Wednesday, January 04, 2017

AALS: Trade Association or Learned Society?

Mark Tushnet

Paul Horwitz is blogging about the AALS with some reform proposals. His first post, here, refers to "the tendency of the AALS to defend law schools, which I think moves it too close to a trade association ... and too far away from what ought to be its role: that of a learned society." One thing about the AALS, in contrast to, say, the American Economic Association, the American Political Science Association, or the Organization of American Historians is signaled by the difference between the AALS's name and that of the OAH. The AALS is an association of law schools, whereas the other organizations are associations of economists, political scientists, and historians. There is in fact no "learned society" for legal academics. (When I looked into this more than a decade ago, I found -- as I recall -- that the only other profession that had only an association of schools and not an association of professors was dentistry.)

The AALS's structure means that it almost necessarily must be something like a trade association for law schools -- perhaps with something like a learned society attached to it once a year (other learned societies publish journals dealing with their subject matters; the AALS publishes a journal dealing with legal education). Another indication that the AALS is different from those learned societies is the large number of what it officially calls "administrative sections" -- fifteen by my count -- in addition to the approximately 90 "academic sections." That's more than would be justified, for example, by having programming relevant to the service obligations of legal academics. (And some of the administrative sections are clearly dominated -- and properly so -- by senior administrators rather than faculty members.)

Given all this, it's actually something of an achievement that the AALS's annual program has become as intellectually substantial as it is now. I just came from a quite thought-provoking session on whether secularism is a "non-negotiable" aspect of liberal constitutionalism, and Elizabeth attended what she described as interesting sessions on the Constitution and family law, and an author-meets-readers session on Risa Goluboff's "Vagrant Nation." And it's worth noting that programming at learned societies is often catch-as-catch can, with juniors and graduate students presenting often rudimentary works barely in progress (to justify their drawing on institutional funds to support their attendance).

For those who don't know, I was the president of the AALS more than a decade ago, but I haven't been involved much in theAssociation's activities for the past several years (this year's meeting was the first in four years, I think, that I've attended).

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