Friday, September 17, 2010
Can Good Prawfs Be Mensches? And some excuses, apologies, and such.
I've been a bit overwhelmed on the domestic front lately between work and non-work stuff to be able to engage meaningfully online on various issues. I've been derelict in writing my response to the wonderful contributions from Professors Harbach, MacDowell and Sack on the blog the other day about Privilege or Punish. I've wanted to weigh in with some thoughts on the Sisk (et al) study. But mostly, I've been thinking, especially with Yom Kippur quickly coming, how one ought to balance the duties of being a mensch (as my grandmother would insist) with doing a good job as a scholar and teacher and colleague.
There are of course some prawfs who are notoriously menschy and yet remarkably adept in all aspects of their job. So some might wonder if there's any false tension being posited here. Here was my thinking. With respect to scholarship, it seems that one of the principal ways in which "the ball is being advanced" is by showing the shortcomings of other folks' work in a particular area--usually scholars but also courts or other actors. This can be done gently or rudely, but it's often nonetheless something that needs to be done in order to be advancing the conversation. The same concern might arise when assessing other peoples' work for purposes of hiring or promotion--one may want to be generous to everybody but you simply cannot and in explaining why some should thrive and some should not, decisions are made and feelings are hurt along the way.
Perhaps this is not the case with teaching (as opposed to grading, where again, I think the tension is more apparent). Maybe in the classroom one could really be an effective teacher and at the same time be the epitome of sweetness and light. I find this difficult too because sometimes there are discipline issues and sometimes just asking students questions and responding to them with some degree of truth may make them uncomfortable or unhappy.
Last, to the extent running this blog is part of my professional life, I like to think I use it to facilitate scholarly dialogue, catalyze community building, and provide a venue for reflection and sharing. But on a regular basis (though seemingly less now than the first few years), I have to make decisions (e.g., deleting a comment that goes over "my" line or is inappropriate on a particular thread) that will upset people. Sometimes these decisions affect the content that's up here (e.g., those who disagree with the hiring thread) and sometimes it's the content that's taken down (the mean anonymous comments). It's hard to do this when I know there are bruised egos or other forms of residue to these decisions. I don't know what the solution is, but like the Rav in Lonely Man of Faith: "All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu the son of Berachel of old who said, 'I will speak that I may find relief;' for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing." For these concerns and my other faults, dear readers and friends and colleagues and family, I ask your forgiveness and patience. The day is short, but the journey is not over. To that end, I hope that the new year augurs a time of passion and purpose, love and laughter, and that it brings sweetness and wisdom and happiness for all of us.
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g'mar chatima tova!
Posted by: David Bernstein | Sep 17, 2010 2:24:08 PM
g'mar tov, Dan.
Posted by: Paul M. Secunda | Sep 17, 2010 7:03:55 PM
Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 19, 2010 8:14:21 PM
With respect to scholarship, it seems that one of the principal ways in which "the ball is being advanced" is by showing the shortcomings of other folks' work in a particular area--usually scholars but also courts or other actors. This can be done gently or rudely, but it's often nonetheless something that needs to be done in order to be advancing the conversation.
I think most of the people in our profession agree with what you say here, and indeed I have been known to do that more than a little.
But I will offer you two counter-visions, to suggest it's not the whole picture.
The first is that maybe, or at least sometimes, our real job isn't to show other people as wrong, but to be very clear as to what is right. Or even just to be very clear about what is: to explicate complexity, and shine light on confusion. Some of the work I'm proudest of does clarity more than critique.
The second, something you yourself participate in, is this.
(Hmm, am I doing the very thing that you describe above? Probably.)
Posted by: Michael Froomkin | Sep 22, 2010 8:58:07 AM
all, thanks for the feedback.
@Michael: I hate to be disagreeable on this of all threads, but much as you're right that the roles you suggest are part of a life well-lived as a prawf, they are not (for better or for worse) the kind of endeavor that I would advise a young professor to pursue to the exclusion of the other stuff I mentioned. It would be "extra", perhaps like good blogging or organizing a conference.
That said, your first point can be bifurcated: telling us what is right in the prior scholarship does not seem to me to be advancing the ball. On the other hand, clarifying the significance or nature of X or explicating complexity of X does because implicit in that task is a claim that prior understandings of X are insufficiently good or useful, etc.
As to JOTWELL, which I commend to all, I confess that with this too, I'm personally conflicted. I think it's important to share with other folks recommendations (and I've done that here on occasion, recently vis-a-vis Fried and Hershovitz). But if I were to write something JOTWELLish for which I expected any trivial degree of "credit" for (by my Dean or some P/T committee), I would feel the need to say, this stuff is great but it could be improved, for example, if it took the following Y or Z directions. Perhaps the people whose work I'm trumpeting would then feel excited about such a response rather than chastened. I suppose that would be a line of work that would leave no bruised egos and still be advancing the ball, and thus something that could be commended to a new prawf. But if I just said: this work is great, and explained why it is, then I would feel like I'm not contributing to the conversation's progress, and I don't think I'd deserve any "credit" for doing that. Your point is well-taken though, and, of course, JOTWELL is an enduring credit to you :-)
Posted by: Dan Markel | Sep 22, 2010 4:54:21 PM
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