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Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Guide to Current "Relevant" Writing: Start With Boring. Maybe Stop There. And Use Your Desk Drawer.

This New York Times piece by essayist Sloane Crosley asks: "What happens when every writer on the planet starts taking notes on the same subject?" She argues that "[f]rom an artistic standpoint, it’s best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it back into everyone’s faces." She continues:

We all know how limited this kind of get-it-while-it’s-hot writing will seem in the future. That’s never stopped us from doing it. It’s not stopping me from indulging in a version of it right now. Look at the narratives that came out in the years immediately following 9/11. They have not aged well. Really, we’re only just now nailing World War I. But like everyone else, writers feel the need to distill life as a means of surviving it.

Our particular era strikes me as especially susceptible to this impulse. Part of the reason is that our response to disaster (terrorist attacks, hurricanes, school shootings) is to get out there and declare the death of irony....[I]n the moment, we feel the need to prove our solemnity on social media by setting a universal mood, and this is poison to actual book writing.

The other issue that separates our particular time from the 1600s (aside from the hygiene and the snacks) is the personal voice to which we’ve become accustomed — “I” being the vowel of the century.

Crosley's conclusion at the end of the piece is a little more mixed. But the tone is one of caution against trying to be the first with the most immediate "relevant" writing. I think that's a good piece of cautionary advice.

How does this affect scholarship, blogging, and so on in our own corner of the academy, in which dozens of blog posts and, perhaps, countless articles currently in draft are titled "In a Time of...?" I admit to a bias, since I am seeing a lot of predictive writing out there despite our significant lack of the kind of information on which one can base even poor predictions, and I already think of futurist writing as the second-lowest form of intellectual life, after the TED talk. But I would suggest the following:

1) Take it slow. Doubtless this is already true faute de mieux, as most of us are spending most of our time (apart from Netflixing, parenting or caring for loved ones, and other forms of service) learning how to teach online and either prepping for classes or already teaching them, and many of us have edits to make or deadlines to meet for existing prelapsarian pieces. But with or without those other commitments, there is not a pressing need for everyone to immediately get out there with broad academic musings about the new normal or what will follow after that. We lack the information and time to do it well and most such pieces, even those written by experts, don't age well, as Crosland notes. The very instincts and impulses that impel us to engage in such writing are the same instincts and impulses that mar accurate analysis and prediction. So, curb the urge to be among the first, or among the first thousand, to tell us all what it all means for the future, or even the near future. There is, indeed, nothing wrong with writing nothing about the "new" whatever. If you are still interested in the influence of Immanuel Kant on evidentiary approaches in 18th-century Bulgaria, and that's where your expertise lies, write about that.   

2) Start with boring. The most useful information people in a given field can offer at this time is narrow, quotidian analysis and advice. What do current rule changes mean in a given area of law? What deadlines and processes have changed? What practical questions do these raise for particular subjects at this moment? I'm not sure that most legal academics are in a better position to give such advice than practicing lawyers, and many would readily conclude, or concede, that they are not. (Clinical legal academics are surely in a better position.) Beyond that, it may vary by field and individual. Probably the role of a legal academic in this moment is to pay close attention to what lawyers on the ground are saying about the issues they face, and then offer what they do have: the luxury of time and distance, which they can use to collate, summarize, and analyze. If one is going to write about current events, the best bet is to be boring: write about small problems, technical problems, practical problems, and save the big-picture musing for when it is likelier to be accurate. To be first with the latter kind of writing only results in fame and glory, not accuracy or utility. A blog post or legal periodical publication titled "Using the Space Bar to Mute and Unmute in Zoom," or "How to Get an Emergency Hearing in Family Court in Paducah," or "What Section 7005(c) of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act Means" will be much more useful and accurate than one on "The New Separation of Powers in the Age of Coronavirus," or "How International Law Will be Utterly Transformed by the Plague Years." The only advantage of those posts is that no one will much mind or even notice when they are falsified by events.

3) Avoid the portentous titles. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I seriously doubt it, and my admittedly unrepresentative Facebook feed suggests otherwise. But even if most people agree that we should lay back on the ominous titles, there is a problem of temptation, of collective action problems, and of large numbers here. "Tips for Teaching Online" is a perfectly sound title. "Teaching Online in an Age of Coronavirus" is a little much. Given the risk of cliche, it's probably a worse title than "Tips for Teaching Online." We're already aware that it's an age of Coronavirus. Easy does it. (It's only fair to acknowledge that some blog posts here have used similar titles. Again, there's a collective action problem: With X number of people on a group blog, and each person figuring a couple of posts a week titled in that fashion are relevant and understandable, we quickly go from a couple of drops to a deluge. In any event, I'm writing not to criticize writers here or elsewhere for past writings, but to encourage conservatism in future writings. I do wish, I must admit, that the excellent Facebook groups for teachers, in law and elsewhere, who are going online would rename themselves with something less dramatic.) I can only pray, as I suggested earlier this week, that law review editors, symposium planners, and groups like the AALS impose a little top-down restraint, in title choices if not in subject matter. Both would be nice.

4) Use your desk drawer. It's there for a reason. Of course there is good reason for academics to write some bigger-picture stuff on major topics. Of course this (with "this" as a very large umbrella term) is the number one topic on everyone's minds and everyone's agenda. To the extent that one writes what one is impelled to write, rather than what would be of most use or what is most clearly within one's expertise, then write it, even if it's an "In an Age of" piece. (You don't have to choose that title, of course!) Then hit "save as draft" on your blog platform or, if it's an article or op-ed, print it out and stick it in your desk drawer for somewhere between 24 hours and a week. In a day or a week, it might be out of date. So be it. In a day or a week, you might be find the tone immoderate or be inclined to revise what you've written in light of new information or better judgment. In a day or a week, you might find it's still relevant and useful and that the tone is still appropriate. Then it may be time to go forward. (I only partially took my own advice. I did save this as a draft post and hang on to it for a bit, but not the full 24 hours. Mea culpa.) 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 22, 2020 at 12:07 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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