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Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Workshop Formats

I just workshopped two different papers in two different formats -- and had some ruminations on their differences.  One was an "incubator" workshop for works-in-progress at Hofstra (called Prawfsfest!, whose name gives me the creeps, I confess) and the other was an online Junior Scholars Workshop at The Glom for essentially complete papers.

Privacy vs. Publicity:  The Hofstra workshop was private.  There were about 12 people talking about the papers in a small room, in person.  Although what was said was not confidential,  neither was the conversation recorded or blogged about for all to see.  There was an informality to the comments as we went around the room talking about each paper.  By contrast, all that was said yesterday at The Glom was available for the universe to see (though some people sent me private nitpicky comments).  I had to maintain some informality in reply because people were at me from all angles in a short span of time; but the publicity of the format encouraged at least four formal responses that were posted online.  Both were useful to my work but I certainly felt the need to be more defensive when my paper was being criticized publicly.

Author Responses:  At Hofstra, the presumption was that the paper author was there only to listen, not to defend or reply.  This is remarkably hard but remarkably useful.  When you know you can't respond, after you are done boiling for a few minutes, you actually listen.  If I was being publicly skewered, I probably would have just burst -- hey, I have my own blog to respond! -- but the privacy of the venue helped make that strategy work.  So, too, The Glom couldn't really expect authors to shut up.  But I wonder if I didn't spend most of my time in that workshop getting defensive.  Indeed, I re-read my paper last night with the hope of re-working material in light of what was said and kept thinking to myself: "I can't believe s/he made that comment; the answer is right here on page X!"  As I incorporated changes from the Hofstra conference, by contrast, I rarely felt that way.  But this may just be my psychology -- and the Hofstra paper is still being refined for submission, whereas The Glom paper is already slated for publication.

Expertise:  At Hofstra, I presented a contracts paper to a room full of criminal law people.  Well, there were some con law people too.  And a corps person.  But no one really had relevant expertise. At The Glom, the audience was business and contracts law people -- and the paper was written for that audience.  Obviously, there are benefits to getting the experts to tell you what they think.  They know what they are talking about; and if they tell you about mistakes, you probably have mistakes.  But there were advantages to the "naive" audience too: these were smart people who can tell you if what you are saying makes sense outside your field.  And they probably resemble the students who will be passing judgment on your paper when it comes time to submission.  So it is still very useful to get a lay person's perspective.

Doneness:  Again, the Hofstra conference presumed you weren't done with the paper; The Glom assumed you were basically were.  Each have obvious merits and disadvantages.

There is more to say: At Hofstra, everyone had to comment on everyone's paper.  That was the price of admission.  That and flying to New York!  At The Glom, four people were assigned to talk about my paper and then it was a free-form discussion.  Some questioned whether we shouldn't have had at least one assigned commenter to get the discussion off the ground but it worked pretty nicely even without that.  On the other hand, one really needs people online to get the discussion started and motivate readers to chime in.  At Hofstra, almost no one provided written comments, so authors were left with their notes on what was said.  By contrast, at The Glom, there is a record of all that was said.

In short, there are many ways to do these things -- many of them useful, albeit in somewhat different ways.  But conference design matters and doing these two back-to-back helped me see that there is something to think about here. 

Posted by Ethan Leib on July 31, 2008 at 12:10 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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