Wednesday, October 20, 2010

“What’s the cash out value?” (More AALS/interview advice)

If you are on the job market this year, or otherwise sharing your new work in legal history, I hope you aren’t asked a question in this way. But I would think about how to answer a question like this before heading off for your first interview.

“What’s the cash out value?” might be translated into: “how does your work matter for contemporary law and policy.” Or perhaps: “I care about law as a means of improving society. Why should I care about your work?”

I was asked the “cash out” question once while workshopping a paper on Thurgood Marshall’s experiences in Kenya in the early 1960s. When discussing serious historical scholarship, you might be tempted to answer: you can’t “cash out” this kind of work; the question misses the value of history to the intellectual project of legal studies. But while interviewing you don’t really have that luxury. You need to speak to the questioner’s underlying concern: why is this work important, or why should the questioner be interested in it, and therefore in you as a colleague?

This sort of question can come up for interdisciplinary folks in other fields. If it’s not apparent on the face of your project how it is relevant to legal scholarship, anticipate the issue of how your work informs your scholarly identity as a law professor (as compared with a psychology or economics professor). This doesn’t mean that your scholarly agenda has to be framed in a way that responds to the hot topics of the day in the legal academy. But it does help for you to be clear about how a scholarly interest in law has informed the way you frame your research agenda.

And then there’s the question: “what’s the value added?” Which you can reinterpret as: “how does your research, or your methodology, further the analysis of some legal problem, beyond what the existing scholarship shows?”

So although the framing of these sorts of questions (and the use of econo-speak) can be jarring for law-&-humanities types, the underlying query is one you should welcome. It’s an invitation to explain why your work matters – something anyone laboring on a Ph.D. dissertation or other large scholarly project will have thought a lot about.

How have you responded to these kinds of questions? Legal historians on the job market would benefit from your ideas.

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