Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Scholarly Impact and Catholic Legal Education (Part One)

Taking the Scholarly Impact Ranking baton generously handed to us by University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter (with his continued counsel), I led a team here at the University of St. Thomas (including librarians Valerie Aggerbeck, Debby Hackerson, and Mary Wells) in updating the ranking of American law schools by the Scholarly Impact of their collective faculties.   The “Scholarly Impact Score” for a law faculty is calculated from the mean and the median of total law journal citations over the past five years to the work of tenured members of that law faculty.

Two weeks ago, the 2012 Scholarly Impact Ranking was announced on Brian Leiter’s “Law School Reports” blog and the full results and narrative may be found here.

Whenever a report or study is published on the scholarly activities of law professors, it is likely to provoke some critical responses questioning whether legal scholarship has any practical value.  Someone is likely to argue yet again that law professors spend too much time on scholarly writing at the expense of their teaching responsibilities (especially in an era in which law student debt is rising and job prospects are challenging).

In my view, this often (not always) reflects a false conflict between scholarship and teaching.  We should not view scholarly work and teaching as competing with each other, rather than understanding that the intellectual preparation found in scholarly reserarch and writing is complementary to greater depth in teaching.

When I am asked, with respect to my own institution, the University of St. Thomas, whether we should continue to strive for scholarly excellence and national scholarly prominence or whether we should devote greater attention to teaching and enhancing professional formation, my answer is an unequivocal “yes!”  Especially during these challenging times, we as tenured faculty members need to step up and work even harder to achieve excellence in both responsibilities.

Moreover, it bears reminding, even if the teaching duties of tenured faculty were increased substantially during the academic year, the long glorious months of summer would remain.  At most law schools, few students are in school and few classes are being taught during the summer.  Given that luxury of uninterrupted weeks of work time, most tenured faculty have been given more than ample opportunity to produce one or two major works of scholarship each year.

(Note:  Along with Brian Tamanaha, Bill Henderson, and others, I do agree that law school accreditors should permit a greater diversity of approaches to legal education, including low-cost alternatives that employ primarily non-tenure-track faculty who teach higher loads year-round with no scholarly expectations.  While there are meaningful downsides to this lower-cost approach, such alternatives ought to be available to students who choose them, for reasons of economics or personal preference.  And, at most law schools, there is a vital and growing role for instructors, particularly in practice-oriented courses, who are not on tenure-track and have little or no scholarly expectations.)

I want to address today a more pointed question:  How important is scholarly impact to a Catholic law school?

For three reasons, I think the scholarly mission of the tenured (and tenure-track) law faculty takes on added importance for the Catholic law school:  (1) an intellectually engaged law school culture requires scholarly-engaged law faculty; (2) a scholarly-prominent Catholic law school is a strong witness for the intellectual vibrancy of scholars of faith; and (3) a Catholic law school through the scholarly work of its faculty influences for good the culture in which it is situated.

I’ll say a little more about the first of points below and then follow up with the other two points in separate posts later this week.

On my first point, a law school that is meaningfully Catholic in character will be grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, while giving careful attention to and including faculty who are grounded in and work from other intellectual traditions and scholarly movements.  A law school cannot be an intellectually vigorous place without faculty who are engaged in the quintessential intellectual activity of scholarly research and writing.  One can best convey to students the excitement and meaning of intellectual discourse, along with the satisfaction of applying reason informed by theory to new situations, when one is doing that hard scholarly work oneself.

I recall a friend and law professor many years ago who referred in casual conversation with me to the faculty at another law school (that shall remain unnamed) as intellectually engaged because, even though no one on that faculty produced much scholarly publications themselves, the faculty gathered every couple of weeks in the faculty lounge to discuss a recent scholarly article written by someone elsewhere.  At the time, I thought how odd it would be to describe the faculty at a school of music as musically engaged, even though none of the faculty wrote music or played instruments, but instead gathered frequently to listen to and discuss music written and played by others.

If we are to bear witness to the Catholic intellectual tradition -- and other intellectual disciplines -- we must be thinking hard about those matters.  And that means writing about them.  We all know that a student can listen to a classroom discussion without thinking.  And, as we’ve all experienced, especially when trying to read an assigned text late in the evening, a person can read without thinking.  But no one can write without thinking -- at least to some extent.

By engaging in scholarly writing of our own, we enhance our ability to critically examine the previously published scholarship of others, and we frequently discover the greater persuasiveness of prior scholarly work when we take the time to examine it in our own work.  As I often am reminded in doing research, it is very easy to unfairly criticize the scholarly work that someone else has done, only to find when I actually engage with the same issues and materials in doing my own work, that the prior researcher did very well with what she had before her.  One is rightly skeptical of a purported scholar who pontificates on the work of others but has never done the heavy-lifting of laboring in that field himself.

More tomorrow.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink

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