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Friday, May 07, 2010

In Defense of Foreplay

Dan’s recent posts about the forthcoming PrawfsFest VII (wow, VII—how time flies) brought up many fond memories of ‘Fests past.  Truly, it is both a fun and productive event.  Past participants will recall well one of the distinctive features of the paper discussions at PrawfsFest, the “no-foreplay” rule.  The idea is that comments should not begin with compliments or positive observations, but should instead jump right into constructive—and, in some cases, destructive—criticism. 

In some respects, I am all for the no-foreplay rule, which prevails not only at PrawfsFest  but also in many other academic settings (when I was a fellow at a certain frigid Midwestern institution, I cannot recall a single positive thing being said about any presenter’s work in progress during my two years there).  There is some foreplay that’s simply useless, such as self-deprecating prefatory disclaimers like, “I know nothing about this topic, but” (which seems especially disingenuous as an introduction when the following comments are conspicuously smart and well-informed).  And gratuitous, non-substantive compliments are also unhelpful and probably a waste of time.

All that being said, I am not convinced that the increasingly prevalent (I think) no-foreplay norm is necessarily a good one, or at least that foreplay can have some underappreciated benefits.  I make the case for foreplay below the fold.

First, not all positive comments about a paper should be grouped together as flaccid flattery.  What’s most rewarding about ‘Fest—and other intensive workshops—is that you get constructive substantive comments.  Some—most, probably—of these will be critical, and that’s as it should be.  The main value of getting comments is learning the weaknesses of your work so you can improve it.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for at least some acknowledgement of the good points of work—especially when those comments are rigorous and thoughtful.  Noting the positives as well as the negatives of a work can give the author a sense of perspective (is there something solid at the core of this paper, or does it need to be scrapped entirely?).  It’s also, in my view, analytically necessary.  Artificially excluding discussion of the merits of a paper makes it impossible to effectively criticize it, because a paper’s strong and weak points are inevitably interrelated.


Second, while the no-foreplay rule has the salubrious effect of avoiding a treacly atmospheric where discussions descend into a gratuitous love-fest, the other extreme is problematic too.  In some settings I’ve experienced (and I should emphasize that PrawfsFest is absolutely not one of them), the resistance to making any positive comments on papers trends toward a sense that the goal of the session is to trash any and all papers.  In my view, a discussion that has as its goal intellectual destruction of every presenter’s work is as skewed and counterproductive as a discussion that gratuitously praises every presenter’s work.  After all, if there’s no merit to anyone’s work, ever, then why are we doing this job?


All this having been said, I tend to think that paper discussions should largely focus on criticism (constructive or even destructive, so long as it’s civilly phrased) of the work at issue.  But I think the absolute no-foreplay norm can obscure the extent to which positive comments (and by this I mean rigorous, thoughtful comments, not empty compliments) about work can enrich a discussion, both analytically and atmospherically.

*P.S.  The similarity of my post title to Marc's is total coincidence, or "independent creation" as it's called in the copyright world.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on May 7, 2010 at 02:07 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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. . . while the no-foreplay rule has the salubrious effect of avoiding a treacly atmospheric where discussions descend into a gratuitous love-fest, the other extreme is problematic too . . .

Wow! How very purple your prose!

By the way, *of course* you like something other than "destructive" comments. You write about roller derby, after all.

Posted by: anoninla | May 8, 2010 5:56:08 PM

I propose a rule of honesty. If you really liked a paper, say so; if you didn't, don't pretend you did.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 8, 2010 12:23:18 PM

I think the no-foreplay rule is terrible. Producing scholarship is easy for those privileged few who think that every thought they have is a pearl of wisdom that must be cast before the masses. For the rest of us, and for new scholars in particular, it is sometimes very helpful to have a few strokes before the rough stuff starts.

Posted by: lyrissa | May 7, 2010 7:46:58 PM

Dave -- no asterisk necessary! Wasn't it somebody important who said that great writers don't imitate, they steal?

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 7, 2010 2:24:28 PM

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