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.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Scholarly Impact and Catholic Legal Education (Part One)

Two days ago, I reported the 2021 update to the Scholarly Impact Ranking of law faculties that I and my team at the University of St. Thomas had just concluded: here.

Every three years, I also post to Mirror of Justice a series on the importance of scholarly activity and scholarly impact for Catholic legal education.  Over the next week, I'll repost revised versions of these posts, as they remain just as salient today.

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. Saint_Thomas_Tutor_Law_School-e1463650664193

In my view, this usually 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 research and writing is complementary to greater depth in teaching.  As we wrote in our 2018 report:

Why would students want to learn from the law professor who arrives at the classroom podium only after abandoning rigorous written engagement with legal problems? How can we expect students to be inspired to professional leadership, masterful and dedicated client representation, and principled law reform if their professors do not exemplify the intellectual curiosity, the breadth of thought, and the conscientious inquiry of a legal scholar?

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, whether because of additional duties during the pandemic or shrinking faculty size with budgetary challenges, 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 and counseling duties of tenured faculty have increased 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 and those that are taught during summer are rarely taught by full-time faculty. 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.

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 over the next 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 work from other intellectual traditions and scholarly movements. Indeed, one of the signature virtues of the Catholic intellectual tradition is that it is enriched by other traditions as well. 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 law professor from another law school many years ago who referred in casual conversation with me to the “scholarly” faculty at yet another law school (that shall remain unnamed). She characterized them as an genuinely scholarly faculty because, even though no one on that faculty produced much in the way of 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 or 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 a legal text late in the evening, a person can read without thinking. But no one can write without thinking. Putting pen to paper (literally or figuratively through a keyboard) demands an engagement for which no discussion group, conversation, or attendance at a lecture by someone else can substitute.

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 purported scholars who pontificate on the work of others but have never done the heavy lifting of laboring in that field themselves.

More to come.


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