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December 26, 2010


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Jeff Lipshaw

Kim, I like your idea a lot. The question is whether there are many faculty environments in which it can work, because it is asking a lot of both the "introspector" and those around her. For most successful people, coming to terms with that place between self-confidence and defensiveness is not easy. The jargon in organizational behavior (and the corporate world) is a "learning organization;" the irony is that most faculties - consisting of teacher - are terrible learning organizations. My definition of a learning organization is an institutional environment in which self-criticism is viewed as a strength, as is the willingness to defend a position, and everyone enters the fray with the principle of charitable interpretation at the front of mind. Another phrase for the sense of this is "epistemic modesty" or "epistemic humility": an openness to learning that is paradoxically not spineless either. In that environment, we celebrate successful failures!

You can't however, reason yourself or someone else to epistemic humility. It's a state of mind that precedes propositional thinking.

Tim Zinnecker

Query whether we could agree on what makes an article our "best" or "least successful." Placement? Citations? Intended readership? Intended purpose? Number of pages? Number of footnotes? Etc.?

I fear that authors and hiring committees may not always agree on the definition, leading to disappointment or surprise by one of the parties.

Orin Kerr

I like the idea of questions that ask the candidate to go meta on his or her scholarly work. But wouldn't the answers generally be a list of the professor's student note, short symposium pieces, published transcripts of panels, and that sort of thing?

Kim Krawiec

I think that Jeff and Orin’s (very thoughtful) comments are related. If the exercise is just a formality, as I gather Jeff is suggesting it would become (or worse, an exercise that can only harm the candidate if she approaches it seriously and honestly), then I’d expect the list to be only a formality, with obvious candidates such as a two-page response that, under other circumstances, you wouldn’t even list as a publication. But if a school is serious about learning something from the candidate, then I’d think such answers would be considered a very bad sign, because they suggest that the candidate is unwilling to engage in the exercise. It may even reveal that she is unwilling to be introspective (or honest) and perhaps doesn’t even realize she makes “unforced errors,” and thus can’t really improve going forward. Almost everyone I know (including me) has at least one or two articles with which they are quite unhappy in hindsight, and often they are articles that are well-placed and reasonably well-cited. If one assumes that a hiring committee actually reads and evaluates your work (a heroic assumption in many cases, I know) then the “what is your worst article?” question becomes a chance to demonstrate that you know why you failed and aren’t likely to repeat the same mistake again.

Thanks for your comment too, Tim. The goal, though, is not to get “agreement,” but rather to force the author to reveal information about herself that is otherwise difficult to obtain. In fact, you answer your own question – the disappointment and surprise you mention is exactly the type of “poor fit” that appointments committees (and candidates, quite frankly) may be interested in.

Suppose you tell me that your least successful article is “Why I Love The UCC” because it received few citations and a low placement, and that in the future you will no longer write about how much you love the UCC. Alternatively, you might tell me that you consider your least successful article to be “Why I Love The UCC” because it failed to make a significant doctrinal or policy intervention and that in the future you hope to only write articles that make such contributions. Both tell me something about Tim.

Jeff Lipshaw

"Failure," of course, is overly binary. Even in my articles that I think were puerile, there's SOMETHING that succeeds. That's the point with responding to a "when did you stop beating your wife?" question like "what was your worst article?" The smart response is not being sucked into the question. If I were asked it, I would answer something like this: "I don't know that I can rank best and worst. I know what my most pronounced faults are - sometimes over-ambitious theses, impatience, stubbornness, and a tendency to race ahead of my readers by synthesizing a lot of ideas that are meaningful to me without sufficient care in bringing the reader along along with me. I also know which articles in which that tendency is most apparent. On the other hand, I don't think any of my articles are wholly without insight. I'm able to process the question better if I think of it this way: in which articles was the ratio of pronounced faults to insight level the highest? Or in other words, all articles are successful in some respect, and all are flawed in some respect, and I better than anyone can probably tell you which is which in each case. I'm least happy with article X because it [fill in the blank]."

Kim Krawiec

Fair enough -- "failure" is not the right word. And, of course, the goal is to get a response such as yours that shows that the person is introspective about their scholarly strengths and weaknesses. Not to get some sort of ranking for its own sake.

Dan Markel

Love this, Kim. I often think it's terrible if we don't have a strong sense of what a person's best work is from her or him, especially when the candidate is a lateral with lots of works, but I like the idea of asking what the "worst" ones are (and why) in part so that committee members and faculty members don't waste as much time focusing on those pieces if they are not likely to be errors that are replicated by the person and also because you might, as you note, elicit some valuable information about the person.

Jacqueline Lipton

I have also used this strategy in reverse ie when I'm trying to find out the bad points about a school I might be interested in lateraling to at some point. I often ask faculty things like: "What's the worst thing about this faculty?" or "What's the one thing you would change about this faculty if you could?"

If everyone says something like "Parking's a real problem" or "you can't get anywhere near the library on a weekend when there's a big game", then that's probably a good sign. I assume in these cases that people likely can't think of anything too damning to say about the place (or I'm asking the wrong people!).

Generally people won't come right out and say things like "I hate the dean" or "We have a really factionalized faculty". But the giveaway often is when the question is met with an embarrassed silence and uncomfortable stares between colleagues. And sometimes there can be really useful answers like: "Funding is a real problem. Our travel grants and summer grants have been cut the last five years running."

Re Kim's actual suggestion, my husband uses as a standard interviewing question (when he's looking to hire someone): "What was the last/worst mistake you ever made professionally?" It seems a similar tactic. He's told me that he's often surprised at the number of people who won't admit to having made any mistakes ever.

