The Raging Fox v. Hedgehog Debate
Eric Muller and Belle Lettre have been stirring the pot on the strategic question of how best to advance in academia. Should one be a fox (engaged in many ideas, fully immersed in few) or a hedgehog (diving deeply into one big thing.) Belle fears that she may be a a “dilettantish fox” and asks whether this is toxic for one’s career. Eric says that he started his career as a crim pro hedgehog, went vulpine with his interest in Japanese internment, and ultimately became a hedgehog on internment issues. And he thinks that the hedgehog approach is strategically best unless you have a really big brain (i.e., your name is Ian Ayers, Mitu Gulati, or Jerry Kang.)
These are hard and largely unanswerable questions, but here are some thoughts. First, I must self-identify as a fox. I do have a general area of interest – social anxiety about crime – but it’s a large landscape. I wrote about anxiety over Columbine. I wrote about Megan’s Law. I wrote about anxiety over terrorists as pedophiles. But I also wrote about The Starr Report. About lawyers in the Yellow Pages. And about juvenile specialty courts.
Were these good choices? Some good things came of them. I managed to get several pieces placed in well-branded law reviews. By selecting topics that were engaging for me, and the rest of the world, I was able to create articles that 24 year old editors would enjoy reading. I also managed to have fun with scholarship. I am a dilettante in my day to day anyway; how great to be able to translate that into publications. (Well, let’s be fair here…writing is a beast for me. But the process of thinking about these matters was great.)
But there are downsides to foxhood. First, foxes find it tougher to join a community of scholars. At meetings, and all year long, academic hedgehogs connect over shared issues and interests. They invite each other to give talks and join panels. They share each others’ names when law schools seek potential lateral hires. Foxes often exist on the edges of hedgehog communities but the hedgehogs rarely think of foxes as true experts. And this is the second problem: foxes may in fact be less expert than hedgehogs. The immediate cost of this is that the scholar’s institution (and the world, gosh darnit!) never get the benefit of this additional quantum of knowledge. A secondary effect of this reduced expertise also relates to lateral movement potential: in many cases, better scholars have more opportunities to move. But this is a complicated claim. The truth is that social connections and article placement are absolutely critical predictors of success in the lateral market. Sociable foxes with strong (if not brilliant) scholarship and/or nice placements can move. Yet because many excellent articles never find a marque placement, many hedgehogs are unable to move…despite their expertise.
There is no right answer to this debate. If your school demands that you become a leader in some particular sub-field, you’re probably best playing the hedgehog. But if you’re at one of the 150 law schools that are primarily concerned about productivity (teamed with reasonable quality), the choice is up to you. And simply having that choice is one of the great pleasures of academia.