Monday, November 27, 2006

The Debate Link?

As my blog title might inform you, I am a debate fan. I competed for 4 years in high school, and currently serve as coach of the fledgling team here at Carleton College. And I am true believer: while I find debate to be tons of fun, I also firmly believe that it is a good pedagogic model--the skills you learn and the insights you garner are unparalleled in any other endeavor (I know that's true for me). And so I'd like to see debate (in some form) incorporated to a greater extent in the circles I now run in--in the classroom, and in academic contexts more generally.

Over at Pennumbra, the new supplement to the Penn Law Review, there is a wonderful debate happening between Kermit Roosevelt and Rick Garnett on the topic of judicial activism. I highly encourage you all to check it out. But rather than dwelling on the particulars of that specific subject, I'm more interested in the meta-issue: is there a growing emphasis on debate (or debate-like) activities in legal academia, and how will that impact the field?

After all, Penn is not the only one doing this. The Yale Law Journal also put out a call for debates for publication in its journal. And the growing assortment of "supplement" style online editions of law reviews (e.g., Yale's The Pocket Part, Northwestern's Colloquy) also lend themselves to the type of quick response forms that would be conducive to debates. So while some debate-like elements have always been present in law journals (such as the classic Article/Response/Rejoinder form), I feel like there have been significant developments over the past year or so that are worth mentioning.

Obviously, I'm lean towards thinking this a good thing. First, law in America is adversial and its high time that the academy started to model it a bit more in that respect. Second, the general positive impacts of debate (revealing weaknesses, synthesizing arguments, encouraging dialogue between conflicting positions) are just as strong in academia as they are anywhere else. Third, debate can serve to increase the diversity of opinions being aired in the mainstream. Over a year prior to Yale's announcement, I proposed increasing the prominence of debate in legal literature as a means for increasing conservative representation in the academy. Most narrowly, hosting a debate insures that at least two sides to any issue will be heard, and in general it is a good way to try and foster a plurality of opinions in an institution which many believe that views that deviate from localized orthodoxies go unheeded.

The major problem, of course, is that such debates probably would increase the letterhead effect as journals (somewhat reasonably) would try and find two titans to clash battle-royale over the big sexy issues, rather than use debates as a tool to elevate younger and/or less prominent scholars. Part of me wants to respond that this is not a problem unique to debate but is part and parcel of the overall incentive structure of legal literature, but I'm not sure that's accurate. At the very least, many of these debates seem likely to be invited than the average article, which plays into the hands of the top dogs. Also, the very novelty of out and out debates as a scholarly form might make untenured scholars (or scholars eyeing a move up the chain) less likely to participate, in the event that they are seen as less "serious" (whatever that means).

Any other major implications or developments that I'm missing?


Blogger Anthony Ciolli said...

Great analysis. However, the elephant in the room remains:

If these debates are so good, why not publish them in the flagship journal after releasing them online, rather than sticking them in an online supplement that carries significantly less prestige? By confining them in an online ghetto, aren't journals saying that 1) these debates aren't important and 2) these debates aren't "real" scholarship?

11/27/2006 8:28 PM  

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