How to Write a Festschrift Piece and thoughts on “very meta” legal scholarship

Early in my teaching career, I overheard a student say to another student when leaving my class that it was “very meta.”  I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant in this context, so I asked her the next day.  She said that, as I was teaching I would occasionally do things like engage in a bit of Socratic questioning about the purposes of the Socratic method, or begin lectures with why I thought the issues was best left for lectures, allowing students to see behind the Wizard of Oz like-curtain of authority that shields a professor’s pedagogical moves from scrutiny.   (Best part: I’m paraphrasing, but she really talked like this.  I assume she majored in some field heavy in critical studies.)  I wasn’t trying to open a debate, really – one can’t have referenda on a class’s structure without seriously undermining its success – and explaining why I was using the Socratic method didn’t stop me from doing so.  But the act of revealing the contingent nature of why I was teaching in a certain way but then going ahead and doing it anyway turned out to be a pretty effective method for both providing the traditional goods of a law school class and giving students with some necessary critical distance.

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that a number of recent pop songs have adopted a roughly similar tack: using lyrics that both embody and explain the formal expectations of their genres.  For instance, Lil Wayne’s I’m Me is in most ways a pretty run-of-the-mill track, full of Weezy’s clever boasts and sick flow, but in the chorus, he reveals that he knows his song follows a format.  In part, it goes: “Baby I’m me, so who you? You’re not me, you’re not me.  And I know that ain’t fair, but I don’t care.  I’m a ….. Cash Money Millionaire.”  Which basically describes the chorus of most rap songs.  I’m Me provides all the ordinary goods you expect from him and does so without apology, but this track also criticizes itself by laying bare in the chorus how conventionally the song meets the genre’s expectations for content.  One is left both enjoying the work and thinking about why one enjoys it – a win all around.  The Japandroids’ Younger Us does roughly the same thing for indie rock   After all, indie rock aimed at people in their thirties is almost always actually about how much fun the listeners had in their twenties when they listened to less smart versions of roughly the same thing.   Fun’s song We Are Young is almost a perfect version of this move for the pop anthem.   Are there any pop anthems that can’t be reduced to a claim that the singers and listeners are young and that that being young is, well, pretty fantastic?

I had never attempted to do this in my scholarship, to make clear in the text the strategic, intellectual and other reasons for the structural decisions that determine the form an academic article takes.  But in a recent festschrift for the great Heather Gerken, I thought I might give it a go.  Here’s a link to my piece From Here All The Way Down, or How to Write a Festschrift Piece.    (An added bonus — It may also be the only law review article in history to include references to each of the following: Kanye West’s Big Brother, John Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Welch’s Grape Soda, the band Deep Purple, Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, Volume III of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and Tone Loc’s Wild Things and Other Hits, among other things.)

A sample appears below:

This is the first time I have participated in the great academic exercise that is the festschrift. I wasn’t sure how to approach this specific task.  Usually when faced with such a situation, one of my first calls is to a person who has been a mentor and a friend since I became an academic.  But because Heather Gerken is the honoree of this little get-together, it seemed a bit weird to ask her for advice on how to proceed.  So I did what any good academic would do: research. (I thought about leaving a blank space after the colon to set up a game of legal academic Mad Libs.  Possible answers: “Pawned it off on my research assistants,” “Wrote a new introduction for what is really a summary of an old paper,” “Missed my deadline,” etc.)  After hours and hours of looking through festschrift articles, I found that the best all took the same three-part form.  For those of you who haven’t spent as much time studying how to do this, I offer the following guide to writing a successful festschrift piece.

First, dole out as much fawning praise as you can muster for the honoree and her work.  Go all out, as mushy as you can make it, with extra points given out for use of the terms “brilliant,” or “inspiring” and a triple word score for turning someone’s last name into an adjective.  Call this the “Your Work is Perfect, Don’t Change a Thing” Section.  This should be the easiest one, because festschrifts are generally only done for the very best scholars — this one is definitely no exception — and because you agreed to do it in the first place.

Second, find a problem or a hole somewhere in the honoree’s body of scholarship, preferably a minor one, but one that suggests that her work is unfinished or that there are things that remain difficult for her. This is the “Well, Actually, Come to Think of It, There Is This One Little Thing I Have Questions About” Section.  This serves to declare your independence and is necessary because you need to say something interesting and different about work that everyone has read and admires.  It also suggests that the next generation of scholars, and you particularly, will be wrestling with the subject’s work for years to come.

Third, argue that the problem identified in Section II, and the honoree’s work more generally, could be improved by reference and discussion of themes that appear in your own work.  However you have to grease the square pegs of your work into this particular round hole, go for it.  Call it the “The Only Thing That Could Make The Honoree’s Work Any Better Is Citing My Work Just a Bit More” Section. Although seemingly presumptuous, this actually makes clear the author’s debt to the subject of the festschrift. A conclusion with a bit more praise is the cherry on top of this peculiar and sometimes silly, but often oddly charming, academic Sundae.

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5 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Isn’t it kind of weird to write a Festschrift piece for someone who has been teaching for only 12 years? A Festschrift is ordinarily understood as an act of generosity at the end of a scholar’s career. There is no self-interest in fawning because the scholar is retiring, and one may as well be positive because it’s too late for the scholar to change his or her work. That genre seems out of place with a relatively junior scholar, even if that scholar is truly top notch.

  2. David Schleicher says:

    Yeah, a bit, although I think it’s actually a much more productive and socially useful than an ordinary festschrift, as it provides useful feedback that may help guide future work. I actually defended it in my first footnote:

    “And among such events, this is a particularly odd one, as they are usually associated with an academic approaching the end of his or her career, whereas the subject of this festschrift is just entering the prime of her career. But both as a general and a specific matter, this event makes a lot of sense. Specifically, Heather Gerken has done a career’s worth of work in a short amount of time, and there’s no reason to wait. And generally the festschrift as mid-career review is probably an improvement on the ordinary set-up, as it might prove useful as well as respectful to the subject. Law review editors of the world ought take heed of the great Kanye West’s admonition, “If you admire somebody, go ahead tell ‘em/People never get the flowers while they can still smell ‘em.” KANYE WEST, BIG BROTHER (Roc-A-Fella Records 2007).”

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    I’m with Orin on this. A traditional Festschrift can be very productive and socially useful if at least a couple of contributors, junior to the honoree but maybe already quite mature scholars themselves, provide thoughtful pieces. As for someone mid-career, wouldn’t some kind of symposium/edited volume with a more robust mix of praise and critique, or critique with a concluding “reply to critics” from the honoree, be more useful for the honoree and her or his public? The latter, especially, seems really honorable, like a grandmaster playing simultaneous chess — not just anyone is invited to do that. Does a premature Festschrift (a Blitzfestschrift?) reflect a trend like the one in schools, where every child who runs in the race gets a medal?

  4. PJ says:

    David — I love your recipe but it is strangely reminiscent of another, more commonly encountered genre: the academic book review. The book was great (here a notable difference from your recipe, since book reviews are usually more enthusiastic than the book deserves); but wait, it has some small teensy little problems; but wait — they could be cured if only the author had read more of *my* work!

  5. Orin Kerr says:

    A.J., my guess is that the trend here is only the relentless journal focus on citations. A journal that has a hard time attracting top-name scholars can have a symposium celebrating a major scholar who is still in the middle of their career. The scholar celebrated will of course come, and he or she can get other major scholars to write pieces in the issue. The journal ends up with an issue that has a lot of major names and is more likely to be read and attract a lot of citations. That’s my guess, at least.