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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Workshops as They Could Be

I'm grateful to my co-blogger Dan for organizing Prawfsfest, which was held over the last couple of days at FSU; I'm also grateful to the administration and the administrative staff, who hosted such a wonderful conference.  I do think, for purposes of the "asterisk footnote," that the name of the conference might be different, so that it sounds good in the section of the footnote that says, "This paper was presented at workshops at...."  My suggestion was that we should call it the Harvard Legal Theory Workshop.  It may be a wee bit misleading, but you must admit it sounds good.

I just want to say a word about the way the conference was organized, because I think it was a model of useful workshopping.  Each paper was required to be at the pre-SSRN stage, and the portion that the group was expected to read could be no longer than 10,000 words.  This eliminated the lamentable tendency of workshopped papers to be already so far along that it is difficult for the author to revise the paper (or she is so attached to what has been written that she is reluctant to do so), apart from a footnote here and there acknowledging (and papering over, or saying it's beyond the scope of the paper) some potentially fatal flaw.  Faculty workshop highly polished papers because they want to be seen in their best light; but this really takes away some of the value of workshopping.
Second, each speaker was limited to about 5-8 minutes of introduction.  Then, rather than having each questioner give a long monologue and a short question, and then having a long and semi-defensive response to each question, we went round the room and each person gave his or her critiques, without the speaker being allowed to respond to anyone until the end; those responses tended to be very, very short.  This takes away some of the give and take, dialogic aspect of workshopping, which can be valuable and enjoyable.  But those Q-and-A's also tend to have a significant performance component, and often the answers are less candid and more defensive than they might be; who wants to say, "I have no idea" in a workshop setting?  I thought this format worked incredibly well; it got us the maximum yield for actual and useful comments on the paper, it somewhat stripped the tendency of questioners to focus on themselves and their own "performance" rather than on the paper, and it gave the authors terrific food for thought without obliging them to answer every question on the spot.

Of course there are many ways to skin a cat, workshop-wise; I highly recommend Gary Lawson's article on workshops, which appeared in the Journal of Legal Education a few years ago, and I think every research dean at every law school should distribute it to his or her colleagues at the beginning of every academic year.  But I thought this format worked terrifically and I would highly recommend it, both for individual speaker workshops and for similar roundtable-like conferences.  Thanks again, Dan and everyone else.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 2, 2009 at 02:51 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Word. Thanks to the FSU folks for having us.

Posted by: Zak Kramer | May 3, 2009 2:35:40 PM

Agreed. PrawfsFest V ruled. Grazie mille to the FSU admininstration & staff for smooth organization; participants for great comments and fun company; and Dan, Wendy and Lesley for generous hospitality.

Posted by: Dave | May 3, 2009 1:03:41 PM

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