Ideas on Sharing Ideas

Last weekend, Seton Hall Law School hosted its first annual Employment and Labor Law Scholars’ Forum. My sense (hopefully not over-influenced by optimism bias, one of the many topics discussed) is that the participants found it to be a great success. Part of this is attributable to the terrific and diverse working papers presented by Elizabeth Emens, Julie Chi-hye Suk, Noah Zatz, and Matthew Bodie. But I think the format and size also worked well. There were fourteen participants (including the authors) who collectively covered the waterfront of the labor and employment law fields. Each author presented for about fifteen minutes, with two commentators giving their thoughts for about ten minutes apiece. This set the stage for what was a terrific informal interchange for about an hour for each paper. Everyone learned a lot, in large part because the conversation began on such a high level, everybody had read the papers in advance, and the size of the group permitted all of us to participate in a meaningful way with each paper. Kudos to our colleague Kathleen Boozang for suggesting this kind of forum as a result of her participation in something similar in the health law area at St. Louis University.

Needless to say, despite the rise of electronic media and the seemingly endless number of ways for members of the academy to share information and ideas, sometimes there is no substitute for getting together to talk about scholarship. And, of course, it can be fun too.

So, I thought perhaps sharing ideas on how to share ideas might be a useful exercise. I am wondering what types of formats – whether characterized as a forum, workshop, roundtable, or conference – others have found to be particularly useful as a presenter, commenter, or participant. I am concerned here just about the beneficial exchange of ideas rather than other ways in which one might benefit from attendance (and I realize there are plenty of the latter). What, in your experience, has worked well? If anyone can speak to the “science” of this, that would also be helpful.

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4 Responses

  1. Mark McKenna says:

    In the IP area, we have at least 3 “works-in-progress” conferences every year. Anyone who comes can present, and presenters are scheduled on panels of 3-4 at a time for about an hour and a half per panel (20-30 minutes per presenter). The conferences run about a day and a half, pretty much all day each day. There are occasionally some downsides – if the conferences are big enough, there are many concurrent panels, which forces you to make hard choices about what you want to hear, and because they’re generally not pre-screened, you get a wide range of quality of papers. But I think the general consensus is that these conferences have been an overwhelming success, particularly for junior faculty trying to get their work noticed. You get a very good idea of what people are working on, meet and get to know lots of folks in your field, and usually get some very good feedback on your own work. I’ve been surprised more disciplines don’t do something similar, but it may be partly a function of the internal norms of the IP community towards more sharing and open source.

  2. Frank says:

    I’ve been to both the Health Law young scholars thing, and the IP conference Mark describes, and both are great. I think the health law one at St. Louis University was pretty amazing because they not only brought in top legal scholars to talk about the papers, but also got economists, public health experts, and a psychiatrist (in the case of a paper on mental health). Interdisciplinary feedback like that really enriches one’s work.

  3. Mike Madison says:

    If all the participants actually read all of the papers before they gather for the conference, conversations will take place at a much higher and more productive level. For example, you can bypass the 15-20-25 minute “talk” and start right off with, “What do I need to work on?” or “Where have I gone wrong?,” and get feedback and dialogue for 30 minutes or more. This requires at least three things: (a) participants actually supply their papers far enough ahead of time that they can get read; (b) the number of papers and presenters is small enough that the reading is manageable; (c) there is a norm-feedback loop (the conference reproduces year-to-year with some stability of participants, for example) so that the practice “takes.”

  4. Sam Bagenstos says:

    I attended the Seton Hall conference as one of the commentators, and it was great — as has been my general experience with conferences organized like this one. I thought, contrary to what Mike Madison says, that the 15 minute talk by the presenter was very useful. The papers were in relatively early stages, and the talks gave the rest of us (all of whom, I think, had read the papers) ideas about how to suggest changes in focus and structure that would highlight the interesting ideas that the authors really thought were important. The lack of a publication expectation was useful in getting people to submit relatively early drafts of ambitious papers. And the folks who presented came at it in a spirit of exchange and conversation, rather than defense of a position. All of this, it seems to me, contributed to the success of the event.