Orin Kerr

Kim writes: "I’d think such answers would be considered a very bad sign, because they suggest that the candidate is unwilling to engage in the exercise." I suppose it depends on how you define the exercise, but I think you would have to define it pretty specifically for those answers not to be fair ones.

Here's a slightly different angle. Instead of asking a candidate for his or her weakest article, ask the candidate, "What is the biggest weakness of your scholarship?" It's a great meta question, and I think eminently fair: I suspect most serious scholars have a long list of genuine self-criticisms of their work as a whole that is hard to get to by focusing on individual articles.


Kim, I think you are suggesting the academic equivalent of the interview question, "so what is your biggest weakness." The problem is that everybody knows that this is a question to answer dishonestly. Essentially, you get two types of people, neither of whom has any incentive to give an honest or useful answer.

1. The egomaniac who thinks he has no weaknesses first can't give an honest answer, since everybody knows that "I don't have any weaknesses" flunks the question. So they will give the non-responsive answer that Orin suggests above. That is a bad answer, but for the candidate still better than the honest answer.

2. The sophisticated introvert you are trying to "force" information out of also won't give the honest answer, though this time not for lack of knowledge. The sophisticated introvert knows his own major weaknesses. But he also knows that he has an information advantage since other people don't know those weaknesses. The point is that the game becomes trying to guess the biggest weakness that the interviewer already knows about, without revealing any weaknesses that the interviewer does not know about. Moreover, it pays to err on the side of caution, since if you give a weakness but not a fatal one (e.g. you criticize and refine the argument of your second-worst article instead of utterly demolishing the argument in your absolute worst article), people will give you a pass as having "engaged in the exercise." So again the interviewer gets nothing useful, except confirmation that this person knows how to play the interview game.

All this means is that the only type of person who will actually give the honest answer is the unsophisticated introvert who demolishes their own article, giving you a reason not to hire them when you would have otherwise. But if someone is that unsophisticated in analyzing their own incentives, they really shouldn't have made it to the interview for a law professor position in this day; and besides which somebody who can't get their own incentives right is unlikely to get their own weaknesses right, either.

The comparison to asking faculty at schools about their schools' weakness misses the point. Faculty have imperfect incentives. A faculty member may not care very much about whether a candidate comes, or even may hope that the candidate is deterred away. Candidates, by definition, want to get the job, and that means hiding your weaknesses to the extent possible.


I think my worst article was, "Some Name: Subtitle". When I placed in Third Tier L. Rev. I had only been in teaching three years and knew nothing about expedites, truth be told I asked but was not yet clear about the process. I wish I had known, though, because a week after accepting I received a call from Tier One L. Rev., but had to turn that one down. A very disappointing result, but I just couldn't go back on my word. In hindsight, I know realize that the piece probably didn't get picked up by Tier One because the abstract was too long and the conclusion needed some refinement. The headings might have been more flashy too to get the students attention. I've worked hard on these areas, realizing now that substance is the critical thing for scholars but that in dealing with student editors I also need to be conscious of appearances.

Kim Krawiec

Thanks for the comments all. Too many to respond to individually, but they’re all fun. TJ – I’m no match for your cleverness. In your world of egomaniacs and sophisticated introverts I would surely be unemployed. Good thing (for me) that hiring schools don’t adopt this strategy.

One thing that struck me, though, is how many of the comments seem to assume that only the candidate possesses negative information about her scholarly ability and that the appointments committee is trying to force that information out of her. This has not been my experience. In fact, it seems to me that appointments committees can be so adept at identifying weakness after weakness in every candidate’s work product that it’s a miracle anyone ever gets hired. The “information-forcing” I had in mind had nothing to do with revealing new weaknesses to the committee, but instead was intended to show something about the candidate’s personality and trajectory. In other words, scholarly weaknesses should be evident on inspection -- personality traits, future promise and ambitions, collegiality, and the like are harder to discern.

In any event, thank you for extending my initial “empirical study,” which largely confirms the first set of “results.”

George Purcell

I'd phrase it a different way:

If you could pull back one scholarly article from your past for redraft and revision--or simply not publish it at all--what article would it be and why would you choose to do it?

Jeff P

What were Barack Obama's best scholarly articles? What were his worst ones? Oh, I'm sorry. He didn't write any. At all.

Orin Kerr

Jeff P,

Your comment is both irrelevant and incorrect, which is quite an accomplishment.


At the risk of being assigned to Orin Kerr's 'unsophisticated introvert' category, I will say that I find this proposal interesting. It immediately brought a couple of papers of mine to mind and started a useful review process on what was wrong with them - useful to me, though, and not to some faceless committee of overpaid academics. So thanks Faculty Lounge. Now that I am editor of a journal, this type of introspection is probably useful.

Eric Muller

The late, great Judge Ed Becker of the 3rd Circuit always used to ask me, at oral argument, "Mr. Muller, what's your adversary's best issue?" A devastatingly and deliciously awesome question, and a little bit like the one Kim is mooting.

Ediberto Roman

While I love TJ's comment and tend to agree with it, perhaps I am a bit strange, but I tend to hate everything I just finished writing. I never look at the works again and am surprised when any one knows of them. Perhaps that odd approach keeps me busy trying to write that next work that will truly define me. Am I alone in this view?

Kim Krawiec

I doubt that you’re alone, Ediberto. I think most of us hate whatever we just finished – you lose all perspective and can only see the flaws at that point, I think. But time usually puts things into a more realistic light. Looking back at past articles after some time has gone by, one can get a better sense of which ones worked and which didn’t.

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