Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Serving two masters

With the increase in interdisciplinary scholarship in law schools, more and more people are facing the problem of serving two masters. A law and economics scholar, for instance, might get the reaction: "interesting, but not law," just as a legal historian might hear, "interesting, but not relevant." Given that most academics are probably at least reasonably open to historical research--everyone likes a good story, after all--I have been trying to figure out the best way to balance the expectations of both the legal historian (emphasis on historian) and the lawyer parts of my potential audience. One undoubtedly sound piece of advice I have received is to pick one's topics carefully. Unfortunately, research has a way of developing in unexpected directions. I am also still finding it uncomfortable to manufacture "relevance" to please law review editors, in part because I, of course, always think that the subject of my research is worth publishing, and in part because it seems to be against self-interest to confess that the study of the past of the law merely for its own sake is frivolous. I, and probably all the other untenured faculty who read this blog, would be interested to hear how others have dealt with this issue.

1 comment:

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Emily, thanks for raising this issue (and welcome to the Legal History Blog!). There are different issues here -- where to send manuscripts for publication, and how to pitch them; how to survive as an untenured scholar in an interdisciplinary environment where disciplinary differences sometimes undermine the ability of colleagues to appreciate one's work; and more.

A couple of thoughts: this may not be of much comfort, but these are not issues unique to law schools. The Journal of American History hosted a roundtable on Teaching History in Professional Schools in 2005. They included historians who teach in schools of Journalism, Business, Divinity, and Law (me). The published roundtable is here: http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jah/92.2/interchange.html

More to the point about law schools: I think it is often important to have a senior colleague in your field who looks out for you. When I started at the University of Iowa, I didn't have to make the case that my scholarship mattered. Herb Hovenkamp took it upon himself to look out for me, so I always had an advocate.

For untenured legal historians who don't have senior colleagues in their field (or perhaps their subfield -- so many legal historians are Americanists!), I would cultivate historians on campus, so that there is someone at your university who can drop a nicely timed note to your dean or others about what great work you're doing. It is not always easy to make those connections, especially before a first book, so you might also think about asking your Ph.D. advisor to make sure that the History Dept. knows who you are and why you're so wonderful.

We're not always able to appreciate who is (and who is not) doing really interesting work in other law-related fields, and I often benefit from the assessment of senior economists, psychologists, etc. So although it can be frustrating, it's not too unexptected that non-historians won't always understand the impact of one's work. The challenge is how to best address that.