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January 04, 2010


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Rob Heverly

I'll chime in here as someone who only a few years ago started working on scholarly writing (as opposed to practical/doctrinal writing).

I use workshops in three ways: first, to disseminate my work and ideas in a place where I can talk to people about them. I like to think I'm open to critiques, suggestions, alternatives and improvements, but the primary idea is to start the discussion and see what people think and how it fits with what they're doing.

My second kind of use is to discuss "intuition" pieces that I'm working on. That is, I've thought about something, I'm pretty sure it's important, but I can't quite get down to answer the "so what?" question that dogs me so often in what I write. So, I go out and present the basic insight, setting down tentative ideas that fit with the intuition, and then see what happens. More than once I've had someone say, "You've said A, and played it as being important because of X, but you're really talking about how it affects Y because of X." It has also happened that someone has said, "You've said A is important because of X, but it's really how X affects Y that is important" and I've replied, "No, that's not quite it, but your point makes me think that how X affects W is important." Sometimes a push (in any direction) is all I need, and these kinds of exchanges are incredibly helpful to me.

My third kind of use is simply to see what other people are thinking, to engage with their ideas "on the fly" and to contribute something back to the community that is contributing to my own work. Besides, it's fun listening to what people are working on, even if it's not directly related to my own work.

To reflect a bit, maybe in the second scenario I'm cheating; getting others to help me figure out why I'm writing what I'm writing. But the way I look at it, so long as I haven't said, "law has existed for a long time," and then waited to see whether someone will come up with a more interesting thesis for me -- ie, so long as the intuition I have had is potentially important -- then a bit of discussion to get to the meat of the insight is fair game. Perhaps as I mature (as a scholar) this will come easier and more naturally to me, but for now I appreciate my colleagues' willingness to engage in this way.

On that note, not all workshops are created equal. I have presented a number of times at workshops where another piece on my panel was quite controversial. In those situations I've gotten relatively little discussion on my piece as everyone focuses on the more controversial piece; what I get at these times is the opportunity to say "out loud" what my piece is about (which can be helpful just in itself, and is something I often make my students do).

Mike Madison

I think that workshops are only partly about the author/presenter/visitor and/or only partly about the work that the author/presenter/visitor is "presenting" (quotation marks there on purpose). Workshops are often at least partly about the host school's Dean, faculty, and community/culture, such as that may or may not be (or as the host school's Dean and/or faculty may wish them to be). I would take responses to Kim's questions to bear more on these soft topics than on anything else. At our school: One series, the speaker moderates, people wait to be called on and behave respectfully in indulging occasional followups, monopolization is rare to nonexistent, and more people don't read the paper than do. One tip: The layout of the furniture impacts the character of the conversation; don't isolate the speaker from the audience.

For the author/presenter/visitor, workshops are often more about indirect things - socialization, visibility, reputation-building - than about the details of the work itself. (Close reads by trusted colleagues often bring better feedback.) And workshops can simply satisfy the need that some folks have, perhaps many, to mix it up intellectually in person. That's not to say that a well-presented paper (or a well-presented part of a paper) can't lead to useful feedback - it can - but it's wise to tailor one's expectations to knowledge of local customs. Before presenting, talk with the host about what to expect.

Jacqueline Lipton

I should also add that from time to time our school has had a series of junior faculty exchange workshops with other schools - and we have the series again at the moment. I think that the workshops can be really valuable for tenure-track people to get a chance to sound out their ideas, particularly new and half-baked ideas, in front of an audience who may or may not be hugely helpful (depending on faculty culture, level of interest etc), but who are likely to pick up any major problems with the piece and are relatively nonthreatening in that they are not going to vote on the presenter's tenure. It also helps get young people "known" at a time when they're not otherwise necessarily being invited to conferences or to more senior workshop series because people don't know who they are yet.

In response to Kim's more general questions, we have several workshop series - some connected with our academic centers, one exchange workshop series with local Ohio schools, one "legal theory" series, and the junior faculty exchange series. The presenter usually moderates the Q&A, our faculty are generally very engaged in the presentation (even though probably about 50% or less have actually read the paper for any given workshop). We also don't have the problem of people monopolizing the discussion. I also agree with a lot of what others have said in the comment thread. Much of it is about faculty culture/collegiality, individual reputation etc. I generally think some level of faculty workshop engagement (both inviting speakers in and having regular visits out) is good for the academic culture - gets people thinking outside the box, sharing new ideas etc.

Kim Krawiec

Thanks for reopening this question, Eric. And thanks to Jacqui, Mike, and Rob for their thoughts. Interested to hear what others think. Personally, I always try to workshop papers and think (hope!) that they're better because of the additional input. To me, workshop input is of a different kind than comments from individual readers, for a variety of reasons: (1) you'll hear from more people, including people that you don't know and never would have solicited input from on your own; (2) you'll get input from people in different fields, seeing connections that might not have been obvious otherwise; (3) the audience can build off each other's questions and insights, making the whole better than the sum of the parts. I'm sure that there are many more, but those are the ones that occur to me at the moment.

Glenn Cohen

At Harvard we love, love, love our workshops. In any one semester I think there are at least 5 specialized ones (listed here on top of our regular faculty workshop, which has permanent faculty and visiting faculty presenting 1-2 times a week. This year we've also added a "colloquium" event every few weeks in the usual faculty workshop slot that brings in a non-law person to talk to the faculty -- for example, David Reich, from the Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; Broad Institute, MIT and Harvard, spoke to us about the challenges of "Reconstructing Indian population history."

One of the great things we've been able to do is use the specialized workshops as teachings tools as well. For example, the health law, bioethics, and biotechnology workshop Einer Elhauge and I run has 20+ enrolled students who take the course for credit, as well as academic fellows, faculty from other parts of the university and other universities, who sit in and ask questions of a speaker presenting a work in progress (and in the case of our students write response papers given to the speaker).

For those schools that have (or are trying to build) significant junior populations, I'd also put a big plug in for having a "juniors' workshop" where junior faculty can incubate their own, sometimes not-quite-ready-for-prime-time papers amongst themselves. In part because of the amazing breadth and generosity of my junior colleagues, this has improved the quality of my own work tremendously. For those on the entry-level market, I think the existence of this kind of workshop is something to ask about when evaluating an offer.

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