Thursday, April 4, 2019

A Better Book: Mentors

              High among the joys of being a legal historian, is entering into a community of generous and incisive scholars.  At every turn of my career, I have benefited from mentors who saw me and my work for the mighty oak trees we might (yet) become, not as the acorns (and later saplings) that we were. Some of the most important choices that I made with regards to my recently released book, Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire, involved accepting the right guidance from the right people at the right time. Treasured aspects of the book frequently have roots stretching back to words from treasured senior colleagues. This is equally true of Almost Citizen's arguments, tone, and structure. In many cases, institutional affiliations lay the groundwork for these interactions. I hope to illustrate all this with some examples.

              Arguments. The book makes three arguments.  All owe part of their genesis to mentorship.
Citizenship, Agency, and Law. My acknowledgements open with this understatement about my dissertation co-chair at the University of Michigan: “Rebecca Scott made me a historian.” I owe to her much of my passion for the field and my training in it. In that way she suffuses the entire book. Of course, the arguments expanded and changed shape after I received my doctorate from the University of Michigan and settled into new institutions.  As one reader remarked upon learning that Rebecca was my dissertation co-chair, it was obvious once he knew it, but had not occurred to him beforehand.  I see Rebecca’s hand particularly strongly in two key commitments in the book.  First, the central argument in the dissertation and a central argument in the book is that modestly situated individuals experience law, muster and transform it, and sometimes become drivers of major legal upheavals.  Second, I focus on citizenship as a site of legal contest between powerful officials and those not traditionally thought of as legal actors. Both moves are classic Rebecca, and it was her model and feedback that helped me pursue them and bring them to fruition.
              Reconstruction and Empire. The book’s second major argument is that early-twentieth-century fights over the legacy of Reconstruction and the future of empire were often one and the same.  On the legal front, U.S. officials sought to promote empire by dismantling key aspects of the constitutional regime that emerged after the Civil War. Substantial evidence for this claim appeared in my dissertation. But I did not make the argument there, in part because I was not yet sure that it was right. At my defense, Martha Jones urged me to put this material at the heart of my book and to look for more such evidence. It was the shot of confidence that I needed to dive back into the archives and begin testing out bolder, more important claims.
              Legal Change Beyond Courts. The third argument involves the mechanics behind the early-twentieth-century shift away from constitutionally guaranteed citizenship, rights, and statehood. Nonjudicial officials throughout the federal government, especially agency bureaucrats, developed and implemented new doctrines long before they received judicial imprimatur. At the dissertation stage, I had envisioned these federal officials as foils for the legal activists I studied. But then Dan Ernst infected me with his fascination with agency lawyers. Soon, the attorney bureaucrats I encountered in the archives were becoming a second focus of my study. Sophia Lee and Reuel Schiller then gave me the language of administrative constitutionalism with which to describe my findings.

Writing.  The biggest adjustment for me during the journey from dissertation to book was writing for a large audience that might choose to put my book down rather than a small committee that had to read the dissertation in full. Fortunately, I had senior colleagues willing to read drafts.
Structure. As I sought to fuse argument to character and narrative, just-in-time mentorship was crucial. Before I wrote a book proposal, Rebecca urged me to structure the book around a handful of interrelated characters rather than attempting an ensemble cast.  I took that good advice and walked my history through three remarkable Puerto Rican men. Late in the editing process, Ariela Gross pressed me to reduce the length of my introduction and even drafted a paragraph or two to illustrate the alternate vision. The result was revelatory. By trusting and intriguing readers, I could open the book with an invitation, not a lecture.
Voice. Writing for a (potentially) larger audience meant writing a public version of myself into existence. Jed Shugerman and Mike Klarman emphasized the need to be legible to new readers by confidently and straightforwardly laying out claims. This was the moment to trim my “on the other hand”s, “perhaps”s, and “it may be”s. Barbara Welke encouraged me not to lose my focus on the moral and human stakes of my topic. Let the historical actors be people, not just argumentative cogs. Susanna Blumenthal’s repeated advice was simple and always helpful: be true to yourself. If I strayed from what fascinated and moved me, the reader’s interest was sure to follow. Rabia Belt offered the opposite, equally repeated, and just-as-helpful correction: beware your proclivities.  Early drafts overused the not A but rather B construction, emphasized conflict alone as the basis for legal innovation, or left U.S. colonies in the Pacific too far to the side.

              Context. Finally, I depended on mentors to know what not to learn. Almost Citizens is foremost a U.S. constitutional history, not a history of Puerto Rico or its Diaspora. Yet, Puerto Ricans in San Juan, Washington, and New York animate the text. To tell their stories accurately, I had to master the secondary literature on the worlds that they inhabited. As with any subfield, this one contained hidden gems and buried mines. Yet the historian’s temptation to learn everything was a sure way not to complete the book. JesseHoffnung-Garskof, Christina Ponsa-Kraus, and Gonzalo Córdova mapped the terrain for me, suggested routes, and helped me perceive stopping points.

What Matters. Access and openness have been major determinants of the benefits I have received from mentors. Often both were crucial.
Institutions. Institutional affiliations lay the groundwork for each of the instances of mentorship that I describe above. I worked under Rebecca, Jesse, Martha, and Susanna as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. While a visiting student at Georgetown, I enrolled in Dan’s American Legal History course. The annual meetings of the American Society for Legal History brought me into regular contact with Barbara, Christina, Reuel, and Sophia. I met Gonzalo through my work at an archive housed within the history department where he made his career. Jed and Mike advised me during my legal history fellowship at Harvard, and I met Rabia as a fellow undergraduate at Harvard. Ariela is my colleagues at USC. That these institutions made such a difference to me speaks well of them all.  That access to each remains unequal, however, presents a continuing challenging to the opening of the field.
Saying Yes, and. The hard part of the mentor relationship is that it involves admired colleagues finding fault in one’s work and then coming to agree that there is a problem. Kind and constructive as my mentors are, this can sting. I hand off drafts flush with the accomplishment of having made progress. I receive them back with the knowledge that I must trudge back to the hard work of editing. My solution is often to take a day with feedback. Typically, the contours of the problem come into sharper relief, potential solutions take shape, and it is then with enthusiasm that I can return to the work.

--Sam Erman