Advisor, Please Advise
I met with my advisor, Preeminent Federalism Scholar*, today. Niiiice office. He's the "Wiley Routledge" Professor of Law, so he should have a very nice office. Preeminent Federalism Scholar is someone I've been reading since before law school. He's at least as old as my father, who is 69 years old (being old enough to be my father is different, being only 25, you can add a respectable 25 and be only 50 years old, but add 20 years to that, and you get someone who was alive during the FDR administration). He is very nice. But for some reason, intimidating.
Not that he's mean or ornery or slams down my ideas. But he is so vastly knowledgeable in this area, as in not joking when he says "I wrote the book on this," that well, it's intimidating. I felt my youth acutely, as well as my inexperience and lack of knowledge. He brought up some problems with my prospectus (as always, "overbreadth", and a big problem I'll get to later). He then went through a summary of Commerce Clause doctrine. I know the general history and jurisprudence of Commerce Clause doctrine. But you know, he wrote the book on it. So I sat there and listened, as he talked about the aggregate effects in Wickard, yadda yadda, all the way through Lopez and Morrison and Raich. For the most part, I knew all this. But when he brought up certain cases that are big, but not as central as the aforementioned, asking "you remember the FMLA case? What was it called?"--I was so nervous, I blurted out "You mean, Kimel?" realizing, 5 minutes later, when he said the name, that I had meant to say Hibbs. This is not my first advisor-advisee relationship, but it's certainly the most serious one I've ever had. This isn't some dinky senior thesis. This isn't some independent study. This is my LLM masters thesis.
So, as my Very Important Advisor, he gave me very important advice. The problem with writing a "thesis prospectus" when you are applying to graduate law programs is that you have to be deliberately broad, in certain sense. That is, when you are writing a proposal to attract a would-be advisor from one of say, four faculty researching in your intended area, you make it pretty broad--say, "federalism" in general rather than "Section 5" or "sovereign immunity" more particularly. Also, can I just say that at this stage in my academic career, I don't know what I'm doing? Is it wise to make such an admission? I can develop a paper topic and see if it's preempted, maybe. But for something big like my masters thesis on so complicated an area as federalism, well, I need some direction. And yes, I still want to write in the area of federalism, 'cause I'm just a young whippersnapper biting off more than I can chew, bigger than my britches, etc. etc. I've wanted to write in this area since I was 20 years old. Okay, so it's only 6 years later, but I still want to write on it.
So, for better or worse, I am going to write in the area of federalism law, with the help of Preeminent Federalism Scholar. Who is making me totally rethink the scope of the project. Originally, I wanted to write on federalism issues in bias crimes law, because I thought it would be novel and interesting to consider the federalization of criminal law, the growing role of state-driven initiatives to combat racial/gender/national origin/religion/sexual orientation bias-motivated crime (and in environmental law)--thinking that "hey, this is a dynamic area of the law!" Well, it is and it isn't. In terms of an interesting, revolutionary "constitutional question" issue, not so much, because this is considering a question with not enough "there" there (my words, not his, though I am sure he would say it if he wasn't so nice). That is, with respect to federal penalty enhancement statutes for federal crimes, not much to discuss, except for the implications and stretched out arguments one may create for other types of anti-discrimination laws. The project, and the justification for it, seemed to be entirely speculative (to me, probably to him too) after a bit of discussion. So after only 45 minutes with Preeminent Federalism Scholar, I have seriously reconsidered this, in favor of his suggested ("not that he's telling me what to write," and "I should write what I want") federalism question--one that is really an interesting new development decades old jurisprudence (Hint: it's a new development in Raich). And you know, I'm seriously considering it. I'm considering dropping the bias crimes and Section 5 anti-discrimination law hook entirely. Let me make this clear: the last time I wrote a paper that was not about anti-discrimination law and/or theory was in......college. It's like coming full circle, literally back to my crappy political science senior honors thesis about "The Rehnquist Court's Devolutionary Federalism."
Am I being being prodded into marching down a path or am I stumbling? I honestly don't know. Preeminent Federalism Scholar has just given me a lot to think about, and I'm going to go back to the drawing board (armed with my handy new Westlaw and Lexis Nexis passwords) and try to revise the project. In a way, it is disappointing not to do an anti-discrimination law project (and I'll have to revise my banner too). But on the other hand, it is exciting to have a slightly new path of research suggested to me--one far more doctrinal than anything I have ever done before. I think I'm still stumbling, but it's good to have someone's advice and guidance as I fall.
* If I had another pseudonym in this program, it would be The Friendliest American.