View From the Classroom: Why we write

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Publish or perish—that’s the mantra in higher education.  It means that faculty have to publish scholarly articles or check out of the academy.  It says that publishing is the most important part of our job—that not publishing, alone among those things we may do badly, could result in our demise.  (Who ever heard anyone say, “Teach well or perish?”)

Publishing is an odd standard in a field where the primary objective is to educate future lawyers.  After all, what does writing have to do with teaching?  We write principally to inform other scholars and the practicing community, to influence and advance the law in our areas and to demonstrate our intellectual heft—goals that seem to have little to do with day-to-day teaching.

But writing does have to do with teaching.  By writing, we engage our specialties at a deeper level: we learn our areas better and we can therefore teach them better.  Moreover, writing helps us stay abreast in our areas; by keeping fresh in our scholarship, we can keep fresh in the classroom.  And finally the process of writing itself helps our thoughts and ideas evolve and grow.  We can use our evolved thinking in the classroom, to help our students learn.

Just as writing helps us as teachers, it can also help us as lawyers and students.  Writing forces us to engage in a topic at a deeper level—to learn more about it, so that we can write better about it.  It also helps us stay up-to-date, by looking for the most recent issues in our area.  And finally the process of writing can help us work out ideas, arguments and theories that we can’t always work out by just thinking or even talking about a problem.  (A former colleague of mine gave the best advice I’ve heard to work out a knotty problem: See how it writes.)

And we don’t have to write just articles, briefs, memos or other serious research projects.  We can learn even by writing shorter pieces like essays, journals, stream-of-consciousness brainstorms, outlines, letters—even blogs.  Any of these even modest efforts can help us think differently about a problem, and thus help solve it.  In short, writing helps us do our jobs.

Our principal job in the legal academy is to educate future lawyers.  Our writing should be a means to that end (whatever else it may be).  Maybe this means that in evaluating faculty we should credit non-traditional writing that also advances our teaching.  Maybe it even means that we should rethink “publish or perish.”  But in the meantime here’s one thing it certainly means: even the most traditional academic scholarship helps our teaching.  Writing helps us do our jobs.

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