Saturday, January 19, 2008

Aesop's Bat and Interdisciplinary Legal Scholarship

Mark Graber

Many interdisciplinary law scholars feel like we live Aesop’s fable of the bat who told the birds he was a beast and the beasts that he was a bird. I never feel more like a lawyer than when I attend political science conferences. I never feel more like a political scientist than when I am attending the American Association of Law Schools annual affair. . A good many institutions feel similarly. Friends in the social sciences who study law report that their chairs and deans often feel that interdisciplinary legal scholars should really be teaching in law schools. Apparently, a great many law professors believe we should really be teaching in social science, history, or other related departments. Everyone agrees we belong in the academy, but somewhere else. Not surprisingly, given these sentiments, a great many interdisciplinary law scholars have trouble getting jobs anywhere. The underplacement among junior scholars, in particular, is stunning (those of us who survive to senior senility, in fairness, do much better). As is the case with some dog owners, many deans and chairs prefer purebreds to mutts.

I confess to worrying less about where we belong in the university than about making sure that younger interdisciplinary legal scholars belong. Too often disciplines are conceived like western towns or medieval cities. This is English, there is a great big wall around that discipline, and you have to travel a long distance to get to comparative literature or law, disciplines also surrounded by great big walls. I confess to thinking my ancestral home on Long Island provides the better metaphor. I lived in North Bellmore, you crossed North Jerusalem Avenue you were in East Meadow, you crossed Oldfield Road (am I remembering right, phg), you were in Levittown, etc. There was very little at the border that separated one town from another. The lines were mostly administrative conveniences. I confess to thinking the same about the border between political science, law, history, philosophy, and a great many other disciplines. We should worry a great deal about whether what we do is scholarship and worry very little about the precise building (or floor) in which we should be housed. Departments and disciplines, when not considered administrative conveniences, are increasingly threats to the academic enterprise.

There is a great deal to say about whether legal education helps the average practitioner, but almost none of this, I think, is all that relevant to interdisciplinary legal scholarship. To begin with, if the University of Maryland School of Law is any example (and it is the only one I know well), most of the professors who might be accused of interdisciplinary legal scholarship teach the basic courses (property, torts, criminal law, conlaw), and teach them from reasonably traditional perspectives. Indeed, a certain cowardice probably explains why I do not do more political science in my law school constitutional law classes. After all, legal practitioners probably will benefit more by reading what Gerry Rosenberg and others have said about the (in)significance of winning constitutional victories in court than by trying to figure out the precise position of the median justice on any issue (given likely changes in the median justice by the time they practice). And the central problem with many law students is they cannot write, a problem that few of us are trained to solve well.

The crucial issues may lie in the design of universities as a whole, rather than the design of any one part. As the experience of too many very good young interdisciplinary law scholars indicate, if each individual part is allowed to hire only the purebreds, the whole may suffer.


well, since you asked...

if you crossed oldfield road, depending upon what side of north jerusalem road you were on, you were either in wantagh or levittown. i'm sure the good folks here in balkinization were pining for that one.

in any event, the metaphor is much as you state. i don't particularly care if scholarly writings are categorized as legal, social science, etc., any more than i would care if i was in levittown or wantagh when i crossed oldfield road. it should make no difference how you or anyone else should categorize your writings as long as your work carries academic or intellectual merit of some sort and contributes to intelligent discussion.

Intellectual fiefdoms remain as much a matter of power consolidation (e.g., grant money access) as at any other point in history. Nor is this entirely without value. Some tasks/problems/puzzles are best approached by an army rather than the lone hunter in the woods. Still, intellectual rigor and experience show all these fiefdoms situated on the same continent.

The only problem with interdisciplinarianism is when it is actually a gloss for lack of discipline. But when it rises from deep and wide learning and thought, from following the patterns and connections tying these walled cities together, we see, Aesop not withstanding, that the Bat was right, at least to the extent that there are circumstances where morphology counts as much as phylogenetics.

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