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Monday, March 16, 2015

The Step-Ahead Scholar

I am a birder. I regularly go outside, with a pair of binoculars, and look for birds. Many birders keep a list of all the bird species they've seen. The internet has enabled birders to announce sightings of birds instantaneously, which leads to chases from those who have never seen the reported species. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you go looking over and over again, and don't see it. Those birds becomes your "nemesis birds." They aren't rare, but every time you go look for one, you can't find it.

There's an opposite experience I have sometimes when it comes to scholarship. I'll get an idea, play with it for a couple of days, and then hit Westlaw. But instead of going to look for something and not being able to find it, I go out hoping not to find something that I suspect is probably out there. Several times, I've found that something I didn't want to find, and more than once it's been the same scholar who not only had already had the idea, but had already written a paper. 

One could think of these people as nemesis scholars, but that's the wrong connotation for me. These are scholars who are reliably productive and thoughtful, with their fingers on the pulse of their fields. They don't foreclose our writing, but instead they provoke us with their ideas and challenge us to keep up. I prefer to call them Step-Ahead scholars.

One accolade for writing scholarship might be to be named as someone's Step-Ahead scholar. So in the spirit of celebrating those who've beat us to the punch before, I'll name one of mine: Tamar Birckhead. It seems like every time I turn around, Tamar has written a comprehensive, persuasive and wonderful paper. She's done it with juvenile interrogation, she's done it with childhood, and she's done it with solitary confinement.

Of course, despite their prescience (I imagine Tamar is already planning quesadillas for dinner and beginning a re-read of Bill Stuntz's The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, because that's what struck me as a good plan for tonight) it's rare that someone has said just what you'd like to say about a topic. And if an idea is good enough, it's good enough to say twice. But still, I'm not alone in finding these folks, am I? Anyone else wish to confess a step-ahead scholar?

Posted by Kevin Lapp on March 16, 2015 at 04:32 PM | Permalink


This has happened to me three times, but each time has been at the article drafting stage. I'm about to send something out and journals in my subfield publish a new set of articles... and there it is... "my" idea... expressed more eloquently and in print. It only killed one of the three. The two that got published just needed to be put into conversation with the other articles. Gotta move quick!

Posted by: KE | Mar 17, 2015 9:45:33 AM

Andy Taslitz was not only a step-ahead scholar, but he would write "my" articles a decade before I had the idea. I took to conducting an "Andy Taslitz preemption check" before pursuing any new subject.

Posted by: AFerguson | Mar 16, 2015 6:53:40 PM

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