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Thursday, August 09, 2007

When's the right time to present?

Later today I'm heading over to Forth Worth, Texas, for the Texas Junior Legal Scholars Conference, which is being held at Texas Wesleyan School of Law.  The conference organizers describe it as follows: "This inaugural conference is intended to create a platform for nontenured tenure-track law faculty to present papers and works in progress in an informal atmosphere while getting feedback from other untenured legal scholars."  The conference promises to be a wonderful event with lots of interesting papers.

For me, this conference comes at a really great time in the writing process.  After a summer of reading and writing, my paper has (finally!) begun to have the look and feel of a paper.  And although it's still a little rough, the ideas are in place and it just feels like a good time to present it.  Yet--if you'll allow me a Sex and the City moment--I have to wonder: When's the right time to present a work in progress?

I imagine everyone approaches this issue differently, so I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.  On your mark, get set, go...

Posted by Zachary Kramer on August 9, 2007 at 12:20 PM | Permalink

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Many (most?) of the pieces at Law and Society were very, very preliminary. It is a nice forum for early stage presentations.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 9, 2007 7:34:42 PM

For health law professors, there is an excellent annual workshop at St. Louis University in September. They assemble the great wealth of talent and expertise at SLU and also fly in some eminent health law scholars from around the country. To make sure that all the time and effort of these senior scholars is put to good use the program requires that the junior scholar presenter present a not-yet completed draft.

That is, for SLU-HLT one ought not be presenting what one has just submitted or is simultaneously submitting in the Fall cycle, because that would mean the draft was virtually complete and the author would be less receptive to comments and criticism. This seems to fit well with the idea of a workshop with senior colleagues -- you want to have a full coherent draft but yet a little undeveloped. On the other hand, where the workshop is with more junior colleagues, you need not yet have a full coherent draft.

Posted by: Thaddeus Pope | Aug 9, 2007 6:19:35 PM

On this question, may I recommend an excellent piece a couple of years ago in the Journal of Legal Education, called Making Workshops Work, by Gary Lawson. I haven't read it for quite a while, but as I recall, Lawson also argues that it makes more sense to present a piece before it is perfectly polished. In order to do so, of course, you need a workshop culture that supports doing so -- that doesn't treat the piece as something to be evaluated as if it were in final form, and that offers questions in a relatively constructive fashion.

It also strikes me this question parallels the question of when to post work on SSRN -- is it, as I imagine it was envisioned in part to be, an opportunity to get feedback and present ideas before they are completely cooked, or is the surrounding culture such that people worry about posting a piece before it's been polished and Bluebooked to a fare-thee-well, lest they be judged as if the piece is complete?

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 9, 2007 5:17:38 PM

First, I look forward to meeting you at the Texas Junior Legal Scholars Conference. And I look forward to hearing your piece on Title VII on Saturday. I will try to give the best that feedback I can.

Liz's comment made me aware of a distinction that I have sensed but to which I have never really paid deliberate attention. That is, not all presentations of in-progress work are "workshops." While the presenter may walk away with some ideas for ways to improve the draft, that may not have been the audience's intent. For example, job talks are often of in-progress work. But faculty comments are typically aimed at testing how the presenter's ideas connect with the faculty's ideas, not at improving the presenter's article.

It helps to clearly and explicitly state that the purpose of a conference is to "workshop." That way, the audience is on notice that while they are welcome to explore how the presenter's arguments fit with their own, a good portion of their comments should be made altruisticly.

Posted by: Thaddeus Pope | Aug 9, 2007 3:57:23 PM

Zak, I second Carissa's comment; this is a really important question that comes up really often, particularly for junior faculty members.

I've heard the "show your work early and often" bit of advice before, but must also admit to having thought when attending some presentations that I would have appreciated a bit more content to work with. To be clear, I don't mean that I thought badly of the presenter, but when I am part of someone else's workshop, I treat her/his idea as my own, and try to think of how I would improve the idea were it a part of my own paper. When work is presented too early, that process is less likely to occur, and I leave the workshop feeling frustrated and impotent -- because I couldn't solve the puzzle!

Some might find my comment selfish. The workshop isn't about me, but about the presenter and her/his ability to receive comments on her/his work. And while some might be right, I still think that the line can be drawn at a very specific point in one's writing process -- when you've got no more than one moving part. By that I mean if you've got clear premises, and you've framed a problem, and you're not sure about how to solve one piece of your puzzle, I think it's safe to present then. Before then, I think it's not. When that occurs, however, is not always easy to know. For example, you might workshop a piece thinking you've got only one moving part, but really you've got 2 or 3. So we're back to Zak's question with no answer.

Danny, I'm confident that we could host an incubator workshop at Hofstra, and I'd be happy to discuss that with you further.

Posted by: Liz Glazer | Aug 9, 2007 3:16:43 PM

Increasingly there are junior confabs in which really early works are incubated. This past year, for example, Prawfs hosted, with UM Law, an incubator workshop, in which everyone read 20 pages of manuscript of another person and had 10 minutes to present their own work and receive 50 minutes of comments from the others present. We plan on doing another one or two of these a year in different venues. If you think your school might be interested in hosting one of these in the future, please let me know.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Aug 9, 2007 2:27:15 PM

This is a great question -- one I think that a lot of us struggle with. My own personal opinion is that you should show your work early and often. Some of the best advice and comments you'll receive will be about how to approach an issue, and those are best to receive early in the process.

Of course, deciding when to present will depend in large part on the audience and the setting. The purposefully informal atmosphere that you're describing sounds perfect for an early/in-progress presentation. Other situations undoubtedly call for a more polished project . . .

Posted by: C.Hessick | Aug 9, 2007 1:28:28 PM

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