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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Am I Asking the Right Questions? (Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ)

Before turning to this final question, I was going to do one more post (on writing casebooks and treatises) to wrap up the Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ Series for this month. But after Michael Rich's courageous Hard Prawf Choices post earlier this week, I thought I'd skip to the last question I included in my initial post: Am I asking the right questions?

The short answer, I think, is: probably not. Put differently, there are "good," "better," and "best" questions, and these types of questions likely fall in the "better" camp. 

The "good" questions -- indeed, the necessary but not sufficient questions -- concern the quality and type of our scholarship. Derek Tokaz's comment on an earlier post captures the critical importance of these "good" questions:

6. Write Higher Quality, Useful, Relevant Articles. I mean, I know that Batman v Superman has shown that enough buzz and advertising can get eyeballs on the screen no matter how low quality your product is, but I still think the most important way to get an audience is to have something worth reading.

This is certainly true. Our primary mission as scholars should be to produce high-quality scholarship that is useful and relevant to our field. With the exception of a quick post on Dean Minow's Archetypal Legal Scholarship: A Field Guide, admittedly I haven't focused on those "good" questions. 

But I hope this FAQ series has underscored that once a scholar has answered the "good" questions -- and produced high-quality scholarship that is useful and relevant to one's field -- it's time to turn to the "better" questions of how to get those ideas read, digested, and incorporated. As Eric Segall commented on a prior post, "The hardest part is engaging in self-promotion (especially on social media). It often feels super yucky but in our new interconnected world, it is usually necessary if you want the piece read."

If we truly believe we have produced high-quality scholarship that is useful and relevant to our field, we should think about these "better" questions to maximize the chances that our scholarship will reach the relevant audiences and have an impact on our field. That may involve choosing wisely the format of the scholarship as we discussed in the first week, including responses to scholarship, book reviews, and online law reviews. It definitely involves thinking about how to participate in one's field, as we discussed in the second week with respect to commenting on others' draft articles, increasing in-person scholarly interaction (with limited resources), and otherwise improving the chance one's scholarship will be read. To maximize one's voice, as we discussed in the third week, it might be worth blogging regularly, it probably is worth being on Twitter, and podcasts and other media consultations may well be the future (or not). And advocacy work, such as law professor amicus briefs and white papers, might also help one develop a voice in one's field, as we discussed on Monday.

Unfortunately, sometimes worrying about the "better" questions gets in the way of taking care to answer/complete the prerequisite "good" questions. Those "better" questions can also get in the way of asking the "best" questions. To borrow a line from President Shepherd, "I was so busy keeping my job I forgot to do my job." 

So what do I mean by "best" questions? Borrowing from Michael's Hard Prawf Choices post, I think the "best" questions concern more broadly this amazing "opportunity [we have as law professors] to make an impact." No, neither Michael nor I are referring just to one's "scholarly impact" -- though scholarly impact is definitely part of the impact we can have as law professors. Instead, this impact likely takes into account our tripartite mission of teaching, research, and service. These "best" questions no doubt differ for each of us based on why we became law professors and what impact we hope to leave on the world through our work. But I'm guessing for most of us that mission extends beyond becoming a scholarly voice in our field.

Here's another way to frame these "best" questions: One of the most common phrases I've heard from junior scholars is "after tenure." After tenure, I'm going to write that book. After tenure, I'm going to design that experiential learning course that I wish I could have taken in law school. After tenure, I'll finally be able to serve on that state commission, on the board of that public interest legal service provider, or with a political campaign. After tenure... 

I don't mean to suggest that we shouldn't worry about securing tenure. We should. And no doubt the difficulty of obtaining tenure varies by institution. The cardinal Ask Your Colleagues rule should be followed, especially pretenure. But at many schools the tenure requirements leave time and space to develop in all three areas; indeed, one is often rewarded for accomplishments in all three. Moreover, for some scholars, that "after tenure..." may never happen even after tenure if they continue to fixate on these "better" questions without also focusing the "best" questions.

I find much inspiration from my fellow junior colleagues on the faculty here (at The Ohio State University): The colleague who spends countless hours each year running a national security simulation for his students. The colleague who got involved with students and others in the Black Lives Matter movement in Columbus while she was juggling a clinical course and an ambitious research agenda. The colleague who advocates on behalf of children with disabilities at both the state and federal level, at both the administrative and legislative level. The colleague who takes the time to weigh in on how states should regulate drones and also serves on a city-wide commission to implement a police body camera policy. The colleague who volunteered to help rewrite the university-wide intellectual property policy for the benefit of thousands of professors on campus. These are just a few examples.

To be sure, these service activities leverage my colleagues' relevant expertise and often overlap with their research agenda. But these endeavors don't really have anything to do with the "good" or "better" questions. If merely doing a cost-benefit analysis based on enhancing one's scholarly profile (or securing tenure and/or promotion), these activities most likely wouldn't make the cut. Instead, they seem to be my junior colleagues' answers to the "best" questions about how they can have an impact as a law professor.

Pausing to ask myself whether I'm asking the right or "best" questions could lead me, as it did for Michael, "to change the timeframe of my planning. I don't wonder how to construct a career for twenty years from now; rather, I want to make an impact now, or at least soon."



Posted by Chris Walker on April 27, 2016 at 09:03 AM in Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ, Teaching Law | Permalink


"once a scholar has answered the 'good' questions -- and produced high-quality scholarship that is useful and relevant to one's field -- it's time to turn to the 'better' questions of how to get those ideas read, digested, and incorporated."

Dat imposter syndrome tho?

Posted by: jr prawf | Apr 27, 2016 3:48:50 PM

Thanks for these great insights, Chris. I appreciated the various perspectives, and really like the way you've framed this last post.

Posted by: Peter Conti-Brown | Apr 27, 2016 9:37:16 AM

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