August 5, 2002
Writing for Different Audiences: Prof. Peter H. Schuck Authors Scholarship and Commentary
"[The University of Michigan Law School], like almost all other institutions that use preferences, cares less about perspective and experience, which are complex, than about skin color and surname, which are simple--and, more to the point, easily counted." -- Peter H. Schuck, The American Lawyer, July 2002
"Reorganizing the I.N.S. before rethinking immigration policy in light of past failures and new challenges will not produce a more efficient or effective agency. Instead, it will deflect public attention from the difficult political choices that Congress must make but would rather avoid." -- Peter H. Schuck, New York Times, May 23, 2002
"Profiling is not only inevitable but sensible public policy under certain conditions and with appropriate safeguards against abuse. After September 11, the stakes in deciding when and how profiling may be used and how to remedy abuses when they occur could not be higher" -- Peter H. Schuck, The American Lawyer, January 2002
"America's dedication to justice for the victims of Sept. 11 is admirable. Even more inspiring would be a commitment to treat all seriously injured victims with equal justice and compassion." -- Peter H. Schuck, New York Times December 19, 2001
Peter H. Schuck, Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law at YLS, has written dozens of scholarly articles and nine academic books. In addition to this output, throughout his career, he has published op-eds and opinion pieces in popular periodicals. The two formats require very different approaches, according to Schuck.
"I think my primary duty as a scholar," says Schuck, "is to advance knowledge in a methodologically careful and rigorous fashion and to speak to other scholars and to students." In fact, he says that ever since he left the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to join the YLS faculty in 1979, he has enjoyed the process of academic writing. "There's something about it that appeals to me a lot: the greater care, the greater ability to take the time and space needed to examine evidence and develop arguments ... and just be more thorough and careful," says Schuck.
But these academic qualities are not what an op-ed page editor is looking to slap on the page for a general readership. A different audience requires an entirely different approach to writing, from conceptualization through publication, according to Schuck. "Much of what one writes about as a scholar is not of great interest to ordinary, educated people, because it's too detailed, it's too technical, there's a complicated apparatus that goes along with it. So what I try to do is identify those topics that I think are of general interest ... and try to distill from my scholarly work those points and, hopefully, constructive proposals that I think will be intelligible to them and useful in the public debate."
The challenge, says Schuck, is to reduce the complexity and detail of his argument to a level that will interest a general reader. Inevitably, this means sacrificing "some important dimensions of the truth in order to convey others." He adds, "As a scholar, one is very fastidious about these things and simplifying issues is painful in some ways."
For example, in the 1,500-word essay that Schuck recently wrote for The American Lawyer, titled "Diversity," he discusses the recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District upholding the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action program for admissions. (You can read the piece here.) In his forthcoming book on the same topic (Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance; Harvard University Press, 2003), Schuck is able to develop his arguments more circumspectly, beginning with a definition of what "diversity" means, then considering how this definition itself impacts his argument, and even differentiating between diversity "in fact" and "as ideal"--all before dealing with topics such as those in his essay.
Another quality that newspaper and magazine editors want is a clear opinion--something direct and hard-hitting that a reader can quickly digest. Again, Schuck finds this demand at variance with the nature of scholarship. "Most of what I do in my scholarship leaves me uncertain as to where I stand. The more I learn, the more complicated things seem and the more I realize the immense gap between what we think we know and what we would need to know in order to have a firm position.... Most mass media are not interested in having you exhibit that to their readers, that uncertainty." And so Schuck's opinion pieces are generally drawn from those areas where he has developed a strong point of view--if not an absolute certainty.
Schuck has been writing such commentaries since the 1970s and has published them in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New Republic, and Harper's, among others. He has covered topics from how to handle refugee crises to the pain and suffering awards made in litigation stemming from automobile accidents. He generally writes within the scope of his scholarly expertise, which is primarily in the area of torts, immigration and citizenship law, and law and diversity.
Since 1998, Schuck has also been a contributing editor at The New Republic, writing a commentary for their "Arguments" section every few months. These pieces are generally longer than op-eds--running about 1,500-2,000 words, compared with 750 in an op-ed--and give Schuck a little more room to weigh alternative ideas and "ruminate," as he puts it.
These pieces in major newspapers and magazines are put in front of the public eye, but Schuck says that it's often hard to judge how much impact they have. He often receives letters and e-mails about what he's written and always responds. His recent op-ed in the New York Times about the compensation of the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11 generated a large response, including a discussion in the letters section of the newspaper. One letter writer disputed Schuck's thesis that victims of other accidents and disasters deserve the same compensation as the victims of September 11. Another writer agreed with this contention but quarreled with Schuck's proposed solution. And a third wrote in to suggest that a percentage of the funds to help victims of September 11 be set aside to help other "equally innocent and grieving victims of criminal acts."
While not everyone agreed with the points in Schuck's op-ed, it's clear he reached the audience he had intended.