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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

What Does Versatility on a Faculty Mean?

In the dictionary, the word versatility is sometimes defined as "capable of or adapted for turning easily from one to another of various tasks, fields of endeavor, etc." On a law faculty, we all know that some of our colleagues happen to be very versatile. And that some happen to be more versatile than others. For example, we have all heard a particular colleague described as "a great utility infielder." That phrase -- utility infielder -- is used to refer, I think, to a person who is able -- and, more importantly, willing -- to teach a wide range of different courses, courses that indeed may not relate well to one another. Or sometimes, the phrase means that someone is willing to pick up a course without much prior notice, and run with it.

Here is my question: What do we mean when we refer to a colleague a being versatile? This could mean, of course, that this person is willing to teach a wide range of courses, or perhaps has willingly taught a wide range in the past. For example, there are senior scholars out there who have spent their careers circling through a wide range of first-year courses as a service to their schools, not to mention many upper level courses too. Howard Katz at Duquesne has taught five out of the six standard first-year courses -- torts, contracts, criminal law, constitutional law, and property. This is in addition to other subjects that are of interest to him, like land use. Jeff Rachlinski at Cornell has taught administrative law, business organizations, contracts, behavioral law and economics, civil procedure, environmental law, international environmental law, law and psychology, sustainability, natural resources, psychology and the law, torts, and a few other subjects. That's an amazingly wide range. I have been asked to teach torts, contracts, and civil procedure - though I don't normally write in any of these fields. But does that mean I am versatile or spreading myself too thin? And what about senior scholars like Katz, Rachlinski, and others who have moved around the curriculum like this?

I submit that versatility in a colleague can also extend beyond teaching. There are some scholars who are versatile in their research and publication interests, and perhaps in the service obligations that they pursue as well. In law professor hiring, we seem to prefer specialists, but shouldn't the dean office value versatility just as much - or perhaps even more? I'm curious to know what others think. In the comments, I invite readers to tell us more about (a) how we should define versatility on a faculty, (b) what it is, exactly, that law schools should value about a person's versatility, and (c) the ways that versatility in colleagues, however defined, should be rewarded. 

Examples would be helpful, of course.

Posted by Eugene Mazo on October 7, 2015 at 12:59 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


so first of all no, i have never heard a particular colleague described as "a great utility infielder."

second of all i think versatility (or our perception of certain colleagues as versatile) comes with experience. it's a hard quality to seek out in entry-level candidates because they've only done so much teaching (and writing). my fear is that emphasizing it would only serve to separate the hyper-confident ("i can teach any class!") from the more humble.

having been through the hiring cycle from both sides, though, i'm not sure it's accurate to say "we seem to prefer specialists." we prefer candidates with at least one strong and specific/specialized academic passion-- but beyond that defining thing i think we do value the various kinds of versatility/variety of interests and skills.

Posted by: alicia florrick | Oct 8, 2015 11:08:25 PM

A few thoughts:

1) Many deans consider "versatility," at least within the 1L curriculum, inherent in the fact that law faculty are smart people with JDs. They are convinced that anyone can teach any 1L class with sufficient prep time.

2) Versatility in scholarship is a two-edged sword, because it can come across as dilletantism if not done well.

3) I do value versatility in the subjects that colleagues can talk and comment about (a friend once referred to this as "range"). It is always nice to see faculty who can engage with and comment on papers or talks on a range of subjects.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 7, 2015 4:40:15 PM

Eugene, Maybe this is only somewhat related, but I am curious about how you manage to get your VAP position at Wake Forest, which seems to have lasted much longer than the normal VAP. Did your versatility play a role in you getting the VAP, and more importantly, keeping the VAP?

Posted by: VAP Question | Oct 7, 2015 1:47:11 PM

I'm not sure what counts as faculty "versatility," but I do have a name to throw in the mix. Richard Epstein's bio reports that he has taught "administrative law, antitrust law, civil procedure, communications, constitutional law, contracts, corporations, criminal law, employment discrimination law, environmental law, food and drug law health law and policy, legal history, labor law, property, real estate development and finance, jurisprudence, labor law; land use planning, patents, individual, estate and corporate taxation, Roman Law; torts, and workers' compensation."

Posted by: anon | Oct 7, 2015 1:23:48 PM

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