« Ten Tips for Aspiring Prawfs | Main | ICYMI: Ten (okay, Nineteen) Tips for New Law Professors »

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Is a Workshop a Performance? (Or, Are You Not Entertained?)

Robin's post using Tina Fey's book to talk about faculty workshops is both useful and incredibly entertaining.  Let me say that up front, because it also raises some broader concerns I have about workshops and how we think about them, including the kinds of advice we give to new and junior professors about workshopping.

Most of the Fey comments (get it?) Robin offers about workshops are, it seems to me, largely about the workshop as a performance piece.  So one doesn't want to say "no" to an irrelevant question because it won't advance the workshop, but instead wants to say yes in a way that allows you to "control the scene."  You have to consider your "zone of defense."  You don't want to bring too many notes to the podium because you want to give a compelling talk.  And so on.

I actually think most of Robin's points are excellent, although I would quarrel with some of them, for reasons that are as substantive as they are performance-oriented.  But it's the performance orientation of these points that I find striking.  They end up setting the goals of the workshop in the same kinds of terms that you might put an artistic or rhetorical performance: captivating the audience, flattering them, co-opting them, entertaining them, and ultimately winning them over and impressing them.

I find myself regularly judging workshop talks on precisely this basis.  Often enough, when someone asks me how a particular workshop went, I may well answer in precisely these kinds of terms.  Anyone who has heard Jed Rubenfeld's rich vocal stylings and actorly ways in a workshop may understand why a talk I heard him give back in my grad school days sticks with me.  And we can all think of examples of a talk that stiffed more for performative than intellectual reasons, although often enough I'll find that the two are related -- the author of a weakly argued paper, for instance, may, as Robin suggests, end up saying "yes" or "that's interesting" to every question, no matter how hostile, without actually addressing the substantive points.  And of course I give workshops myself, and would like them to go well and to impress my audiences.  I'm not immune from the urge to think of workshops in terms of performance, in short.

But I'm not sure that's the right way to think about workshops.  If you treat every workshop as a job audition, and one you would be happy to win as much by personality as on pure merits, then it may make sense to treat workshops as performances.  And if you actually want to win over converts, and again are willing to do so as much through rhetoric as through pure substance, then this approach may also make sense.  But if we're just thinking about workshops as places in which the goal is to refine and perfect arguments as much as possible, and/or to explore the limits of an argument or the point at which it simply depends on a normative position that one either shares or doesn't share (a point I think is rather quickly reached in most legal scholarship), then how much should we really care about impressing or winning over the audience?  That may serve the speaker and the audience, but does it really serve the paper?  Isn't substantive discussion advanced by telling someone who has asked an irrelevant or stupid question that his or her question is irrelevant or stupid?  If your ideas will be more clearly and precisely presented if you read woodenly from your text, shouldn't you do so?  Conversely, isn't it the audience's responsibility to address the paper substantively rather than seeking a diverting talk to accompany their lunch?

Again, I certainly think about workshops in terms of performance often enough, and I think Robin's points are generally excellent, and sometimes involve some substantive points as well as performative points.  But I thought it was worth putting out there that the ways we often think about workshops, as both "audience" and "performer," and the kinds of advice we give younger colleagues, may sometimes detract from the real intellectual goals that workshops are, in my view, supposed to serve and supply new academics with some troubling models.  We may be better off getting clear on the goals of workshops, and the real duties of both speaker and audience, before we can get hung up on the mechanics of performance.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 3, 2011 at 10:28 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Is a Workshop a Performance? (Or, Are You Not Entertained?):


The comments to this entry are closed.