Questions of Scholarship

A law school acquaintance of mine was killed on Friday, and just as I did 12 years ago when two other friends were killed — that time in a bombing, this time what was likely and shockingly an intentional homicide — I have found myself reading every blog post looking for something new. Partially it’s to desensitize myself; the more times I read “Dan Markel is dead” (or a version of it) the kick to my gut has less force. And partially it’s because Dan — and 12 years ago, Marla and Ben — was SUCH a good person, and I want to know more about what people who were closer to him experienced of his goodness.

Orin Kerr wrote today about questions of scholarship that he debated with Dan, and this debate is what I want to highlight. The salient quote:

Dan and I spent around an hour debating whether it is better for new scholars to start their careers by joining preexisting conversations or trying to start new conversations. I argued that the better strategy was to start a new conversation (more likely to lead to a unique contribution); Dan believed that the best strategy was to join a preexisting conversation (more likely that the scholar will focus on something serious and important). It’s the kind of academic topic that even a lot of law professors consider just navel-gazing. But to Dan it was a hugely important issue, as it raised fundamental questions about what law professors should be doing and why.

These are fundamental questions not just for law professors, but for all higher education (if I may be so presumptuous to say so). I’ve written in this space and others about rigor. Focusing on LIS education, what should our professors be researching, asking, doing? Does students’ impression of our professors depend on whether they are charting new territory in theory or practice or “merely” (in scare quotes because it definitely is more than merely) contributing to existing scholarship? What is our role, as students, in advancing new or participating in ongoing conversations?

My overarching goal in everything I do in the information realm is to provide access. Currently, that goal has formed itself into two distinct projects: digital legal publication that complies with the requirements of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act, and activities and research related to access to justice. The former is new. The theory and practice are still in rough drafts. There are few people engaged in UELMA compliant efforts. The latter is ongoing. There are contributions to be made (and I hope to make many), but there is already a large, established core of librarians and lawyers working on access to justice issues. I find there to be benefit in being engaged in both types of questions.

Dan was a valuable guide through my first year of law school; I wish I could have had the opportunity now to discuss the nature of scholarship with him. May his memory be a blessing.

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