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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Prawfsfest! 7 and the economics of workshops

I'm briefly back in Florida having just returned from a quick trip to lovely (though sweltering) Brooklyn, where Prawfsfest! 7 was graciously hosted by the Friends of Prawfs at Brooklyn Law School. We had ten very interesting early works in progress to discuss by (in no order) Chris Lund, Verity Winship, Howard Wasserman, Mike Cahill, Bill Araiza, Giovanna Shay, Marc Blitz, myself, Hillel Levin, and Katy Kuh. Many thanks are due to the deans and Liz Alper for a conference manifesting precision, panache and swag. Special thanks are due to Miriam Baer and Matt Lister, who agreed to sit in as participants for the 2 days even though they weren't presenting. Talk about magnanimity!

As typical with these events, it spurred some thoughts about structure for me. One thing some may know about the structure of the P-fest is the much vaunted (or maligned) "no-foreplay" rule. It seems like the flip-side of foreplay in academic conversations of this sort is some degree of self-flagellation.  You know what this is: "I don't really know anything about this area and so this will be way out there probably" or "this point I want to make is thunderously trivial" when in fact it actually will have devastating consequences for the thesis...These kinds of prefatory comments are the same academic tics as the "so" which begins all sentences, not to mention the use of "robust," orthogonal," and "granular." (All of which are tics I have embraced/been afflicted with at times.) Anyway, when Fagundes famously chastized the no-foreplay rule, he mentioned that in 2 years at UChicago, he never heard a nice thing said about a paper. Yikers. In any event, I wonder if the Chicago folks forbear not only from foreplay but also from the exercises in self-flagellation.

Thinking of Chicago, I'm naturally led to thinking about ... economics, and specifically the economics of this kind of gathering, so I thought I'd share a conversation I had with Mike Cahill last night about a weird re-thinking of P-fests and other gatherings like it along (crude) economic lines. 

So...if you think about the social costs associated with an event like Prawfsfest, it costs somewhere between 10-15,000 dollars in outlays by the host school (roughly 3K for meals and expenses) and the sponsoring schools of the 8-10 attendees (roughly 1K a person in airfare/hotel/miscellaneous expenses). What does each attendee get out of it? Principally, if they're "presenting" a paper, they get smart and helpful comments on a paper that about 9-11 other people have read somewhat carefully at an early stage in the paper's development. They also get the benefit of hanging out informally with other/new prawfs over some meals. In return, they have to travel (or not, if they're from the host school), and offer comments on 9 other papers. It probably takes about 1-2 full work days to prep for Prawfsfest, and then add another day for travel plus 2 days of intensive workshop, and you've got almost a full week devoted to the P-fest.

It struck me that some might look at this situation and say: why not just pay the 10 people to stay home and read the papers from there and share them electronically. On this view, a "host school" (or perhaps 2) would say: we want to encourage exchanges of drafts at early stages, so we'll pay the 10 people 500$ to basically circulate drafts of their own, and circulate comments on the papers electronically. That would only cost 5K, which is a fraction of the social cost otherwise incurred. I see a few possibly positive effects to this. First, if everyone had to comment using comment feature on Word or PDF, then the author can get a sense of whether many people among the 10 or 11 readers agree with the comments of others or not. (Sort of like Facebook's "like" feature on people's comments.) That iterative feedback is only available at live workshops when someone says he wants to "echo" or "piggyback" on the earlier comment, but not everyone wants to do that because it's time away from new points to the conversation too. So perhaps there's some benefit to electronic feedback not normally available in a live setting.

The second effect, which I think only some would view as positive, is that people would be getting a "financial bonus" to do this stuff. This is probably the most controversial aspect of it b/c some might think of it as getting paid more to do something they think they should do otherwise as part of their job. Maybe this would incentivize people to do more scholarship and more "feedbacking" but it's not clear the incentives are marginally more powerful than otherwise existing ones. A third benefit of this "distance-Pfesting" model is the participants could also do it asynchronously with others so it wouldn't require everyone taking the same 2-3 days off of work, and that might allow more flexibility re: scheduling, child care obligations, etc.

