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Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Slow Writing Movement

Orin's post below on tips for new professors is chock-full of good advice. I'm especially interested in his first suggestion, Send out an article in the spring submission of your first year. The reasons he gives make sense.

In the spirit of giving advice from lots of different angles, however, I want to push new professors to think about writing in a different way.

Slow down.

I tend to think that, as a general matter, we write too much, too quickly. Sure, there are execeptions, freaky people who pound out amazing stuff at an intimidating pace. But I've always admired the folks who take their time a little, who publish more like every other year. These folks tend to workshop the junk out of their stuff. They road test, reflect, restructure, rewrite.

One impact of VAPs on entry-level hiring is that new professors come to schools with writing habits/tendencies already built in. I have always felt that I am more a scholarly creature of my VAP than my home institution. My mentors during my VAP years pushed quality over quantity. Quality and quantity aren't mutually exclusive. But there's something to be said for beating the crap out of a paper before publishing it.

There are other factors at work here, to be sure. Sometimes tenure policies specify a certain amount of output. Other times there are social norms that dictate a specific level of productivity. Tenure matters, and you have to do what it takes to get tenure. But if there is wiggle room, slow down.

Rather than cranking to submit in your first year, another option is to write and reach out. Orin is correct that faculties value productivity. But only when it's good. Rather than impress your colleagues with your speed, make your paper the absolute best it can be. Engage your colleagues, ask for advice, get their feedback on what you've done.

For the slow writing movement to take hold, however, faculties have to be on board. If newly-hired faculty members don't submit a paper in their first year, rather than whisper behind their backs about productivity, take them to lunch. Engagement is a two-way street.

Posted by Zachary Kramer on October 23, 2014 at 03:49 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


Terrific set of questions Zach and Orin. In the spirit of good/bad habits are learned early and the fact that we are in hiring season, let me ask a descriptive question: What is the current "state of the art" in terms of people going on the entry level who are successful as to how many papers are already done?

My own sense is that hiring chairs often use the FAR form lines for publications as at least some of their first pass through on candidates. Is more than one paper in work or published the new "state of the field" for getting attention?

In an ideal world every hiring chair would read every possible paper of every candidate. But in the 14th best world of hiring chairs today, what is the red flag versus the plus factor on productivity at the entry level stage? The signal that helps to get you to read or not read the candidate more thoroughly?

Another way of putting the question is are those grooming VAPs/Fellows pushing too much productivity in a way that is a mismatch with what schools are looking for, or are they accurately following the preference signals from hiring committees?

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Oct 23, 2014 4:49:27 PM

Can I split difference? Maybe the fast/slow choice depends on the person.

Especially if you weren't in a VAP and may be coming straight from practice or government work, I think there is a real benefit to getting a piece out as soon as you have something to share. The first is unlikely to be your best, but getting it out gets you over a hump. *Then* slow down. Think about your niche. Develop scholarship that has depth/weight/reach. Your students should be singing your praises by this point, so unless you are surprisingly difficult to be around you should be fine as far as renewal and the tenure clock.

The longer you wait to get out your first piece, the more you might start to think it has to be good, that it has to change the field. That might put you behind?

This, of course, doesn't apply to most hires these days - VAPs etc. - who have already broken out of the pack in their scholarship.

Posted by: Geoff | Oct 23, 2014 4:50:17 PM

I couldn't agree more, but one issue is whether your institution will go along with this. Some schools will expect one article a year, perhaps under the theory that "Deans (or Provosts) can't read, but they can count." At other schools the requirement may not be as explicit, but summer research grants will only be given when an article is accepted for publication. A newbie professor will need to determine what their institution expects, then plan accordingly.

Posted by: chw | Oct 23, 2014 5:34:17 PM

CHW--yes, yes, definitely. Local rules have to control. I guess the only thing I'd say is that, as a profession, maybe we should have a conversation about what we should expect from junior faculty.

Geoff--I totally get this impulse. And I'm fairly sure I've given this exact advice to new folks. But there are so few folks who have no publications when they join a faculty. That said, I'm all for getting your feet wet. Academic careers are marathons. Tenure decisions are sprints. Makes sense to sprint. Just don't want people to feel locked into that pace.

Glenn--good question. I've been on appointments for the last seven years. Two trends stand out. Lots more vaps and fellowship. And lots of writing. I also R un the VAP program at ASU. Nearly all of our applicants have piblications already. To answer your question directly, Glenn, I think VAP programs and candidates are responding to signals from hiring committees and faculties. I just think we need to rethink the signals.

Posted by: Zachary Kramer | Oct 24, 2014 12:11:49 AM

Of course, Zach and Orin are already already tenured,

Posted by: Enrique | Oct 24, 2014 5:05:47 PM

"But there's something to be said for beating the crap out of a paper before publishing it."

That's a tribute to Dan Markel if I've ever heard one. Nicely done, Zak.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Oct 24, 2014 11:30:00 PM

There is some relevance to this if there is no quiet chatter behind people's back. But writers (many lawyers an flaw professors are writers) have to be who they are. Some people write all the time regardless of publications. Others write only because they are required to write. Each person has to find their level.

Posted by: Brian Gilmore | Oct 25, 2014 12:39:21 AM

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