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December 04, 2007

Prof. Prescott on Academia, Community, and the Path to Professorhood

By Eric Reed

Professor James Jondall (J.J.) Prescott wants to change the way you think about academia, and in his second year teaching at the University of Michigan Law School he’s off to a good start.

Professor Prescott is the driving force behind the newly instituted Research Lunches, a series of brown bag lunches at which students showcase work they’ve done and receive feedback from other students and professors in a community environment. The brown bag lunches are a part of Michigan Law’s newly created initiative to help students interested in entering legal academia, particularly those with an eye to becoming professors down the road. According to Prescott, Professor Joan Larsen heads the yet un-named program, which already has several components -- either in place or planned -- that help students and alumni adapt to the demands of the academic marketplace. The brown bag lunches, though, try to accomplish something special.

“We already do a few things for people who are interested in legal academia,” Professor Prescott said. “I am not trying to reproduce those… instead, I want to create a forum in which students with similar research interests can find each other as peers, as potential co-authors and as future colleagues.”

At Professor Prescott’s Research Lunches, students can showcase any form of legal scholarship that they are or have been working on according to Prescott. The sessions will focus on a give and take, he explained, with students spending the first portion of the hour presenting their work, and the latter portion of the lunch dedicated to questions and answers, as well as direct feedback from both students and professors in the audience. Prescott described the format as “a safe place for students to try out ideas,” and hear thoughts or criticisms before they have to risk consequences in the open marketplace or with publication.

“It’s not intended to be a seminar. They’re not going to be graded,” Professor Prescott said, explaining that one of the goals of these lunches is to give students a risk-free working space to try out ideas in the same way that academics do. “We spend a lot of our lunches doing this kind of thing,” Prescott said, referring to faculty members. “We have two or three lunches per week.”

Professor Prescott explained that the format of the brown bag series was chosen very deliberately to mirror the professional lifestyle of a professor. This is, he said, a part of the larger program’s effort to help students both develop the skills and background they will need to enter professional academia, as well as to help students see that life as a professor is not just about giving lectures and “knowing the case better than anyone else,” but about research, ideas and collaboration.

“Because this is a lunch specifically about research, it’s targeted at people who want to be research faculty, as opposed to legal practice or clinical faculty,” Prescott said. “But, of course, everyone is welcome.”

This idea of professional collaboration is another major goal of the lunch series, and an aspect of professional life that Professor Prescott is particularly hoping to communicate. “With any luck we’ll have two to four of these lunches per semester where I will not be doing much besides hosting and introductions…. This is really about a community of students with similar career or intellectual interests getting together to work on ideas. The short term goal is just to get the community started, and I hope it will be a community for students not just over one semester but over the course of their three years at Michigan,” he said.

The idea behind this goal of community is to help people connect with others who share similar interests in order to spread ideas and perhaps encourage collaboration. “Maybe the paper that ultimately gets written will not be the paper that was presented but a co-authored paper that develops out of a subsequent discussion,” he said, expressing one of his hopes for the Research Lunches’ results.

Helping students develop work, whether as pure research or directly for publication, is an important part of helping those students prepare to look for work as professors and academics after school, according to Professor Prescott.

“It used to be that you basically got good grades in law school, you clerked for a year or two, and then you went off to teach somewhere…. It’s no longer sufficient to get good grades and a good clerkship, but it’s also no longer necessary,” Professor Prescott said. “As more people with different experiences and backgrounds seek teaching jobs, candidates are expected not just to show that they have good ideas, but also to demonstrate that they can produce quality results.”

This new competition in legal academia can often look for applicants who boast multiple publications by the time they seek a job, and Professor Prescott explained that he had that in mind when he started the Research Lunches at Michigan. That said, Prescott emphasized that the research lunches aren’t exclusively for people who want to contribute or present.

“The goal is for everybody who attends the lunch regularly, at some time, to present something, although that’s not required,” Prescott said. “1L’s and everybody who’s interested should try to come…. The worst case scenario is that a few of the people who come to the lunches sit, they eat their lunch, and they get to see something different.”

Speaking as someone recently out of the academic job market, Professor Prescott said that he hopes people do come even if they just want to see that something different for an afternoon. Hopefully they’ll leave with a new perspective on what being a professor is all about, and maybe a little more excitement about the idea of creating a work of their own.