Reassessing International Law Scholarship: A Roundtable Discussion

January 7, 2012

Meetings & Conferences

On January 6, I dropped by the headquarters of the American Society of International Law (ASIL) to attend a roundtable discussion on the state of today’s international-law scholarship. Lori Damrosch, a professor at the Columbia University Law School and the co-editor-in-chief of the American Journal of International Law, moderated the panel that consisted of

  • Harold H. Koh, Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State;
  • Diane Amann, Professor and Emily and Ernest Woodruff Chair in International Law at the University of Georgia School of Law;
  • Curtis Bradley, Richard A. Horvitz Professor of Law and Professor of Public Policy Studies at Duke Law School; and
  • Makau Mutua, Dean and Distinguished Professor Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar at the SUNY-Buffalo School of Law.


Below are some of my notes on some of the main issues discussed during the evening.

Improvements in international legal scholarship
Koh noted that international scholarship has become far richer than it was twenty years ago. Contemporary international-law scholarship includes areas like interdisciplinary studies, empirical research, critical scholarship, and process scholarship. Bradley agreed, and added that there has also been an improvement in ideological diversity among scholars; he particularly commended ASIL for contributing to this expansion.

Challenges in international legal scholarship

  • Relevance.
    Koh repeatedly emphasized how today’s legal scholarship in the international field is becoming “irrelevant” to solving present problems that international lawyers seeks to answer. Mutua expressed similar sentiments, stating that law faculties have been demanding scholarship that is “meaningless.” Koh would also like more emerging-technology issues, such as the Internet, to be discussed in international law. Mutua added that current scholarship requires analyzing how emerging powers are viewing international law.
  • Readability.
    Koh believes that the legal research for the twenty-first century has become “unreadable” and “inadequately elaborated.” In fact, he finds that today’s scholarship might as well have been written sixty years ago. Amann provided her thoughts based on her experience in reading manuscripts. She finds that many scholars seem to have trouble knowing their intended audience. She had found a wide range of writing styles employed for the wrong audiences, ranging from informal language (e.g., using contractions like “ain’t”) to writing with excessively fancy jargon that actually makes little sense.
  • Tenure incentive structures.
    Bradley explained that the challenges facing junior professors are tremendous. In an attempt to outperform others, scholars have been writing too much and too quickly; such a combination leads to poor writing. Koh opined that the incentives structure reached a point where completing a PhD was a better option than learning international law. Thus, scholars end up distancing themselves from the area they were originally pursuing. Mutua expressed his belief that deans have a responsibility to speak to their faculty members about how to rethink the value of scholarship with respect to tenure cases. Bradley added that, as they consider professors for tenure, deans also need to factor in empirical projects that take years to complete, but are yet very practical and helpful. Moreover, schools need to reward good analyses, not just “new” theories that grab attention; although the latter is important, it should not be the only type of research that is rewarded.
  • Engagement.
    Mutua criticized the perception among legal scholars that they are merely analysts and spectators. He reiterated throughout the discussion and Q&A that scholars have a responsibility to be “involved citizens,” and that such scholars need to be actors. He named Koh as a prominent example of a scholar who is also actively engaged the international-law field.

Online presence and blogging
Koh finds the increase in blogging in the field of international law to be encouraging. Amann explained the modest start of her blog, IntLawGrrls, and how it has now become a prominent, respected website with over one thousand readers per day from every continent.  She stated that many scholars want to contribute serious work to the blog. Moreover, conference organizers refer it, and many blog posts were starting points for journal publications and enhanced legal‑research careers.

Overall, the panelists believed that ASIL can contribute to solving to many of the challenges facing contemporary international-law scholarship. In fact, Koh commended ASIL for its accreditation process, its providing readable, well-edited scholarship, its online presence, and its support for younger scholars and practitioners. He and the other panelists hoped that ASIL can do more of all that.

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