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