LSA Retro-Recap Day 0: Introducing VOSFOTWOAS
Greetings from (a plane on the way home from) Boston! In the past I really enjoyed Dave’s recap of CELS. I thought I’d carry things on with this retro diary (h/t Bill Simmons) of the Law and Society Association meeting.
Before getting to the presentations, here’s a post with some general thoughts on LSA. Like many of the most enjoyable things in life, this conference is a beautiful mess. Fully developed research programs are mashed together with provocative conjectures. Paradigm-shifting ideas comingle with stuff that would get a “good effort” if presented as an undergraduate term paper. How can you determine the formers from the latters?
I am a lapsed baseball stat geek. The lapse occurred concurrently with the birth of my first son, so my familiarity with baseball stats is old enough to be into Ninjago now. One of the best innovations of that era of sabermetrics was called Value Over Replacement Player, or VORP. VORP measures how good a major leaguer is compared to a “replacement-level” player, the kind of minor-league non-prospect that could be obtained for a bag of baseballs. VORP asks not how good a player is, but how much better he is than someone who could be picked up off the waiver wire.
I think a similar stat should be used to evaluate papers at LSA.
Several years ago (I think at the Chicago LSA in 2010), there was a massively attended panel in which David Simon, the creator of The Wire, skyped in. I recall that the panel was a little disappointing, but it got me thinking. How much more was I learning at these panels about the influence of law on the social world than I would have learned by watching the equivalent amount of time from The Wire? Specifically Season 4 —not only the best season of the show, but also the most explicit and decisive refutation of Deshaney v. Winnebago’s holding that the failure to prevent child abuse is not a violation of liberty.
I have come to learn that not everyone is a fan of The Wire. (Inexplicably, my own brother and one of my best friends both profess indifference.) To expand the standard a little more, we might introduce the other recent item of popular culture that is or should be totemic for us law and society types: Asghar Farhadi’s masterful A Separation. A Separation is many things: a “democratic portrait of a theocratic world,” “a film that tries to be truthful about the slipperiness of truth”, and “a quiet reminder of how good it’s possible for movies to be.” From my parochial perspective, it is a sound argument for the cultivation of role moralities and a rebuke those who call for a greater influence of moral emotions in our legal system. Just as many criminal law profs now teach classes on and write about The Wire, we will soon give similar consideration to A Separation.
So the apostate baseball nerd in me suggests determining the worth of a presentation at LSA based on whether it would have been more worthwhile to spend the equivalent amount of time watching one or both of these films. Hence, Value Over Season Four Of The Wire Or A Separation, or VOSFOTWOAS.
(Incidentally, this approach could be generalized. For example, the value of presentations at the AALS Law Teachers’ conference could be measured in terms of VOWCOCWOYT, or the Value Over spending the equivalent time Watching Clips Of Charlie Whitebread On YouTube. Likewise, papers at empirical conferences could be judged according to VODH—that is, their Value Over spending the equivalent time talking with Dan Ho.)
VOSFOTWOAS is a demanding standard. I have learned a lot from papers that had negative VOSFOTWOAS, and I doubt that anything I have ever written has a positive VOSFOTWOAS. Nonetheless, I saw a number of presentations at LSA that had exceedingly high VOSFOTWOAS. I’ll lay those out in my next post.