009 12:18:25 PM

Paul, as usual, your thoughts are constructive and measured. As someone of whom it has been said he sometimes needed to be tamed, I certainly concur in the idea of "toujour audace," (although I have to admit the only other time I can recall anybody using that phrase was George C. Scott as Patton). I think there are at least three conceptual issues when dealing with authorship as a matter of early legal academic careerism.

1. I don't think the "audace" problem is really one of a grand theory of everything. The issue is really that the "golden mean" for a young practitioner turned scholar sans Ph.D. (i.e., the not-as-ubiquitous but still prevalent mode of entry) is a narrow target indeed. Aim too low and it's a CLE piece. Aim too high and it's a naive stab at inter-disciplinarity (not so much a grand theory of everything, but a misplaced cross-theory). The sweet spot is a doctrinal piece that tends to theory, but good theory that isn't embarrassing if read by an full-fledged expert in that theory. All I can say is I just came in from playing golf, and that's the equivalent of threading a shot through a narrow gap in the trees. (Theory: hiring a Ph.D./J.D. either widens the target or reduces the likelihood of the hiree missing the shot. Given where the "law and ..." academy sits nowadays, it's no wonder that Ph.D. hiring is increasing.)

2. Real ground-breaking innovation in thought is a lot like real ground-breaking innovation in anything. It's serendipitous and mysterious. It involves all the complexities and subtleties of the advance of knowledge in any scientific or humanities (or business) community, which is that it's a social process as well as a logical or inductive process. The line between a stupid idea and a ground-breaking idea, when looked at ex ante versus ex post, is pretty fine, and doesn't always have to do with the merits of the idea as much as who endorses it and sells it. Nobody who makes a living submitting non-blind articles along with their CVs to student editors of law reviews will doubt the importance of heuristics. Is somebody who advances a new and weird idea in the face of this a naive fool or an idealistic hero? I don't know.

3. As everybody knows, I attended my son's white coat ceremony at Michigan last week. There's no doubt, for better or worse, that elite schools act as filters. When the students introduced themselves, the names of their undergrad schools were overwhelming Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, Northwestern, Princeton, Cornell, Berkeley, Washington, Notre Dame. Occasionally there was a William Jewell College or a Grand Valley State, but it was very much an elite (or elitist) gathering. (I don't pass judgment on this or the schools at any level, except to say that it's probably the case that I got good grades and scores and school admissions in the usual "prestige" paradigm when I thought like my teachers, and my students get good grades when they think like me.) Nevertheless, one of the messages to the entering class of Michigan med students was that some of them are going to be in the middle of the class and some at the bottom. That is, no matter how select the group, somebody's going to be mediocre. The hard truth for entering law professors is the same. Despite the fact that most all were superstars at the previous level, once again, there will be a sorting out (fairly or unfairly as the case may be) with some superstars, some flame-outs, and a lot of people doing middling work that is sufficient as the basis for a career, but probably forgotten not long after it's written.

I just subscribed to the Journal of Applied Philosophy, and read an essay by the great Kant scholar Onora O'Neill, in which she discussed the difficulty, philosophically speaking, of applied ethics and practical judgment, of which this is a subset. The problem is that we know we can't reduce judgments to algorithms that ensure success, but we're also pretty sure, intuitively, that there are non-specific principles that underlie good judgments. She calls reflective equilibrium the best halfway house yet proposed. I'm more convinced that we can adopt heuristics that minimize the likelihood of failure, sort of like the bromide that you never ask a question in cross-examination to which you don't know the answer. That will ensure you don't make a terrible mistake, but it also eliminates the inspirational success. It seems to me that there will be a continuum on a polarity between careerism and intellectual idealism, and all sorts of factors, including personality, life circumstances, social abilities, etc. will affect where each individual ends up. It seems to me that a happy life is working on what you can control, and either (a) putting the randomness of the world out of mind or (b) taking a lot of Xanax.

