By Michael A. Olivas, University of Houston Law Center

Until you have actually put on a professional meeting, you have no idea how hard they are to coordinate. Over the years, I have put on perhaps fifteen or twenty academic conferences, where you assign a topic or theme, invite experts to a convenient venue, edit their work, raise money to pay their way there, spring for meals and lodging and publish the papers in a journal or book. Even doing this on a small scale is considerable work and I always prefer to be the invitee to these shindigs, not the inviter. Writ large, you have professional association conferences and annual meetings, and it is hard to apprehend the scale of these or appreciate the many working parts until you hold leadership in the association that hosts them.

This is how I felt last year, as my presidential year in waiting ripened to the 2011 Annual Meeting, and then at the end, I found myself installed as president of your association, the AALS. I write this column to discuss the fundamentals of our Annual Meeting. I come both to praise Caesar and to voice publicly some concerns about the overall health of the enterprise. (I might as well write enterprises, as we put on many meetings each year, but, like a traditional shopping mall, the January Annual Meeting is the anchor tenant, and it is my primary concern.)

Of course, these events famously have been made fun of, such as in Frederick Crews’ Postmodern Pooh, the famous sendup of the Modern Language Association Annual Meeting, the piñata of these groups, with a number of attempts to mock it. For years, as part of a book project called Scholarly Subcultures, I have attended meetings sponsored by small off-the-grid-research communities, including my favorite, Kennedy assassination scholars. As I sat there (of course, always in Dallas, Ground Zero for such work), I was struck by the various conventions of scholarly inquiry: specializations (concentrating upon Lee Harvey Oswald, Cubans, New Orleans, autopsy, coverup, Mafiosi), well-stocked book vendor displays, a refereed journal (The Fourth Decade), concordances and finding tools, talismanic subjects and objects (the Warren Commission volumes, traded like samizdat), a prolific Posner (Gerald, not Richard, but also swimming against the tide), and hammer and tongs discussions on research assertions. The only difference in this regression-to-the-scholarly society-mean was that no pedigree counted, as most of the participants were not academics, but interested civilians.

If we did not have such a legal education meeting, we would have to invent it. For most, it is the major organizational and professional event of our year, whether or not we attend every year. It is a magnet, with many allied organizational events that cluster around and are attracted to it. In San Francisco, some of the groups that met in connection with AALS included the Allied Consortium for Innovative Legal Education, Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) (the Cover workshop/retreat and annual dinner, on two different nights), several Twelve Step meetings, the Access Group, Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), American Law Deans Association (ALDA), National Association for Law Placement (NALP), Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD), the ABA Council of the Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), the International Association of Law Schools (IALS), Latino/a Law Professors, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Add to this many dozens of bar associations, alumni groups, book publishers, professional journals, and other legal education supporters who caucus together in January. Many thousands of planned or spontaneous gatherings occur, given the many intellectual nooks and crannies that appear or rise up. Most attendees’ dance cards are so heavily spiked in the evenings that people attend in shifts or run from one event to another. While over thirty years ago, the AALS separated out the hiring conference into its own cycle in late fall each year, much interviewing goes on at the Annual Meeting. Indeed, trying to interview dean candidates and faculty, especially lateral and senior faculty, is increasingly evident. When one adds the many other transactions and conducted business, it is clear that the Meeting is a big tent, with many sideshows and main attractions. And the many vendors have created a lively marketplace for us to review new books and other publications and materials, as well as for us to gather in a large resolana, the large intellectual sunroom where many people can and do interact. Indeed, for some faculty, meeting and interacting with others are the whole point of the Meeting. In my view, this is a good thing, if perhaps too much of that good thing, shoehorned into a small window of time, especially with school calendars pressing upon the dates.

Of course, the heart of the enterprise is the research role of the Association, where we conduct our business as a community of scholars. My first Annual Meeting was in Cincinnati, in 1983, and I have attended each tribal gathering since. It is clear by any measure that we are on an upward scholarly trajectory, with many more competitive sessions, more published papers, and more journal/law review involvement than at any point in our history. The staggering productivity evident in the salon of book production is tangible evidence, as more monographs, books, and instructional materials pour out of prolific faculty. There are so many interesting sessions to attend that some people throw up their hands and resort to the podcasts, usefully available shortly after the Meeting. I have listened to four or five in the last month, due to my inability to get to the sessions, either because they overlapped or because I had other duties. Oh yes, the Annual Meeting hosts hundreds of other meetings, with volunteer Section, Committee, and associational service activities. By any measure, we are more focused upon scholarship and improving the craft of teaching, salutary accomplishments in a time when the professoriate is under fire more than ever.

But, as stewards of our own future, we must examine the business enterprise and organization resources that we invest in this four-day meeting each year. In some respects, there are small fissures that are becoming evident, and I draw them to our attention. First, the sheer centripetal force of the law professoriate can be overwhelming. In 2010, I received flyers, posters, invitations, and phone calls about more than 25 legal education-sponsored workshops, meetings, and conferences—not counting the AALS events in which I participated as president-elect. These ranged from substantive subject matter gatherings (immigration, higher education, and civil rights, among others) to affiliation or affinity events (such as those involving LatCrit, various People of Color, and other places that provide solidarity and a niche) to regional groups (regional POC, and statewide/regional interests). I could not have attended more than a few of them, either due to time commitments, travel money, or class rescheduling, but each of them drew participants, sometimes in the hundreds. The increasing development of new areas and the subspecialties that did not even exist in the last decade have given rise to the proliferation of these get-togethers.

