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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Publishing and Professorial "Happiness"

One of the benefits of conferences like SEALS is the chance to have searching conversations with lots of folks you don't usually get to speak to, and then to reflect on those discussions. Here's one such reflection:

Increasingly, I've noticed that I tend to get introduced at conferences and the like as "prolific," a moniker that I believe the speaker usually intends as a positive -- as indicative of a productive scholar who writes a lot (and, to be fair, I do) in a discipline where publishing is generally valued above almost anything else, whether or not it should be.

But every now and then, folks ask me whether I think I publish "too much," which I take as asking whether I fear that the quality of what I publish is undermined by the quantity. Of course, I'm in no position to answer that question objectively, and would not dare to even try, save to point out that I'm not sure one could assume there is a negative correlation between quantity and quality without actually reading at least some of the writing...

Such questions do lead me, though, to reflect upon why I do what I do, including why, as I've discussed before, I am perhaps overeager in accepting symposium invitations and other chances to publish solicited papers, especially if, in the view of some, that's actually the mark of an un-careful scholar, and someone perhaps not to be taken as seriously...

I imagine that for most of us, writing, like blogging, is useful as means to an end. Where I think I may differ is in what the "end" is. For many, I suspect the end is the most prestigious teaching job they can find, or at least a job at the most prestigious school in a particular geographic region. So the brilliant essay that takes three years to fine-tune, but that ends up in a top-tier journal, might be the most expedient way of realizing that goal. I think that's laudable, and s a very important part of the world in which we live.

I like to think, though, that I write for a slightly different reason: I write to be a part of the conversation, because that to me is what is so rewarding about academia. I see a symposium as a chance to spend a day (or two) with lots of very smart people having lots of really fascinating conversations, many of which take place in bizarre short-hand. [For just one current example, consider the symposium currently underway over at OpinioJuris on Ben Wittes's new book.]

I see a conference as a chance not to show-off about where my latest piece is being published, but as a chance to find out what the next hot topic is in my fields of interest (indeed, even in fields I don't usually pay attention to). I love panels that consist of a dialogue among the speakers (like the one I was lucky enough to participate in this afternoon on "Affirmative Visions of the Judicial Role"), rather than (or at least in addition to) seriatim presentations of papers that the audience probably has not read.

So construed, I see writing as a further piece of that puzzle -- as adding to the conversation, even if the paper I write does not become Larry Solum's "download of the week," or the hottest constitutional law piece on the August and February submissions markets.

To be clear, my point here is not to advocate publishing anything and everything, nor is it to advocate quantity over quality.  I think both are important. What I resist, though, is the implicit assumption that the two are inversely correlated. To that end, I wonder sometimes if some of us have lost sight of why we do what we do... I do this job because I love it, and because it's fun. And part of what's fun is writing, even if it's a 15-page Green Bag essay and a 25-page symposium response, rather than a 60-page lead article. And while I recognize, as I must, that we all do this job for different reasons, at the end of the day, I wonder why that can't be one of them?

Posted by Steve Vladeck on July 29, 2008 at 04:58 PM in Blogging, Steve Vladeck, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I second Orly's comments and would add that not only your writing, but also your thinking about legal issues and ideas develops and improves the more you do it. That is why blogging actually is a good thing as part of a scholar's overall intellectual activities. It forces you to think and write constantly, to get ideas out there for consideration and exchange, providing more (if slightly different) of the benefits Orly describes.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 30, 2008 10:01:04 AM

Nice post, Steve. I promise to never call you prolific again.

Posted by: Jason | Jul 30, 2008 8:25:48 AM

Steve, this is a great post. the assumption of a quantity/quality inverse connection is certainly something that people should challenge more often -- it seems to me that many of the great minds of our profession also happen to be highly prolific. And there are many reasons to think that the more you write, the better your writing becomes overall - there is a learning experience in the process of writing, engagement, revisions, presentations, building on your own previous ideas and arguments, forming a body of scholarship, creating your identity as a scholar and researcher, experience with various methodologies, and so forth. Plus -- usually those who are good at writing also find it fun!

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Jul 30, 2008 3:40:29 AM

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