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Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Yes (With Caveats), Publishing a Book Review is Still a Worthwhile Endeavor for Untenured Law Professors

Following up on Chris's follow-up post, and with due appreciation for some of the points made in the comments there, my answer is yes, it is still worthwhile for untenured tenure-track law professors (an unwieldy phrase, but I don't like the increasingly common "pretenured": it may be accurate, given tenure rates, but there's a whiff behind it of unnecessary language massage and an unwillingness to hurt anybody's feelings by suggesting that anyone might not deserve and get tenure) to publish book reviews. Sure, there are cautions to be registered and prudential concerns to consider. But, as a general matter, it is still worthwhile.

The primary reason I think it's worthwhile for untenured law professors to publish book reviews--and, given time limits, the only one I want to focus on--is that I think it's worthwhile for tenured law professors to publish book reviews. Good books in one's field are, well, good, and in my view better and more rewarding than good but long articles. Engaging seriously with a good book can be an intellectually rewarding experience, and part of the way we engage is to write. It is also rewarding, especially in a field in which the currently dominant conventional law review article form is so imperfect, to experiment with different genres and forms of writing. All of these things are as true for untenured law profs as they are for law profs. It makes sense, up to a point, for untenured professors to be given sound professional advice that includes practical and pragmatic advice. But it also makes sense not to put the cart before the horse, and to be wary of the prospect that prudential advice of this sort, offered initially in a regretful, don't-like-it-but-that's-how-it-is way, will become reified and perpetuated, and that people will slowly build normative justifications around it. There ought to be room for serious book reviews in any genre of scholarship in which books are relevant. That should be true for tenured professors. And, in principle, just about any scholarly activity that might be valuable or rewarding for tenured professors, and certainly this one, should be valuable or rewarding for untenured professors.

I agree that given limited time and attention, there are reasons for untenured professors--or some of them; others write and publish a ton--to focus on what needs to get done, not just what they want to do. I don't find that terribly compelling as a general piece of advice, and it's becoming ever less compelling. The tenure clock is relatively long and has, I think, gotten longer rather than shorter. More people are coming out of doctoral studies or fellowships and, depending on what they've negotiated, already have at least one piece towards tenure. Even those whose prior publications don't count toward tenure at least have gotten some practice writing in their field and won't have the same start-up needs that someone coming in cold would. And, frankly, the number of significant pieces demanded for tenure is not huge, and doing a book review shouldn't be a make-or-break factor.

I also agree that untenured professors might want to build up some experience, skill, wisdom, and so on before writing a book review. But here too I think the conditions of the industry have changed. Whatever sense this makes in general, we can at least say that many entry-level law professors have put in some time on their subject, and published in the area, even before entering the tenure track. There's thus less reason to think it's presumptuous of them to assay a book review. Of course they should write the review as modestly as is appropriate given their relevant skills and limits. But that's true of articles as well, despite the not-infrequent immodesty of articles by entry-level profs (immodesty that is indeed noted, if forgiven, by more elderly readers in the field). Finally, one can understand that an untenured professor might want to select projects for impact and to build a voice and reputation. I think good book reviews can do that too, but I agree that articles (and, um, books) are the best way to achieve that goal. On the other hand, building a reputation should be secondary to the scholar's primary interest, which is to do scholarship. An untenured writer who thinks a book review is the right project to pursue, that it is the lesson he or she must learn or the contribution he or she must make, should worry about that first, and let reputational concerns take care of themselves. I think it is at least possible that there are people who internalize lessons about how to build a famous reputation very well, and do everything right, but little that's truly worthwhile. Better, I think, professionally speaking, to ask what your scholarly mission demands of you; if the muse tells you that the answer is "write a book review," write it. 

Perhaps all this is obvious and just goes without saying. I think it is and does. I also think the prudential advice on which people usually focus when asking these questions is mostly pretty obvious too, for that matter. I wouldn't have bothered writing about this. But, whatever the intention of the post or individual comments, I worry about the framing being such that untenured professors convince themselves that "scholar" is not a category with its own imperatives, but rather that there are two distinct categories of scholar: "untenured scholar" and "tenured scholar." I think it's important to reject that view, and that conditions are easy enough for most untenured law professors (if they get the job, which is really the hard part) that there's room enough to focus on the normative "oughts" of scholarship and not just the practical "ises." Indeed, I worry that in the legal academy many entering (and senior) academics hear, know, talk, and think more about the "ises" of scholarship than they do the "oughts."       


Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 6, 2016 at 02:23 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


Well, no, I was sort of kidding.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 7, 2016 8:13:03 AM

So special rules just for you?

Posted by: Blowspon | Apr 7, 2016 7:39:41 AM

No, definitely not. They should strongly avoid such posts. And, again, I think that's equally true for tenured and untenured profs.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 7, 2016 4:57:52 AM

What about self-indulgent April Fools jokes that (a) rip off Larry Solum but (b) aren't funny at all? Should untenured faculty publish those, Paul?

Posted by: Blowspon | Apr 6, 2016 10:46:02 PM

Great post, Paul. The most important line: "An untenured writer who thinks a book review is the right project to pursue, that it is the lesson he or she must learn or the contribution he or she must make, should worry about that first, and let reputational concerns take care of themselves."

I have published two book reviews, and my perspective on them today -- one positive, one less so -- matches that advice.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 6, 2016 10:37:55 PM

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