The downsides of the distance model seem to be these: a) some people like the travel to conferences, and relish the social interactions aside from the professional work of feedbacking. This seems to be a substantial consideration; b) I think the host school likes the idea of having scholars come to their home to show off the place in a very positive light, and perhaps some have the idea of improving their scholarly reputation by hosting these kinds of events; sending someone a check for 500$ is not necessarily an effective way to win friends or promote the brand you want to create. c) one reason the distance-pfest or "pay to say" model might not be attractive is because the "paying school" doesn't internalize all the benefits but fronts all the costs. Or, in other words, a host school now pays something like 3K to host P-fest, but the costs of airfare/hotels are on the schools of the attending scholars who are not from the host school. This means that the host school gets some benefits (usually 2 of the 10 presenters are from the host school) in exchange for its costs, whereas under the pay-to-say model, the host school would have to pay 5K but the benefits would be dispersed more broadly. This could obviously be fixed over a long-term cooperation agreement with other schools, but it's logistically more complicated...

In any event, with technology it's probably easier to do more distance-pfesting and yet it doesn't happen so far as I know. Is it because of a mismatch of benefits and burdens or because it sounds like no fun at all? Or, is it simply because no one's tried it yet?? As y'all know, I'm always curious to hear feedback and to rethink the formats of these things, so I was wondering about reactions to this possible scenario described roughly above (which, for the record, I don't endorse as a substitute, but perhaps as a supplement to live gatherings such as Pfest!.)

Posted by Administrators on July 8, 2010 at 07:56 PM in Blogging, Dan Markel, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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So just to be clear, I love me some PrawfsFest, really I do (that's why I've gone to like four of them). I don't think my post chastised the NFR, just questioned it to the extent that it's construed not only to get rid of introductory ramblings (which I agree should go), but also positive comments about the papers. Critical, constructive comments are probably the most useful and should feature most prominently in the discussions, but for reasons I explained in that original post, I think there can be real substantive value in articulating what the promise of the paper is, and I worry that the NFR deters people from making such comments.

As for distance-Pfest, hm. There have been many virtual conferences, but the thing such events would lack (it seems to me) is the dynamic of discussion, which involves spontaneous exchange and learning from others' comments. Plus it's a fun event with the socializing and whatnot, and it would be a shame to lose out on that aspect of it.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 13, 2010 12:58:35 AM

People definitely learn from what others have to say. That's why I like the idea of everyone using the comment bubbles of word or pdf to comment on the same document everyone has commented on. But I suppose there might need to be a second opportunity to review the comments of others on the distance-pfesting model...

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jul 9, 2010 12:16:55 PM

The social interaction/conferences-are-fun point also has a substantive benefit. The type and nature of feedback and comments changes--for the better, I believe--from everyone being in the same room, from readers hearing what others are saying, from readers and either disagreeing or helping flesh out the ideas of other readers. And as an author, I get more from hearing (and putting together) many comments at once. It is similar to the reasons I object to distance learning--there is value to everyone being in the same place. And (based on past PF! experiences) I learn things from hearing what other readers have to say.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 8, 2010 9:56:56 PM

There will always be a place for live conferences, but the electronic idea is useful to expand participation in a time of shrinking travel budgets. Some Australian conferences do basically what Dan proposes and add a video conference feature for the day of the conference. An institution needs very good tech support to do this well. I am coordinating my school's spring law review symposium. One Australian law prof is creating a DVD and may be able to engage in live Q&A, depending on timing. Maybe the Australians are ahead of us on this, in part because of geography and travel costs?

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Jul 8, 2010 8:56:05 PM

While the economic and environmental benefits of a "virtual prawfsfest" might be great, I don't think there are any substitutes for an in-person workshop. Most of us solicit feedback on our work from a variety of sources, both in-person and over email, but in my experience there's nothing quite like the discussions that occur when you present a paper to a small (5-10 people) workship. Invariably someone will make a suggestion or ask a question and another person will piggyback on that or take it in a slightly different direction. Often an idea will occur to the author in response to this discussion and they can immediately pose it to the rest of the group and receive instant feedback. And having a few days can allow ideas to percolate; maybe you get a chance to have a longer conversation about these ideas with one of the other participants over lunch or over dinner (not that it has to all be at work!)

Oh, and conferences are fun :)

Posted by: Christine Scott-Hayward | Jul 8, 2010 8:21:07 PM

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