Food for Thought: Incubator Lunches Allow Professors to Audition Ideas for Scholarship
How should one approach a scholarly paper on secret international agreements, for which there is intentionally no publicly available documentation of the deals between governments?
That was a question Professor Ashley Deeks posed to her colleagues during a recent University of Virginia School of Law faculty incubator lunch. The lunches provide an informal setting for professors to pick the brains of their fellow academics in deciding how, or if, to move forward on ideas for research.
"I think I would want to look at the problem generally, but focus in particular on the U.S. perspective, because that's where I have the best information," Deeks, a former State Department assistant legal adviser, told her colleagues.
The faculty who joined her agreed the paper was intriguing. But they had questions — lots of them. UVA Law Vice Dean George Geis, who coordinates the lunches, said questions help incubator participants vet a concept's viability.
"In most cases the authors haven't even put pen to paper," Geis said. "They're just trying to figure out: Has somebody else already written on this? Is it a good idea? A lousy idea? What are the connections that might be helpful for me to think about?"
The Law School arranges five to eight incubator lunches per semester. The slots for feedback are "first come, first served," Geis said, as are the half-dozen seats at the lunch table. The informal meetings are held in Stone Dining Room at the Law School.
Because they are planned in advance, the lunches give colleagues who work on similar legal topics a heads up that they can join the conversation, while also opening up new avenues for conversation among colleagues who might not ordinarily join in, but who are interested — often resulting in fresh observations.
"Other schools may have other forums for early-stage conversations," Geis said. "I think what most schools lack is a formalized structure for doing it."
The incubator lunches are just one way UVA Law supports research at all stages, including more finished papers that are presented at faculty workshops, faculty law and economics workshops and legal history workshops.
Dean Risa Goluboff participated in an incubator lunch early in the process of conceiving her latest book, "Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change and the Making of the 1960s. The book explores how and why vagrancy laws that had been on the books for hundreds of years rapidly collapsed in the span of two decades.
Looking ahead, she said, "I have just done another incubator on lay lawyers that I hope will come to fruition one day."
Former UVA Law Dean Robert E. Scott and Mitu Gulati, a former visiting professor from Duke University, also attribute the existence of their book, "The Three and a Half Minute Transaction: Boilerplate and the Limits of Contract Design," to an incubator lunch. The two authors directly credit the incubator in their foreword, with a bit of humorous irony: "The lunch group was skeptical about the efficacy of the project — it seemed at once too ambitious and too obvious."
Other important works have started as incubator conversations as well, said Geis, who has participated in the program himself. He said he appreciates the time it has saved him from pursuing weaker ideas or going down wrong paths.
"The comments helped me appreciate that I need to consider the extent to which the United States does or should care about the democratic legitimacy of decisions made secretly by foreign governments and, if so, why," she said. "The conversation also highlighted that I may need to think about secret agreements that affect individuals differently from secret agreements that only affect state equities, such as sovereignty and national self-defense."
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