Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Flies, Honey, and Academic Discourse

Having recently attended the annual conference of the Law & Society Association, I have been thinking about the different ways that scholars are treated when presenting work to their academic colleagues. Many academic fields outside of law have developed cultures in which scholarly presentations are virtually acts of sado-masochism, with the audience gleefully savaging the authors and disparaging their work as unworthy or even embarrassing. One example of this approach was when a visiting scholar asked a host, in preparation for his presentation to the host's colleagues, whether the local custom was to sit or stand while speaking. The host replied: "If I were delivering this paper, I'd hide under the desk."

This culture of destructive criticism was very much the norm in most economics venues when I was still attending conferences in that field. I have been told that such an approach is common in other social science fields as well, although I have not verified that directly. Legal academia in the U.S. is notably different. With some exceptions at a few schools and in a few fields of specialization, the norm when a U.S. legal scholar presents a paper at a conference or at a faculty workshop is for everyone (audience and author alike) to go out of their way to heap praise on each other. "I really liked this paper, and I am sure that it will advance the field." "Your question is a great one. Let me see if I can try to do it justice." The norms of politeness often become almost comically pro forma, with surprisingly large amounts of time being spent offering praise that simply cannot be taken seriously (at least in degree).

Having seen both extremes, it is tempting to take a page from "Pygmalion" and say that the two are equivalent. If one group of people treats everyone like a princess or prince, then no one is special; and if another group of people treats everyone like dirt, then no one is uniquely insulted. If one is in an academic field or venue in which all scholars will be treated poorly, then one is on notice and should make the best of it. In fact, the insulting atmosphere is arguably more efficient, because no one wastes time on empty compliments.

Beyond the most basic (and, to my mind, convincing) reply that it matters how we treat our fellow human beings, the equivalence argument is false for another reason. When an author is on the defensive, she is much less likely to view constructive criticism as constructive. Once, for example, the economist Robert Frank was presenting a talk based on his then-new book The Winner-Take-All Society to an audience of economists. As it happened, the economists in that room liked Frank's arguments a great deal, and they wanted to talk about how to extend the arguments in productive ways. Frank, however, was accustomed to treating every question as hostile, and he simply would not let down his defenses enough to engage with the questions. He, quite sensibly, assumed that his audience was trying to attack his argument. This was a shame, because the questions that he saw himself as fending off were not traps. The entire event was a missed opportunity.

When I first moved into legal academia, I attended a conference where an author was making an argument about economic theory. During the Q&A, I began a comment by saying that she had made an "error" in describing the theory but that her larger point was interesting and was not compromised by the error. This led to an unfortunate exchange in which the author defensively asserted that there was no error and simply would not engage with the substance of the comments, even after I tried to take back the offending word.

The latter incident is an example of what happens when the norms of one field are imported into another. The remainder of the comments during that presentation, however, were offered in the positive tones that I now know to be common among legal academics. The result was that everyone else's comments -- including those that made quite substantive and ultimately critical points -- were productive in ways that mine were not.

The larger point is that a hostile atmosphere is not merely a matter of a different, rougher style. It changes the substance of the exchange, because less is accomplished when people are defending turf than when people are extending their thinking. Legal academics will surely continue to tease themselves about the extreme nature of their comity, but their approach is not merely more humane. It better serves the goals of academic discourse.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


Michael C. Dorf said...

My experience attending physics workshops (admittedly over 20 years ago) was somewhere in between the economics/social science norm and the legal academic norm: Questions were asked straightforwardly, without either scorn or false praise. This worked quite well. For what it's worth, I think that the norm in legal academia is less clearly established than Neil thinks: Most legal academics at most schools begin with the praise, but a substantial minority at all schools do not. Indeed, I myself often follow what I regard as the physical sciences norm, probably because my questions are so complicated and convoluted to begin with that I don't want to take up further time with preliminaries.

Sherry F. Colb said...

This is a really great post, Neil. I have been reading a book lately called "The No Asshole Rule" by Robert Sutton, and it makes the point that behaving like a jerk undermines productivity and workplace health. One negative effect of bullying behavior (like saying "I'd read it from under the table") is that it makes creative thinking and expression of novel ideas and strategies risky. Though some (including, unfortunately, some in legal academia) take the view that an asshole is okay as long as he or she is excellent at his or her job, Sutton shows that even if one is concerned only with the bottom line, the asshole is destructive and should be therefore be considered "incompetent" or "unqualified" despite his or her expertise. With few exceptions, being otherwise highly qualified does not "make up" for being an asshole. (For workplaces that prefer to avoid such language, a "no jerk" rule works just as well).

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Mike is probably right that I overstated the universality of the "niceness" norm in legal academia. As I was writing the post, I was thinking of all of the individual counter-examples I could name (many of whom Sherry and Mike know quite well) but chose not to. Of course, these exceptions are all the more noticeable because they operate in an environment where comity is expected. They would be unremarkable in an economics seminar.

I had not thought of the connection between my post and the no asshole rule, but Sherry is right that there is a straight line between the idea that workplace assholes reduce productivity and my suggestion that aggressively negative norms in a very particular workplace -- the works-in-progress talk -- harm the enterprise.

SBL said...

Great topic. A recent Crooked Timber thread compared the presentation norms in sociology with the norms in economics (the comments are well worth reading).

michael a. livingston said...

I agree that there is a superficially collegial culture in legal academia which mimics that in the profession generally. But as in all such cases, internal collegiality may sometimes mask a hostility to those who do not share the group's values. In a previous era those who raised issues of race, gender, and so forth were often the victims of this hostility. Today it is more likely to be conservatives, people of faith, or others who do not share the prevailing liberal-to-moderate, secular ethos. I personally prefer a culture of engagement, hard-hitting but ultimately respectful in tone, to a superficially supportive but ultimately dubious friendliness.

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