Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Last week on the blog I featured the smart book Empire of the Fund by sharing excerpts from a conversation with author, Professor William Birdthistle. In discussing the book, he shared with me some insights on writing a book: its process, genesis and use in the classroom. I am fascinated by other's people writing process in the continual effort to improve my own.
writing a book...
[W]riting a book was more of a challenge than I expected, even though I told myself it was simply a collection of law review articles. It turns out that the blinking cursor on an empty screen is more taunting when you're obliged to fill hundreds of pages. Brief stints of productivity need to be repeated again and again and, until it all exists, nothing really exists. I developed a convoluted system of drafting notes, then sitting down with a research assistant to record a chat about those notes, then working that recording into an outline. That process still left me with plenty of writing to do, but I found it much easier to expand, polish, and revise those outlines than to fight the demon blank page.
Talking through your ideas forces you to synthesize the materials. It also retains the humanity behind the arguments. This method makes a lot of sense when you read Professor Birdthistle's book because it feels like he is talking to you— just in a way that is smarter, better organized and more pithy than most of us can muster in the average conversation. His book doesn't read like the belabored, bloated, and laborious sections that all too often find their way in law review articles (my own included).
genesis for the book...
The contents, to a large extent, have actually come from the classroom -- as these materials serve as the syllabus for a seminar I've taught for a few years. The seminar, called Investment Funds, is almost always popular: in a go-go market, all the students want to hear about private equity and hedge funds; then in downturns, I get a sober audience of students who want to know more about their 401(k)s.
application to broader classes...
I often work this material in to my BusOrg and SecReg classes too: so, I emphasize the role of funds on topics like corporate purpose (does charitable giving look different if the corporate funds might otherwise go to 401(k) holders), proxy contests (in which mutual funds are major institutional investors but often conspicuously absent from these fights), shorting (where the securities are often borrowed from mutual funds and ETFs), and behavioral versus neoclassical theory (quoting heavily from a wonderful disagreement between Judges Easterbrook and Posner in Jones v. Harris before it went to the Supreme Court).
Since almost all students will soon be figuring out their own 401(k) and mutual fund investments, I've found that it's easy to make business issues far more salient to their lives. Even to the saints who'll soon have a 403(b).
the role of behavioral work...
Finally, I highlight Professor Birdthistle's observations about changes to the corporate law landscape made space for a book like his to contribute, in a serious way, to the academic and popular debate about the efficacy of the mutual fund market.
I've been struck by the change in our intellectual and academic disposition towards investing problems. I've been in the academy for a decade now and, when I began, the rational investor model was so thoroughgoing that it was difficult to discuss problems of individual investing. Many conversations -- and job talks -- required a first-principles exegesis about how this market might possibly be anything other than highly efficient. But a tide of behavioral work in recent years has helped explain why investors might struggle, and a good deal of empirical work has concretely shown how they struggle. So conversations today focus more upon solutions rather than on whether there is even a problem.
To this last point, I wonder what ideas and principles, which seem untouchable today, will give way to the next generation's breakthrough. I think is a particularly heartening message for young scholars--not all of the work has been done! Keep at it! And it is an important message for folks who aren't writing in the mainstream. For folks who are passionate about their work, but feeling like their ideas aren't garnering the right cache with the right audiences. This is where you persevere so long as the work is thorough and well researched. Maybe you and your work are contributing to an important intellectual advancement. You could be changing the tides in ways that in presently imperceptible, but significant nonetheless. So as the August submission deadline looms and the summer hours threaten to languish, press on!
Because this post is a compilation of quotes, I now turn to Garrison Keeler to close:
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.
*Query: Are the best motivational speeches are the ones you write for yourself?