[A]ll life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.
Abrams v. United States
250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919)
(Holmes, J., dissenting)
Research agendas, Bill Araiza astutely observes, have become standard fare in entry-level teaching portfolios. Although Bill is right to worry whether "they’ve gotten far more detailed and elaborate than needed" and whether "they may have class/ethinicity/gender effects," the content of most research agendas suggests that a different and more insidious problem is afoot.
"Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once." Thus spoke Julius Caesar, at least as he was portrayed by Shakespeare. If so, then many law professors, real and aspiring, die little deaths every year if not every day. The insanely conservative (albeit arguably innate) risk-aversion of tenure-holders and tenure-seekers shoves research agendas into ever tighter, safer spaces. We academics aspire to less and less, and fear consumes whatever imagination might have inspired us in our misspent youths.
Paul Horwitz, I think, has accurately diagnosed the malady:
[T]here is some danger in overstressing the need for prudence among junior scholars, rather than the need for courage. Junior scholars ought to be willing to follow their muses, to cross swords, to offend or dismay more senior colleagues (not that they should do so, but they should be willing to do so), to try out new paths in scholarship. If they're not willing to do so before tenure, because they're thinking strategically about tenure, why assume they'll be willing to do so afterwards?Indeed. Trembling at the feet of the tenured gatekeepers of this profession, the puny anonymities who seek to join this priesthood have a powerful incentive to suppress the most creative, ambitious products of their imagination. It's been said before, and in an altogether different context, but it's worth repeating here. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
As an appointments committee member and a self-described academic talent scout, I will now take my stand. Job applicants who come before me: be diffident, and I shall downgrade my evaluation of you. Pusillanity is its own punishment. Be bold. Assert that the scale on which law should be studied, taught, and learned is the entirety of human experience, and I shall reward your vision -- and your boldness.
For his part, Dave Hoffman laments that blogging, and especially blogging about legal academia, has compounded this epidemic of cowardice. To "the extent research agendas have grown smaller in recent years," he writes, "blogs, which transmit custom, titillate audiences with horror stories, and extol the value of caution, are partially to blame." If there is a shred of value in MoneyLaw, let it be this: This forum will never extol the value of cowardice. Job-seekers and tenured professors alike, let your minds be bold. The profession in return will guide by the light of reason.