Particularly noteworthy is the rise of substantive writing workshops and feedback sessions where junior scholars and emerging researchers can have their work read and critiqued in a safe setting. I have conducted these over the years myself, or in concert with other like-minded colleagues, and over twenty years ago, I organized a standalone conference, now biennial, where immigration scholars read their work, organize themselves, and critique casebooks. It has now spawned another conference that also meets every other year, devoted to junior scholars. If I were a clinician, I would have literally dozens of standalone or affiliated workshops from which I would be able to choose. Intellectual Property, Health Law, and Empirical Legal Studies are three such well-organized loosely coupled interest groups that have many such support and substantive meetings. This is especially true of the groups whose members cut across disciplines, and where legal academics hold joint appointments or academic advanced degrees.

My UH Colleague Richard Alderman puts on such a conference in Houston every other year for consumer law teachers from all over the world. At times, I think that this must be generational—with so many people my age putting on the circuses and fairs that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland organized on screen when we were kids. In most law schools, an entrepreneurial approach, a nearby airport, and a dean with financial and institutional support can produce several such meetings every semester, and at a much lower cost than can the AALS. But given declining travel resources, the increased hassle of travel schleps, and the focused attention span of most legal educators, has this atomization been a good thing, or are we eroding and marginalizing the Annual Meeting, our big tent? When SALT held a conference in Hawaii last January, I knew several friends who attended that event and then did not make it back to the West Coast for the Annual Meeting weeks later. (There are just so many ways to postpone the 100+ papers that need to be graded during this period.)
It is also noteworthy that we have a growing number of pedagogical programs, focusing upon learning theory, teaching alternatives, curricular reform, and the use of technology in the classroom. We have had an enthusiastic response to the Hot Topics and Poster Sessions programming, and the Sections continue to recommend strong and popular daylong Workshops and events in conjunction with the start of the Annual Meetings. We do need to think about how to coordinate these proposals, the mid-year and other workshops, and the variety of other events, so that professors and the AALS staff can plan these more smoothly. Our hardworking Professional Development Committee and staff spend countless hours designing programs during the Annual Meeting and throughout the year. I have also asked the Committee on Sections and the Annual Meeting to look carefully at these issues, as well as other concerns about the timing and efficacy of the structure we have built so well over the years.

Other factors are at play, some of them institutional and some of them personal. A number of schools have moved up their spring start dates so that depending upon the dates each year, there are class teaching obligations. Of course, inter-term options have grown, and some faculty are either pressed to do these, or expect to teach in this fashion as a function of their workload. Some family arrangements do not square with the AALS meeting calendar, and the SEALS summer conference has grown into a competitor for reading papers in a smaller setting and for bringing the family along, always in warm climes. Speaking of warm climes, inclement weather and an overextended national and international travel infrastructure leave sojourners vulnerable at a very busy time of year. This year, several colleagues barely made it back to Atlanta, Midwest, and especially East coast locations, given the weather conditions. Some were not able to make their flights or trips home. The success of AALS Summer workshops, where people can combine several topic areas back to back to back, has caused some people to invest in their professional development during the summer rather than in the busy, crowded mid-academic year.

As I noted, the last time we looked hard at the Annual Meeting format was many years ago. The centripetal force of these developments should prompt us to review the enterprise, although it may be like democracy, the worst possible system except any alternatives. Indeed, our successful Annual Meeting is, for many people, the most visible sign that things are good, if growing attendance is any indication. Its very success has prompted the replication of its many excellent features, on a smaller scale.

I have asked the Committee on Sections and Annual Meetings to advise Susan Prager, Jane La Barbera, and the Executive Committee about our meeting infrastructure. Having sketched my view of these matters, I invite yours.

  • Should we keep things as they are, or are there specific changes you would suggest?
  • Should we consider moving the Annual Meeting, either to an earlier time between semesters or to another time in the calendar year?
  • Are there ways we can improve the scholarly focus, such as submitting competitive paper proposals to be reviewed by Sections? Some Sections do this, and has your experience been positive?
  • How can we balance the need for more time to develop proposals thoughtfully with the necessary printing and notification timetables?
  • Should we consider a Proceedings volume with all the presented papers (or abstracts), either online or in print format?
  • Do you have any administrative or program suggestions about any of the AALS-sponsored meetings? Here, I include the regular summer and other professional development events.
  • Are you satisfied with the frequency and availability of programming for large sections (such as those addressing traditional One L subject matter)? For smaller and emerging fields?
  • Should we have popular non-law speakers at these meetings?
  • Do you have suggestions about improving the format of the actual program sessions and strengthening the programming?
  • Do you have suggestions about evaluating the Meeting in a useful and constructive fashion?
  • Are there things that other scholarly associations do that we should consider doing for ourselves?

 

The AALS is your Association, and we can only plan and produce as good an Annual Meeting as you help make it. We are fortunate to have many hundreds of volunteers in the AALS village, all of whom donate their considerable talent to develop programs and to assist our Association in its substantive missions. Building upon these successes, I would appreciate anyone who has suggestions about these issues (or for that matter, any AALS issues), to send me a note at molivas@uh.edu; to help me sort these out, please mark them as Annual Meeting in the subject line.

Thank you, and I hope to hear from you about these important matters.

Michael