Posted by: Jeffrey M. Lipshaw | Aug 6, 2009 12:31:10 PM

Of course I agree with you that the work is the most important thing, and that worrying about reputation can be a hindrance to this (although, sometimes, it can be a spur). Let me say a couple of things. First, I agree that the most important thing to do is just to do one's work -- and this should include not only scholarship, but institution-building and supporting colleagues at your school and elsewhere. Second, I would say that "do the work that needs to be done" is the right advice, although adding the caveat that one should have a sense of one's actual (but not strategic) limits; it's not always the right thing to write the grand unified theory paper -- you have to be ready to do it right, which may come earlier or later in your development. Third, one might read these posts not as saying that reputation is the most important thing, but as talking about what one might want to do with reputation in mind; although, as you say, this can end up being an end in itself in a harmful way, it is also certainly the case that some folks want, in a hopefully not too egregious way, to engage in bigger and broader conversations, and the advice I've offered takes this as a starting premise, without wanting to sacrifice the integrity of the work itself. Finally, with that premise in mind, I do disagree a little about whether one's weaker work is always forgotten while the best work is remembered, for two reasons. First, as I wrote, I think that it is not always completely easy to switch gears; one can become accustomed to writing "lesser" work rather than stretching to try to achieve "greater" work. Second, Second, as I also wrote, I think it can be possible to become regarded or disregarded early on, and to that extent, although your path-breaking work may take a while to emerge, you can try to use your early work as an opportunity to develop it and point the way to what's coming.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 6, 2009 12:32:56 PM

You are so reasonable, Paul. Have you ever thought that maybe you are The Reasonable Person of hypothetical fame?

I agree with what you say: everything in moderation. Reputation counts, if it helps you be heard, but not if means that you won't swing for the fences, even though you're capable, because you're too afraid of a fly-out. Ambition is good, but not if you lack the training and capacity to pull off the key piece. A single-hitter adds value to the team, and shouldn't strike out trying for homers. And you are totally right that bringing institution building into the picture is key, too. Our goal has to be to increase the sum total of knowledge and wisdom, not just that which we can provide alone.

Posted by: Zen Academic | Aug 6, 2009 2:27:42 PM

As a practitioner who aspires to be a law professor, this post is very helpful. I will have to keep these thoughts in mind as I continue to write my first article and look into Fellowships and VAPs.

Here's a question for everyone. Is a new or aspiring scholar (such as myself) who graduated from a respectable (though not elite) law school wrong to assume that he or she must write "big" in his or her first article in order to get as much benefit from the article, in terms of the impact it will have on hiring committees? Another way of asking the question is: Can the quality of the article (in terms of demonstrating novel thinking) make up for the fact that a candidate did not graduate from an elite law school? If the answer is yes, or more accurately, if aspiring scholars have high hopes that the answer is yes, then that might explain why the temptation to write "big" might be stronger for some than others. I would love to hear what people have to say on the matter.

I feel confident that my topic is both sufficiently big and sufficiently small for my first article, but it is hard to know for sure. Thanks again for a great post.

Posted by: Tate Lounsbery | Aug 6, 2009 6:06:38 PM

Without meaning to be impolite, I would venture to say that most law review articles are read from start to finish by readerships numbered in the very low double digits and that, apart from a few law faculty members, many law review articles have no readers at all (literally zero). Therefore, to a significant extent, legal scholarship always amounts to "writing small."

Posted by: JB | Aug 6, 2009 8:19:29 PM

I made the mistake of writing too "big" in my student note. The few good points I made were lost in the morass of broader points that had already been made (or, worse, well refuted) by other more accomplished scholars.

Were I to ever try to teach, how much does a bad but published student note hurt in the process? I doubt it's completely ignored.

Posted by: 1st Year Associate | Aug 7, 2009 2:07:21 PM

The best advice I've heard (from a colleague, who I think got it from David Daube) on the right scale for scholarship is to be like a farmer in the great plains--small plot of land, big sky. In other words, the topic should be small enough that you can truly master it--find new facts, understand competing perspectives on the old ones--but from that mastery get a perspective on a bigger issue. As you continue to write, your area of mastery gets wider, so the plot of land may too, but that depth of understanding remains the important starting point.

For the 1st year associate, my sense is that a "bad" student note isn't a killer if you have other more recent work. It typically won't be read until the faculty has read and passed judgement on the later work, and I think won't trump a good impression from that work. While this is probably not best practice, some faculties will not even read the student piece during the hiring process if there is other work to rely on.

Posted by: Bethany | Aug 13, 2009 3:50:08 PM

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