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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Against Personal Meaning

At the AALS New Law Teachers thing, there was some talk about how to set a scholarly agenda.  Some people thought that the best way to set such an agenda was to write about something personally meaningful.

But I’m not so sure.  Personal meaning might be a good way to get motivated to write about, say, international criminal law or religious freedom.  Or the heartfelt nature of the inquiry might prove to be distracting for rigorous work.

But is personal meaning the right yardstick to apply for the underserved legal subjects?  Pension law?  Tax?  Or, say, international trade and economic regulation?  I could tell a personal meaning story about trade: it is, as a mentor once told me, potentially world-historical in a globalizing, um, globe.  People will win big and lose big.  I could write to figure out a way to maximize the number of winners, or the prospects of the players I care about most.  And I could gild this tale with interesting references: trade is about the Silk Road and Venice, clipper ships and colonialism.

But I could also approach trade as a puzzle worth puzzling over, a legal regime that needs to be understood, perhaps improved even, even if it is centered in dull Geneva.  And take the psychic rewards from the interest of the inquiry, rather than from identification with the affecteds.  I’m not sure that corporate law scholars extract a lot of personal meaning from their advocacy for shareholders, directors and officers, or what have you.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t find the work engaging.

Still, I'd love to hear from our readers about what motivates them to set their research agendas, should they be in the research agenda setting game.

Posted by David Zaring on June 28, 2005 at 04:49 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Clearly you two do your best thinking at night (right there with you, though). I'm with you on the topic selection first ... but sometimes the methodology comes from trying to figure out how to make an, um, semi-interesting topic interesting!

Posted by: David Zaring | Jun 29, 2005 9:27:39 AM

So far I get motivated in 2 ways: 1) Hmm, what is the law concerning X? I think I'll go look it up for a couple of hours. [Five months later, it's exploded into a billion sub-questions.] 2) All these idiots are getting Y completely wrong -- I'll set them straight!

Posted by: Bruce | Jun 29, 2005 2:23:52 AM

I'm still relatively new to academia (just turned 1 year old as a prof), but I find myself having evolved toward this compromise view: I pick any topic I feel like reading and writing about, but I challenge myself to think more theoretically about it. To be formulaic: any article I conceive of looks like this: I intro; II doctrinal analysis; III theoretical analysis; IV conclusion (there may, of course, be variations on the theme). By pushing myself to do a creative job with "III," I hope to allow myself to study/analyze any topic I like, but while aiming to (a) analyze an old problem in a new way, and (b) think critically about the underlying theory.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jun 29, 2005 1:24:44 AM

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