Wednesday, January 11, 2017
AALS Addendum I: More On "Taking Attendance"
I'm grateful to those who read and commented on my series of posts on the AALS annual meeting, especially but not limited to Mark Tushnet and Dan Rodriguez, who are both past presidents of the AALS. I hope the posts afforded some food for thought, and a little amusement, for those attending the meeting. Let me say again that the three of us have something important in common: We are all inclined to be supporters, not detractors, of the AALS and its annual meeting. As I wrote in my first post, my series of suggestions was intended neither to praise nor to bury the AALS. On the whole, I find the annual meeting useful, and better than its more fervent critics are wont to suggest. No institution or annual gathering is perfect or exempt from criticism. But I am and hope to remain involved in the AALS, both at the section level and in the central organization itself, and I would rather be a part of it, while sometimes waxing critical or pushing reforms, than deride it altogether, boycott it, or give up on the idea of a central organization and gathering for legal academics. On the other hand, I'm always much more interested in criticizing the things I like or am sympathetic to than the things or people I completely disagree with or disdain. Let me also repeat what I said often during the series: my proposals were in the nature of "modest proposals," with at least something of a Swiftian touch. I understood at the outset that it's highly unlikely that the AALS will take attendance at meetings and send that information to deans, or honor overexposed speakers with a gold watch and a five-year ban on speaking. The extreme nature of the proposals served to place the issues they were raising in high relief and provoke discussion. As it turned out, and I suspect this is often the case with semi-Swiftian satirists, and with all authors who make proposals, by the end I was more attached to the proposals themselves than might have been my original intention, and I am now inclined to think it's actually not a bad idea at all to take attendance or come up with draconian rules to deal with extreme "usual suspects" at the AALS annual meeting. Still, I expected readers to take the particulars of those proposals with a large grain of salt and focus on the issues themselves, even if I am now inclined to take the proposals more seriously than I initially intended.
I was grateful to those readers who pushed back on the "take attendance" proposal, which was meant to deal with "lobby-sitters" and "dinner-with-friends" attendees of the meeting, who rarely darken the door of actual program meetings. The upshot of the pushback was that meeting people outside the meeting rooms is a valuable form of professional networking and should not be knocked too readily or loosely. On the whole, I am happy to agree. One might view differently those social gatherings that have more to do with catching up and hanging out with friends per se, and less or little to do with catching up on each other's work. Setting that aside, I'm quite willing to agree that there is value in professional networking--and in some or many cases, it's not just value to oneself or one's personal advancement, crudely defined, but value to the legal academy, insofar as it involves learning about others' work, exposing others to one's own work, learning about what's taking place at other schools, and so on. But I would like to emphasize in response that my question was not whether this kind of networking is worthwhile--it is--but whether and to what extent it's worth subsidizing. (Remember that some of that subsidy comes from, inter alia, student tuitions and the state fisc.) More particularly, the question was whether it's worth subsidizing all that a trip to the AALS entails, including the registration fee for the meeting itself, the extra fee for the annual luncheon (the one program that those who don't attend many programs are most likely to attend), the travel and accommodation costs, and so on, in cases where the person seeking the subsidy doesn't show up for many or any of the actual meeting events. At the best of times, financially speaking, I would find that a dubious proposition--and these are not the best of times. Defending professional networking is easy. Defending asking your law school to pay a registration fee in order to obtain a conference rate at the hotel and a conference nametag (to facilitate identification for networking purposes), but without actually attending the conference proceedings, seems to me much harder. To me, at least, that holds true even if the programs ought to be better.
Whether the AALS takes attendance at individual programs and sends those data to law school deans or not, I think we can usefully ask what those professors who value professional networking but don't intend to attend many or any actual conference proceedings might do instead of seeking reimbursement for the whole conference package when they are only going to take advantage of part of that package--namely, the "lobby" or hallway and the chance to chat with old and new colleagues. Three possibilities spring to mind. One is that the professor simply pay his or her own way. As long as a law school reasonably expects that this person is actually going to attend conference proceedings and is offering to subsidize him or her on that understanding, this seems like the right thing to do. The second is that the professor "go to the conference" but not register for it, and thus limit him- or herself to networking in the lobby or elsewhere, without access to the nametag, the programs (which he or she didn't plan to attend much if at all anyway) and luncheon, the booths downstairs, or the conference rate at the hotel. (Of course, that person could always stay at cheaper accommodations in the city and then commute to the conference hotel.) If his or her law school were willing to subsidize that, on the view that there is sufficient value in networking itself (or because it believes the professor's use of his or her PDF is discretionary as long as it is related to academic purposes), at least it would save the school the cost of the registration fee itself. Finally, if the professor really wanted the conference rate and the nametag but had no intention of attending any conference programs, he or she could tell the dean clearly and in advance that he or she planned to seek reimbursement for the conference fee, hotel costs, and the rest of it, but without attending any programs. I would be curious to find out what would happen in such cases! But surely there is nothing wrong with being transparent about one's intentions with respect to using institutional funds--and conversely, there is arguably something wrong with not doing so precisely because one wants to "attend" the conference without attending any of the programs and fears that such a request would not be approved if it were made transparently.
Again, none of this is meant to disparage professional networking. (Although some dinners with friends are just dinners with friends.) The question is what law schools ought to pay for, and whether it's fairer, and would conduce to better decision-making and resource allocation by law schools, to know what they are paying for. (And, as I said in the first place, professors could always Skype with each other, or email, or do other things. No, it's not as good. But it's a hell of a lot cheaper. And, of course, there are conferences within one's specific field as well.)
In back of this proposal, to be sure, is a general premise: I value the annual meeting as such, including the program meetings. Professional advancement is nice, and need not be viewed in purely mercenary terms. But the AALS is an annual meeting for professional education, including exposure to ideas and speakers outside of one's usual area of focus, not just for professional advancement. I think such a conference is or ought to be a valuable thing for committed members of an academic field. My views above would hold even if that weren't my background premise. But since it is, my "attendance" proposal is not only about encouraging candor, transparency to funders and stakeholders like law students and state legislators, and better resource allocation by law schools; it's also about making the AALS annual meeting itself better, by encouraging registrants to actually attend the programs--and, where subsidy is dependent on their doing so, incentivizing them to get involved in the sections or communicate with the AALS in order to make the program meetings better.
Whether this second point holds might seem to have something to do with whether the AALS is actually a learned society or not, or whether it's something else. That's the point on which Mark and Dan offer some interesting and useful points, and I'll take it up in my next post.