Sunday, June 03, 2012
The Nasal Scholar
Professor Balkin has an interesting post describing the changing landscape of authority and merit in legal scholarship. He discusses the transition in scholarly valuation as between three models of merit: "the profound scholar," "the productive scholar," and "the nodal scholar." Whereas scholarly merit was in the past assessed on the model of "connoisseurship," and then simply quantitatively (in units of "production"), he writes that an increasingly important measure of value is the scholarship's "nodal" quality -- the extent to which it induces citations to itself by other people and thereby finds itself at the root of an ever-expanding network.
Of course, many people believe that scholarship has always been primarily about "influence" of one kind or another (I am not one of them), but the 'nodal shift' that Balkin describes may stimulate certain distinctive sorts of behaviors in producers of legal scholarship. If nodality is important, then scholars have additional incentives to see themselves as predictors of popular influence -- numerical, statistical influence. The rise of the "nasal scholar" cannot be far behind -- the legal scholar as advertising executive, as PR pitchman, as forecaster of trends in ideas. The nasal scholar's primary role is to sniff out the next new big node -- whether or not that node actually is the carrier of an interesting idea. Perhaps better: ferretting out a node is more or less the same thing as good scholarship because the primary criterion of judging the interest of an idea is by reference to the scope of the network of links that it generates. The nasal scholar is the truffle pig and truffle farmer all in one: he roots out the resource and then he sells it, at the highest value to the greatest number that the market will bear. If truffles become unpopular, the pig can and must be trained to sniff out something else, something sellable.
One might say, 'but this has always been the legal scholar's role -- to find and write about the next new big idea, and to have that idea talked and written about -- to find a large market for the idea.' Again, I don't think everybody has this view of legal scholarship, but I concede the force of the objection. Maybe what we are dealing with is more a change of emphasis. The nasal scholar sees it as his primary or predominant purpose to initiate nodes of influence. He is a networker, and he thinks of scholarship as a networking opportunity -- the object being to get as many measurable "likes" as he can. And he conforms his scholarship, even if subconsciously, to seek out and capitalize on the potential node. In fact, he increasingly cannot see any distinction between the quality of an idea and its power as a networking vehicle; they are one and the same.
One difficulty with this model of scholarship is practical. As Professor Lobel notes in a thoughtful post below, it is often difficult to predict which idea will capture audience and serve as the foundation for a network (and, of course, there are variables like journal placement which need to be accounted for). But this unpredictability might have the perverse effect of increasing the distance between the nasal scholar and earlier models of scholarly production. That is because more of the scholar's time and effort will be poured into the tricky work of network-generating prediction. Precisely because it is hard to predict nodality, the nasal scholar will see it as a challenge to which it is well worth devoting his or her finite resources. And increasing nasality in scholarship must surely mean decreasing time and effort devoted to, well, other things.
A second issue is that an interesting quality of the earlier connoisseurship model that Balkin describes is that its methods of valuation did not depend on the numerical popularity of an idea. Indeed, Balkin goes so far as to say that in earlier models, value was in some cases inversely related to popularity: "the profound scholar (i.e., one whose work is valued because it is "deep," regardless of -- and possibly even in inverse correlation to--its popularity)." That change indicates something more than a difference of emphasis. It suggests the democratization of scholarship. The nasal scholar is a fundamentally democratic scholar -- intellectually democratic. A "like" is a "like," irrespective of the source. To be sure, some nodes may be more prestigious than others, but the valuation of network production colors the activity of scholarship with an egalitarian hue. Democracy, of course, can be a wonderful thing; sometimes I like it too. But I wonder whether democracy is an intellectual virtue. At any rate, the shift toward nasality suggests that numerical popularity -- and therefore a kind of raw democratic egalitarian intellectualism -- is becoming an increasingly important measure of scholarly value.
At the same time, I think Balkin is right to note that at least some of these tendencies are not altogether new, as well as the overlap between different modes of scholarly valuation. I'm not particularly committed to any of these speculations, and I look forward to your corrections.
Posted by Marc DeGirolami on June 3, 2012 at 08:53 AM | Permalink
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Adam Zimmerman, and 24 others, like this post.
Posted by: Adam Zimmerman | Jun 3, 2012 9:59:58 AM
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