Friday, June 21, 2024

On or About January 1979 the World of Legal Scholarship Changed

Mark Tushnet

 A recent workshop paper (and some time on my hands) crystallized a thought about the style of law review writing today. Every article, it seems, must have a road-map paragraph. (Does anyone actually read road-map paragraphs?) When I started writing law review articles in the early 1970s I didn't write such paragraphs and felt no particular need to do so. So, I did a quick and quite informal investigation into the emergence of the road-map paragraph.

I looked at lead articles in the Harvard Law Review to see if they had road-map paragraphs. (There are some classification issues--the spread sheet I developed has a few "sort ofs" and one "No?" in it--but I don't think these problems undermine my core "finding.") I began with the 1960-61 volume, where none of the articles had road maps. Then I skipped to 1970, where one sort of did (out of eleven). Skipping ahead another decade I found that six (of ten) had road maps. So I backfilled, and ended up locating the breaking point in January 1979; before that date road-map paragraphs were uncommon, after it they were regular though not universal features.

Frankly, that's earlier than I had thought. I have no ready explanation for the emergence of the road-map norm (nor, I think, did Virginia Woolf have an explanation for the change in human character she identified). I suspected that it might have something to do with the increasing length of articles but before 1979 there were a fair number of quite long articles without road maps, and--of course--after 1979 there are lots of relatively short articles with road maps (because law review editors now insist on including them no matter what). Maybe there were changes in the way undergraduates were taught expository writing that came to fruition in the mid-1970s and filtered up to law schools.

Anyhow, I don't like road-map paragraphs. I do have two suggestions for people who share my view. We should all begin the road-map paragraph that we're being forced to write in this way: "Like a delicate flower hit by the morning's first rays of sunshine, this article unfolds as follows." And we should end it, "The Conclusion concludes."

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