Note To Budding Scholars: Missteps Can Be Corrected

One of my first anxieties as a new professor was the concern that in my first scholarly venture, I’d make a mistake. I worried that I might take a position I later discovered to be indefensible or just plain wrong. This fear is acute for law profs who enter the academy with only a JD. Unlike folks who spend several years gaining deep subject-area knowledge (typically through a PhD program), and practice writing by preparing papers for class, those of us who teach with only a JD typically learn the art of scholarship publicly: in most cases, our first piece of serious research is published, open for all to see. That’s significant exposure for a person still in his or her formative stage of work.

So I was pleased to see Dan Kahan’s new paper on SSRN open with a semi-recantation of his decade-old article, What Do Alternative Sanctions Mean, from the University of Chicago Law Review. Of course Kahan nuances the matter (for example, he argues that he was wrong – but not for the reasons articulated by any of his critics). And by placing the claim up front, indeed as the article’s hook, his recantation appropriates the status of his first piece, reconfiripositioning this new article as a further nuanced analysis about shame sanctions. (Which is to say, he has displaced the potential shame of recantation with continued renewed ownership of the topic, albeit on slightly altered terms.)

But the relevant aspect of Kahan’s new paper is that it should remind junior scholars that errors, misjudgments, or simple changes of heart are OK. We all grow as people, and scholars, and if a decade of reflection sheds new perspectives on an issue, there’s no harm. Of course, we should all be so lucky to have our initial effort as widely read and discussed as Kahan’s. For most of us, early misstepss will be forgotten before the reprints even arrive. And our efforts to recant will be met with similar uninterest. But if that first amazing piece strikes gold – and turns out to be wronger than white clothes after Labor Day – just remember: you can always reconsider.

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4 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Another instance of changing one’s well-known and influential views on a topic, albeit outside law, occurred in the case of Michael Allen Fox, author of The Case for Animal Experimentation: An Evolutionary and Ethical Perspective (1986). Not long after the book’s publication, as Angus Taylor explains, ‘its author repudiated the main views expressed in it, now calling those views arrogant, complacent, and arbitrary.’ (see Fox’s ‘Animal Experimentation: A Philosopher’s Changing Views,’ in Between the Species 3, 1987). Fox (not to be confused with Michael W. Fox) later penned the book, Deep Vegetarianism (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1999).

    Not without reason (and for better and worse) do we refer to the ‘young Marx’ and the ‘mature Marx.’

    In philosophy proper, Wittgenstein dramatically altered his views from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations, and Sartre famously came to repudiate the asocial/apolitical orientation of his classic Being and Nothingness (1943) (by way of compensation: the Critique of Dialectical Reason, 1960, among other works). The brilliant philosopher Hilary Putnam has changed his views so consistently over the years that lesser philosophers have expressed their annoyance by calling him a ‘moving target.’

    There are other cases, but these should suffice.

  2. Cathy says:

    Thank you for this. As a newly-minted JD whose note is about to be published, I’ve been a combination of thrilled and terrified. I guess I can take from this that it’s ok to ratchet up the former emotion and down the latter?

  3. Dan Markel says:

    Dan, keep an eye out for my reply to Dan K, which suggests he may end up recanting…again. I’ll be posting a draft up in the next couple weeks.


    dan (of the law professor band named Dan)

  4. cynic says:

    Lesson: Chaired professors at Yale can admit to making mistakes, but only if the “mistake” is really just a better reason why they were right before.