Tuesday, January 08, 2008

AALS and Academic Street Cred

Betsy has already posted (here and here) about the discussions held at AALS last week toward the formation of a new organization of academic law library directors. The discussions--both online and at the AALS conference--highlighted some questions about the purposes of the two organizations to which most academic law library directors already belong, AALL and AALS. Both organizations impose clear restrictions on the ability of subgroups to take public positions independent of the larger organization on issues within the subgroups' expertise.

The importance placed upon this discussion is shown by the fact that so many directors made the trip from the conference hotel to Fordham Law School for a brief meeting, and then made it back to the New York Hilton for the Section on Law Libraries program.

Some directors were concerned about the impact of the offsite meeting on the attendance at the Section on Law Libraries program. One law library director posted this message to the Law Library Directors listserv a couple of weeks ago, in response to the plans for a meeting at Fordham:

I cannot imagine that law library directors want to opt out of playing a role in the AALS. This is a group where we have to maintain a high profile, and an important way we do this is with the programs that the Section on Libraries and the Libraries and Technology Committee offer. These are our showcase programs at AALS for cutting edge scholarship. I fear that the Fordham meeting means that attendance of law library directors at the AALS program will be sparse, and I cannot imagine that this is going to enhance our reputation with AALS, which tracks attendance at all of the panels. If we don't support ourselves by supporting the programs that library folks are doing at AALS then how can we expect AALS to support us?
My question: do law librarians really gain any "street cred" with other law professors from their participation in the AALS meeting? Why do academic law library directors attend AALS? In other words: who cares about AALS?

Few law professors, in my experience, view the AALS conference as a significant scholarly meeting or one that is worth much of their time. This view was expressed in typically provocative fashion by Brian Leiter in 2004:
Complaints about the AALS are legion among law professors: the organization's relentless political correctness (without regard to the diversity of views among its members), its inability to stage real scholarly conferences, and its intrusive, and again largely politically motivated (when not cartel-motivated!), regulation of law schools. On one important issue where the AALS might have made a difference--namely, the growing influence of the U.S. News law school rankings--the organization's response was to put its head in the sand and tell prospective students, incredibly, that they shouldn't look at law school rankings. (The AALS is endlessly ridiculed by prospective law students for this posture, as it should be: students understand full well that prestige and reputation are important factors to consider in choosing law schools. It's a shame US News does such a shabby job in measuring it.)...

Panels in which speakers haven't prepared papers, and in which they appear to have only thought about the topic ten minutes earlier, are all too common....

See also Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy:
Over at Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, Brian comments on the upcoming Association of American Law Schools January meeting for law professors: "[M]y sense is that specialist meetings of scholars have completely displaced the AALS as the destination of choice for those looking for conferences with intellectual content. Am I wrong?" Brian is quite right. This year's panels look unusually good, but in past years I've been significantly underwhelmed.

Of course, that doesn't mean the AALS January meeting has no purpose at all. As I see it, it serves at least five critical purposes, in descending order of importance: (1) It provides law professors with an all-expenses paid trip to the city where the conference is being held (this year, New York); (2) It provides professors an opportunity to sample the culinary delights of that city (figures Solove would be way ahead of me there); (3) For conservatives and libertarians, it provides a trip to the Federalist Society's shadow conference, always held near the AALS meeting and generally rich in intellectual content (and always with lots of co-conspirators); (4) For blog readers, it puts you in town for the annual CoOp/Prawfs happy hour; and (5) It provides a chance to roll your eyes at the bland and meaningless theme the conference organizers come up with, this year being "Reassessing Our Roles as Scholars and Educators in Light of Change." Uh huh.
That said, Robert Ahdieh posts a modest dissent:
In posts preceding the recently concluded Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Meeting, Brian Leiter and Orin Kerr respectively questioned the intellectual content, and suggested the underwhelming quality, of AALS conference programming - or at least that part of the "programming" that occurs in the hotel's ballrooms, as opposed to its lobby and various hallways, and at an array of nearby restaurants and bars. This critique is hardly unique to them, moreover. Rather, it seems to constitute the conventional wisdom....

Of course, there is the standard defense of the AALS annual meeting as an occasion for systematic schmoozing - a species of speed dating for law professors. (On this count, I might note that this year's venue - the Hilton New York - had some real strengths. One could basically set oneself on an infinite loop up and down the escalators at either end of the second and third floor (see the 3-D tour) - where most of the schmoozing took place - for the entire weekend.) But a defense of schmoozing would be too easy: What's not to like about it? Instead, I want to suggest that AALS may have merit of the intellectual variety, notwithstanding Brian and Orin's critique.

In essence, this possibility turns on the distinct nature of the intellectual payoff that one might get from AALS, versus the specialist meetings of scholars (e.g., the American Law & Economics Association (ALEA); Law & Society) that Brian highlights as alternative, more intellectually stimulating venues for legal academics to meet. I emphatically agree that the latter offer far better occasions to engage with cutting-edge scholarship - and, in light of the critique of AALS as a schmooze-fest, with cutting-edge scholars - in one's field. I have long described ALEA as one of my favorite conferences, given a combination of its content and format, and also enjoy the annual meetings of the American Society of International Law and the American Society of Comparative Law....

Perhaps, it occured to me, I was doing something different at AALS than I do at ALEA, ASIL, and other more focused scholarly gatherings. Perhaps I was feeding a different intellectual need. Perhaps, more specifically, the AALS annual meeting was an occasion to explore areas of general interest, lying beyond my areas of scholarly emphasis.

The AALS annual meeting, in this perspective, might be seen as a way to preserve some part of our generalist capacities as legal academics. Even as specialization - quite appropriately, in many respects - increasingly becomes the norm among legal academics, it might be that AALS offers us an opportunity to get a taste of other areas of research and study, be they one degree or many removed from our particular areas of research.

If so, it might help to justify the relatively more limited intellectual stimulation we get from AALS panels in our own field. As I heard it said repeatedly over the weekend - to one well-versed in the relevant subject, the content of most panels felt like a reporting of recent, yet familiar, research; like a review of old ground, etc., etc. To the relative outsider, however, the same panel may have offered a useful window of insight, into issues under discussion in the field.

If the need for generalist orientation to fields outside of one's narrow specialty is real--as I suspect it is--staying at a conference hotel in NYC is an expensive way to scratch that itch. Perhaps the time--not to mention the money--would be better spent reading the occasional SSRN article outside of one's field, or even listening to the odd podcast?

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