In Tuesday’s Chronicle of Higher Education (pay site – sorry; day passes available), an assistant professor of creative writing describes “Reading Like a Graduate Student” (here). Rachel Toor (Eastern Washington University) asks, “Why do graduate students tend to be so eager to dismiss, dislike, and disrespect what they read?” pointing to the nasty tone of many book reviews in Kirkus:
I’ve learned never to ask graduate students what they think of a particular work or scholar. That generally leads to posturing, self-aggrandizing put-downs, and useless bluster. Instead, I ask them what they have learned from a particular writer, what moves or academic maneuvers they noticed in the work that they could steal and use in their own writing and thinking. I ask them to try to understand the work not only on its own merits, but also in the context within which it was written. I try to remind them that there was a history in the discipline before they started reading.
It’s hard not to remind them that many of the flaws and intellectual infelicities they find so quickly in their reading often litter their own writing.
As I begin the summer writing season, I’m a little too aware of the flaws in my own writing. That’s what makes writing so darn hard: I am face-to-screen with the digital evidence of my many limitations.
But Toor’s advice might have some application for law professors as we consider other scholars’ works. It’s easy to tear down another’s scholarship (yeah, you know the kind of tenure review letter I’m talking about). But what if we inculcated a culture of explicit learning to go along with our culture of scholarly critique? We’ve all been to job talks, colloquia, conferences where we’re watching the clock and wishing that the hands would move faster. So what if we trained ourselves to linger — over ideas and arguments that seem flawed, even — and asked what we learn from the substance or structure of an article or book, to whom the author directs her comments or critiques and how the same might be applicable to our own work? What if we then sat down and applied that learning to our own writing?
Actually, maybe that’s not such a good idea. If I have my own limitations and someone else’s to consider, that might be an excuse to put off starting the next section of my draft. Onwards to what Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird called the “shitty first draft”!