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Friday, July 19, 2019

Interdisciplinarity in the Early Years

Hi folks. As I mentioned in my introduction, I’m a legal anthropologist at Alabama Law, and I work in the areas of labor & employment law (especially the gig economy) and comparative law (especially India). In this first post I want to address a concern that I’ve heard voiced by a handful of peers. I’ll limit my comments to my own experiences, but I’m interested in hearing best practices for both junior folks in this situation and for the law schools that hire them.

Even though I felt well-prepared for the market it took time for me to fully understand that I would indeed be employed as a professor after my fellowship* ended. Once it sank in, I started worrying that I would lose my interdisciplinary identity or one of my substantive areas of interest in the course of doing what early-career law faculty are mostly expected to do: publish a lot of high-ranking, mainline law review articles. (I still hold out hope that the worrying decreases post-tenure.) I value mainline law review articles—I’m working on a couple right now—but I also value fieldwork (which takes time), anthropological analysis, and my India work, with the latter two being largely oriented toward law-and-society type venues. If all I focused on during the next 4–5 years were projects that fit easily within the format and timeline of law review publishing much of what I bring to the table would fade away. For both personal and professional reasons, I do not want that to happen.

Fortunately, though it’s too early to make definitive predictions, it seems unlikely that this “atrophy” worry will come to pass for reasons of institutional support, complete happenstance, and of course my own desire to avoid the problem. After the break, I’ll give a couple reasons for my cautious optimism, both of which relate to my identity as a legal anthropologist.

Institutionally, our Dean has made it possible for me to use my pre-tenure leave to conduct fieldwork (rather than write), to use that leave earlier than normal, and to switch semesters for the leave when grant cycle snafus required me to do so. Likewise, our university-level grants committee awarded me a seed grant to pursue some preliminary research for a new set of projects in India—field research is cheap, but not quite free—so I was able to spend almost 6 weeks in Delhi at the end of this academic year. This kind of scouting trip is essential to developing competitive applications for major grants, but it also happened to give me ideas for the two law review articles that I’ll be working on in the immediate future.

Conversely, happenstance and my own interest in maintaining ties to other legal anthropologists have made it possible for me to expand a small experiment in scholarly community-building into what will become a formal event with publication outcomes. During my last fellowship year, I was thinking really hard about the intersection of law and anthropology in preparation for the market: what kinds of projects to pursue, what timelines to juggle, and even how to adjust my writing style while retaining some sort of voice that was recognizably my own. It just so happened that many really excellent junior legal anthropologists were thinking about these things at the same time. I started what I’ve been calling a “traveling roundtable” of young scholars who are seriously committed to thinking with both anthropology and law; the roundtables have been trying to arrive at some clarity—consensus is too strong a word—as to how this can and should be done. In other words, we’re asking both why anthropologists should care about law and why law folk should care about anthropology.

So far, we’ve held roundtables at the 2019 Law & Society Association meeting and the 2018 American Anthropological Association meeting. But—since there are only so many times you can hold a conference roundtable on the same topic—I’m now organizing a one-day symposium that will bring most of the roundtable participants to Alabama Law. We’ll workshop essays addressing the roundtable questions and, in keeping with the commitment to “speaking to both sides,” I’m planning for the essays to be published in two special issues (one law review and one peer review law & social science journal).  

It’s definitely been scary to do some of these things so early—special issues, continued fieldwork, event organizing—because doing so does not replicate the “play it safe” approach that many faculty candidates are understandably advised to take when they go on the market and that would be natural to follow as a junior prawf. As a candidate I also received some form of that advice and, to the best of my ability, I took it. As a first year prawf, I’ve tried to mitigate the risk of pursuing more unusual projects by also working on law review articles and other publications at the same time, although of course it remains to be seen whether this approach will work out. Nevertheless, once I started making the transition from candidate to prawf I felt strongly that ignoring any of my research interests or methods for too long would be both unwise and nearly irreversible.

But this is just one approach. Assuming that many interdisciplinary legal scholars want to remain interdisciplinary, and that it's not entirely feasible to put interdisciplinarity on "pause" for the years leading up to tenure, how should they—and their law schools—approach the issue?


*Shout out to the Penn Sharswood program, which was both structured wonderfully and introduced me to several people who have become much-valued friends and mentors.

Posted by Deepa Das Acevedo on July 19, 2019 at 10:35 AM in Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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