Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Better Book: The Home Institution

              A choice I did not make that profoundly shaped Almost Citizens was that of USC Gould School of Law to hire me. Here, I lucked out. Writing the book I wanted required time, money, inspiration, guidance, autonomy, infrastructure, and publicity. Fortunately, my home institution was well stocked with all seven. (If your school takes a different approach to these questions or your recipe for success calls for different ingredients, please share in the comments.)
              Time was what I needed most. But it was easy to overinvest in teaching and service. I wanted to serve students and please senior colleagues, and there were so many new, interesting ways to contribute. Gould protected me against myself.  The dean assigned junior professors light service obligations and never asked them to develop new courses beyond their original three (we have a 2-1 load). Senior faculty protested any perceived erosion of the norm. And I got a semester-long sabbatical halfway through.
              I also found that my research, writing, and physical book all benefited from money.  Paid research assistants facilitated broader searches and more thorough reviews. Money for travel bought archival trips and conference presentations. It took funds to hire development editors and improve the book through subventions.  While I couldn’t spend my way to a good book, I could have been starved into a weaker one. Fortunately, I had a dean and institution that invested in scholarship. I never had a prepublication request denied. That support let me put my best foot forward, plan with confidence, and avoid the stress of committing personal funds to professional advancement.
              My book was also shaped by the scholarly cultures and institutionalized intellectuals spaces of the institutions where I researched and wrote. It was while taking part in Gould’s healthy culture of office, hallway, and faculty lounge chats that I had many important epiphanies. I gained key interlocutors and inspiration through my participation in USC’s Center for Law, History and Culture and the multi-institution Law and Humanities Junior Scholars Workshop that the center cosponsors. Gould also gave me the chance to present in an internal workshop each year. And every year the school’s senior faculty read and responded to all my works in progress.  As a result, I received an additional mountain of helpful tips and questions.
One of the  challenges of taking full advantage of opportunities for feedback at Gould was the knowledge that I was inviting criticism from the same people who would vote on my tenure case. Fortunately, engagement with my colleagues turned out to be a way to elevate my work while pleasing my electorate. Gould’s senior faculty stressed that I should ignore any advice that proved unhelpful.  The dean repeatedly insisted that it was the scholar’s job to bring critical judgment to the array of conflicting suggestions received. Never did I hear a complaint that I had ignored someone’s suggestion.
              Gould’s service-oriented library multiplied my research productivity. Its librarians acquired obscure sources, secured high-resolution scans of illustrations, undertook foreign-language correspondence with overseas repositories, and filed Freedom of Information Act requests. Whenever I asked them to compile reading lists, find statistics, create maps, or undertake targeted research, I could trust that it would be done and done well. In fact, Gould’s librarians were often better than me at finding sources and digging up facts. Having such skill on staff was the result of a decision to prioritize personnel above collection size. But Gould’s smaller collection never hampered me. Interlibrary loan, mass digitization, and the school’s willingness to buy otherwise inaccessible materials always did the trick. The end result was that I saved considerable time and mental energy. 
              When I was on the entry-level market, it never occurred to me to evaluate law schools in terms of their public-relations teams.  My mistake! After years of obscurity as a grad student, law clerk, and post-doc, my arrival as a professor brought ready access to the public sphere.  As I soon learned, I could give interviews, discuss topics on background, write op-eds and articles, post to blogs, secure press coverage and book reviews, do public events, send out promotional materials, and much more. (I invite those of you more media-savvy than me to take up the possibilities in the comments.)  I was enthusiastic to raise my profile and spread my ideas. But I worried about PR becoming a time sink, or worse, about making a fool of myself before a large audience.
Gould’s PR team helped me enter the public eye efficiently and on my own terms. They took care of logistics, safeguarded my time, and focused on how I could have an impact. They initially held my hand, practicing with me what I would say and helping me set expectations with reporters. As my confidence grew, my scholarship progressed, and world events unfolded, they had endless ideas about how to give me and my work a broader platform. With their help, I gravitated toward interviews and op-eds (a subject of an upcoming post). I eschewed forums that treated intellectual exchanges as battles, and sought out those favored conversational interactions. They even helped me be heard despite my general absence from most social media (LHB notably excepted!).
              --Sam Erman