Why you should go to conferences like the UNLV Symposium

Many colleagues have been at the forefront of organizing and planning the Nevada Law Journal symposium “Classical Rhetoric as a Lens for Contemporary Legal Praxis,” being held at William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, September 26-28, 2019, (info and free registration link here) particularly the co-chairs of the symposium, Professors Lori D. Johnson (UNLV) and Susan E. Provenzano (Northwestern). My colleague Prof. Angela Morrison at Texas A&M has been a leader, too, and recently sent out an update to the mailing lists, inviting attendance.

Here, I want to add my own argument about why professors and professors-to-be of legal writing and legal skills–I’ll just say “legal writing faculty” here–should attend conferences particularly like this one, an argument grounded in enhancing the status of our field. Here I speak solely for myself, and my views do not necessarily represent those of other organizers or members of the Classical Rhetoric and Contemporary Law reading group.

TL;DR version: Participation at conferences like this one enhances the status of the legal writing community by focusing it on scholarship, theoretical and empirical, about what judges and lawyers do, which relates to what we teach but is not focused on the classroom and pedagogy.

I’ve written and spoken previously about the reasons that legal writing faculty should focus on empirical research about lawyers’ and judges’ communicative practices, not (just) about our students and the classroom. I claimed then and still believe:

[T]he professionalization of legal communication faculty demands that they make the subject of their instruction the object of their research. The professionalization of writing professors in English (and other) departments and the broader academy accompanied the focus those professors put on research into writing: moving away from the old model where writing teachers published articles and books on Shakespeare and the Romantics, for example–-literary research–-toward a model where writing teachers publish research on writing processes, contexts, and products.

Of course, the research I’m considering here need not be only empirical–it can be theoretical, but again, ideally with a focus on rhetoric and communication theory in the context of lawyers’ and judges’ communicative practices.

Am I saying that research by legal writing faculty on “doctrinal” issues is bad? Not at all! Some is quite amazing. (I’m still tickled every time I think about RBG citing my TAMU colleague Professor Tanya Pierce’s article. Talk about impact!) Nevertheless, if our predominant publication focus is in “doctrinal” matters, we are like the writing teachers who published on Shakespeare instead of writing–writing teachers who struggled to attain status in their neighborhood of Academia-ville because they did not have their own scholarship–writing teachers who were perceived as being in that role only on their way to something else.

Am I saying that research by legal writing faculty on pedagogy and classroom issues is bad? Not at all! I believe strongly in it! Historically, however, tenure committees in law schools have looked at “doctrinal” scholarship as somehow superior to pedagogy scholarship. Until we inhabit those committees and get them to change their standards, we may need to conform to them. (There was a parallel problem for those other writing faculty in English and related departments, and they still prefer non-pedagogy research at many schools.)

Conferences like the UNLV symposium grow out of our efforts to create a scholarly community with its own theoretical and empirical methods, one that can claim theoretical and methodological rigor on a par with any “doctrinal” field in law. They function to build a canon for the field, a collection of texts that we could expect any practitioner in our field to know. Just as every English professor has read Shakespeare, every philosophy professor, Kant, every economics professor, Friedman, and every jurisprudence professor, Hart–every legal writing professor should have read Aristotle’s Rhetoric and one or two other classics.

By attending, contributing at, and learning from conferences like this, you help to build our profession as a profession.

This symposium will include contributions with classroom and pedagogical implications from Professors Laura Webb (Richmond), Kirsten Dauphinais (North Dakota), Mark Hannah (Arizona State), and Susie Salmon (Arizona). But many scholars’ contributions are focused more on the connection of rhetorical theory to lawyers’ and judges’ practices (thus the “praxis” of the conference title), including Professors Kirsten Davis (Stetson), Kristine Tiscione (Georgetown), Jay Mootz (McGeorge), Ted Becker (Michigan), Lori Johnson (UNLV), Melissa Love Koenig (Marquette), Mel Weresh (Drake), and Michael Cedrone (Georgetown). (That’s also where my collaboration with Sue Provenzano fits.) The Saturday works-in-progress session promises even more relevant contributions.

I don’t expect everyone who reads this to show up, of course, because there are many great conferences going on this fall, including ones with terrific research content, and certainly ones with terrific pedagogy content. They will likely offer great value. I just offer an additional reason to think about attending this one.


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