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Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Culture of Faculty Works in Progress Presentations

Hi everyone!

I am very excited to be guest blogging (or maybe that should be blawgging?) this month.  I teach at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago and I specialize in the study of international criminal law and international criminal courts.  Back in the Fall when I volunteered to be a guest blogger I had grand plans for creating a detailed agenda for what I would blog about over the course of April.  Of course, that didn't happen, so instead I will start by talking about what I am doing today.

In a couple of hours, I will be making a faculty work in progress (FWIP) presentation to my own faculty.  Attendance at FWIPs has gone down since the free lunches were axed a couple of years ago for budgetary reasons, but at least you know the people who show up aren't just attending for the free food.

The culture of FWIPs at my school is that scholars present functionally complete papers.  It is rare to see anybody present a paper in an early form, presumably because of the risk of looking foolish if it is too easy to poke holes in the argument.  And, indeed, the paper I will present is functionally complete.  I am sure it is not finished and that there are ways to improve it, but it includes all of the parts that I intended the final paper to have and it has been through several rounds of editing.  For those who might be interested, the paper I am presenting is here.

So, I am presenting a more or less complete paper in part because of the concern about aggressive questioning of a potentially under-thought premise. But the reality is that such questioning is quite unlikely.  If past FWIPs are a prediction of what will happen today, the questioning will be extremely polite.  Moreover, nobody will be out to get me and, while there may be some attempts to pin me down on issues that the faculty believes were insufficiently articulate, attempts to demonstrate that one's arguments are "wrong" are almost never made.

So why do people only present essentially complete papers when the risk of things going wrong if you present an early stage paper are quite low?  I am honestly not sure.  I would guess that we over-estimate both the risk of something going wrong and the consequences that would flow from it.  Moreover, there is a potential pay-off to presenting earlier pieces as there is a greater possibility that critical questions early in the process can improve the direction of the final paper.  In short, I don't think we are necessarily acting rationally and we might be better off presenting something much earlier in development.

Anyway, what happens at your schools?  Are there schools (or types of schools) where there is a real risk of aggressive questioning or where other faculty members might really be out to show that your paper is "wrong"?  Do some of you present early pieces at FWIPs?  If so, why?  Finally, do you agree that the approach to FWIPs at my school is arguably irrational?

Next time, I might talk about the actual paper I am presenting today.  After all, I would guess that the anonymity permitted by the Internet makes it more likely that I will receive more searching/critical questions from my fellow prawfsblawggers than I will receive from my own faculty!

Posted by Stuart Ford on April 5, 2016 at 10:49 AM | Permalink


Some law schools seem to split the two types of presentations with informal sessions to spitball about half-baked ideas and more formal presentations for more fully polished ideas. That seemed to be the norm when I was at St. John's as a VAP.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Apr 5, 2016 11:14:30 AM

I have often heard the same concerns (and had senior faculty give me similar advice when I was junior). I never understood it. Not only because of what I knew the culture to be. But also because aggressive (without being belittling) questioning may not be a bad thing, if it allows me to think and talk through ideas in a useful way.

One train of thought is that some senior faculty may hold a bad half-baked talk against a person at P&T time. But anyone who would do that already has it in for the candidate, so it doesn't make a difference.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 5, 2016 11:51:37 AM

"So why do people only present essentially complete papers...?" I had a similar reaction when I saw the post about writing or inviting responses to articles, and I say this as somebody who's had at least three discrete segments to his career, each one of which has involved some form of "quantum" advancement (associate to partner; employee to C-level employee; academic tenure): go for it sensibly, and don't get too bogged down in careerist reservations. If the culture is that a 1/8 baked FWIP paper would be the equivalent to an associate wearing surfer shorts, shades, and flip-flips to a law firm meeting, don't do it. The problem isn't that the paper is 1/8 baked; it's that you've missed the not-always-rational but nevertheless important social signals within the culture.

I actually write about this from time to time: lawyer and law professors are highly rational creatures, but it's only a small step from being rational to rationalizing, and you can rationalize anything. (Hence, the "two-handed lawyer" that drives business people nuts.) Deciding is more like acting than thinking - when you think you are ready, make the leap, and let the career chips fall where they may.

This advice, of course, is probably worth as much as you just paid for it.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Apr 5, 2016 12:07:06 PM

When I was a junior prof, I often presented draft papers at my school that I had written out and sort of footnoted, but that I hadn't edited or yet received comments. My thinking was that this was the stage at which comments would be most useful. There was some pushback from my faculty when I did this, though. In particular, a senior professor now retired, would often roll his eyes and have this "what on earth is he doing?" look on his face when I presented. I decided that eyerolling was a price worth praying to get helpful feedback. But I can understand why others wouldn't see it that way.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 5, 2016 11:33:20 PM

I visited at Chicago last spring and my observation there was that the senior faculty was much more likely to present papers in early form, with limited footnotes and ideas still under development, than the junior faculty. I suppose the reasons are obvious. Not that it mattered, because everyone received substantive comments, which I think was the point.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Apr 6, 2016 1:28:01 AM

It all depends on what the purpose of the workshop is. If it is to benefit the presenter, then it makes little sense to present finished papers, even those already accepted but in the eternal editing stages. But it also makes little sense for someone to do a half-baked presentation along the lines of, "This is what I am thinking of . . " That is fine for some informal discussion, which happens at many though not all schools at lunch or other times, but it rarely leads to a productive discussion and there is a certain arrogance tied to the idea that the faculty would want to hear the beginning thoughts of another faculty member. My sense is the stage Orin Kerr describes above is the right stage so long as the paper has been thought out and is not just a written half-baked idea. It would also make good sense for someone to present a completed paper before it is submitted, which I think is what you would find in most other disciplines, but our crazy submission cycle rarely allows for that particularly for untenured Professors who are writing right up to that March deadline. But if the purpose is to share your work with the faculty as a cordial exchange, then a finished paper is fine. In my own experience, I much prefer the workshop where the presenter does not present, either someone else presents the paper or critiques it, and the presenter primarily fields questions. And finally, shame on any senior faculty who would discourage junior faculty members from presenting their ideas in whatever form.

Posted by: MLS | Apr 6, 2016 9:12:36 AM

It was exactly this sentiment that led a few of us here at Buffalo to create a couple of years ago a new forum precisely for the presentation of ideas and works at an early stage of development. Faculty of all seniority regularly participate both as presenters and audience. Here's the invitation the group's coordinator sends around periodically:

Dear Colleagues:

Not long ago a group of us working in the area of public law, broadly defined, and self-denominated the Public Law Discussion Group, began meeting about once each month for informal discussions of ideas and works-in-progress. The main purpose of the meetings is for participants to bring and kick around ideas that are still in a very early stage of development with the goal of trying them out, sharpening them, and generally benefitting from the collective wisdom of colleagues before taking the fateful step of committing them to a concrete written product. We proceed on the premise that such conversations can be useful for focusing thinking, pointing out dead-ends and other poor ideas, and, in general, challenging and motivating us to make our work as good as it can be. Although the law school offers faculty many opportunities to present and discuss work that is polished and well-developed, there are fewer opportunities for like-minded colleagues to gather to discuss work that is still in the idea stage. Last year’s topics and presenters can be found here: http://www.law.buffalo.edu/faculty/public-law-group.html.

Posted by: Jim Gardner | Apr 6, 2016 2:54:12 PM

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