What is the Point of Symposia?

Over at the Faculty Lounge, the estimable Michelle Meyer argues that it’s possibly inconsistent to take account of race, gender, and sexual orientation in symposia invitations but not to do so when selecting articles in law reviews.  Her post is thoughtful and well-written, though I believe it rests on a false premise.  Go over there and read it and then come back to find out which one.

Michelle largely responds to an anonymous commentator, who wrote:

“I know you don’t direct this question to me but to Dave, but let me chime in. I see them as analytically different. I think diversity is very important in symposia, and I agree that editors should seek a wide group of people taking of demographic facts there. The reality is that there are more men in some fields and more women in others, more minorities in some fields and less in others, more gays and lesbians in some and less and others, etc. So, there is an element of build-in inequity by virtue of the fact that some intellectual fields attract more of one group than another. But everyone deserves a change, irrespective of the fact that they are an outsider. In order to create opportunity and seek to achieve parity, symposia should be diverse.”

Michelle parsed that comment and makes some terrific replies, many of which I agree with.  Unfortunately, something I wrote led her to believe that I actually thought that the anonymous commentator’s response exhausted the differences between symposia and law review selection.  In my view they do not.

Because, contrary to Michelle, but implicit in the commenator’s post, I believe that legal symposia do not have the same goals as law review scholarship.  In my view, schools subsidize law reviews to disseminate ideas.  Schools subsidize symposia to organize people. (Secondarily and relatedly, to network, puff the institution, valorize elders, and reward faculty members by giving them money to spend.)  Consequently,  it’s not a bug of symposia that they generate bad scholarship: it’s a feature. It would be crazy -indeed, nonsensical- to imagine blind review of symposia pieces given their current function. Given that reality, and given what we know about old-boy-networks and other forms of social capital, diversity based symposia selection seems warranted.

That all said, I’ve never actually organized a symposium on my own, and don’t know how I’d feel about it if actually forced to make these choices in practice, so these observations are necessarily tentative and idealized.

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1 Response

  1. Thanks, Dave, for taking the time to engage with my question, and for the too-kind accolades.

    What I’d intended to be a comment-length response unfurled into its own post, which you and any interested readers can find here: http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2013/02/distributing-scholarly-speaking-and-publication-opportunities-through-blind-and-other-processes.html#more