"Professor X Says":

My "arguably" post reminded me of a related practice — saying "Professor X says, 'This law is unconstitutional [or whatever X is saying]'" when you agree with Professor X, but (1) without expressly saying that you agree, and (2) without explaining why you agree with Professor X and not Professor Y (and there usually is a Professor Y who says the contrary).

If you want to endorse Professor X's view, be clear and candid about it; say "As Professor X says, 'This law is unconstitutional'" or perhaps just quote the assertion, "'This law is unconstitutional,'" and cite X in the footnote. That will make clear to the reader that you are embracing that assertion, rather than leaving a question in the reader's mind.

Putting things that way will also likely make it clear to you that you are now asserting something that you need to defend. And it should lead you to ask yourself, "Will the reader agree with the quoted material, and, if not, what counterarguments will the reader mentally make?" Unless Professor X is a very respected authority indeed, simply X's name won't persuade the reader. Either the quote must itself contain a persuasive and relatively complete argument, or you have to explain why the quote is correct.

This should be obvious, but I've been struck by how often legal writers (especially students) miss it.

UPDATE: Just to clarify -- I'm referring here to the use of the phrase in legal argument, where the author is expected to defend his assertions in some detail. Naturally, in lots of contexts (e.g., casual conversation), the rules are entirely different.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. "Professor X Says":
  2. "Arguably" Instead of Argument:
stabimstam (mail):
If other students are anything like me, they deliberately use the method (1) to avoid rubbing their professors the wrong way when they unclear of their professor's personal views and/or (2) to quickly finish the paper when they are pressed for time. Further, almost all casebooks simply present arguments in the notes/comments sections but take no position on those arguments. Because students primarily read casebooks, they tend to conclude that this is an acceptable practice. Perhaps a caveat to the students before a major writing assignment is warranted?
5.29.2009 2:49pm
Commentor (mail):
"Professor X says" we must defeat Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
5.29.2009 2:55pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Personally I've always found Iron Man to be a more persuasive authority.
5.29.2009 2:57pm
Ex parte McCardle:
Honestly, ever since I was in law school, I've been disturbed by the pomposity of the "Professor X" formulation. How did it come about? Is there any other academic field that uses this particular locution? In addition to my law degree, I have a Ph.D. in musicology. The most distinguished American scholar in this field is Richard Taruskin. If I were discussing something he wrote, I would refer to him as "Richard Taruskin" the first time and as "Taruskin" thereafter, whether I was agreeing with him or taking issue with something he said. It would never occur to me to refer to him repeatedly as "Professor Taruskin."
5.29.2009 3:07pm
Citations to Onslaught's critical mutant writings on Palsgraf ended up netting me the book award in my Torts class.
5.29.2009 3:15pm
Chris 24601 (mail) (www):
What about this attitude, though? "I don't know enough about the [topic] to have an informed opinion, but [Professor X] is a serious and thoughtful scholar, and his views struck me as worth passing along."
5.29.2009 3:16pm

It would never occur to me to refer to him repeatedly as "Professor Taruskin."

Might that have something to do with the fact that in law there are at least three distinct sources that you might draw on for authority for some proposition (academics, judges, and eminent practitioners) whereas in academic fields it's normally only the professors who write theory?
5.29.2009 3:19pm
We agree with his legal writings because of his massive telepathic powers. If we dissent, he'll fry our brains. That big Jerk.

5.29.2009 3:23pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Chris 24601: Passing along someone else's opinion for whatever it's worth, without endorsing it or criticizing it, is generally useless in legal argument. But it's often quite helpful in casual conversation, including on blogs.
5.29.2009 3:29pm
MarkField (mail):

Passing along someone else's opinion for whatever it's worth, without endorsing it or criticizing it, is generally useless in legal argument.

But you are endorsing it, at least to the extent that you believe that the opinion deserves serious consideration.
5.29.2009 3:36pm
mischief (mail):
When you want real fun, say that "Professor X says that this is illegal. Professor Y claims that it is legal."

Said-bookisms are a lovely way to throw your weight behind someone without exposing yourself to counter-arguments.
5.29.2009 3:58pm
mischief (mail):
No, take that back.

Say that "Professor X explained that this was illegal."
5.29.2009 3:58pm
Philip Huff (mail) (www):
I think it all depends on the context. If, say, A, B, and C are all necessary conditions for D, it seems perfectly respectable to say something like: "As Professor X has pointed out, there are good reasons to believe that A and B are correct. Some, of course, continue to disagree with each. Rather than continue that debate, in this essay I want to fill a gap in the literature on D by establishing C."
5.29.2009 5:00pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> Passing along someone else's opinion for whatever it's worth, without endorsing it or criticizing it, is generally useless in legal argument. But it's often quite helpful in casual conversation, including on blogs.

One common form in blogs is to argue that someone must/should agree with a position because said someone is a Z and "Professor X" is also a Z.

This form is used by folks who are not Zs and generally disagree with Professor X. They're often people who, in other circumstances, often say "Professor X believes W so it's probably wrong." or "Professor X's opinion is worthless."
5.29.2009 5:12pm
mls (www):
Yeah, I was going to make the same point as Mischief. So and so "claims" or "asserts" implies that the speaker lacks support for whatever is claimed or asserted, while as so and so "explains" or "notes" suggests that whatever is explained or noted is self-evidently true.
5.29.2009 5:13pm
Chris 24601 (mail) (www):
Eugene--sorry, I didn't read this post as being about arguments.
5.29.2009 6:00pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Here's the way to do it:

"Some scholars say X, other scholars say Y. The better view is Y, because..."
5.30.2009 12:03pm
ChrisTS (mail):
In philosophical circles, we say "So-and-so SAW that .." So-and so is typically not just someone's professor.

It helps if it is someone BIG, like Plato, Whitehead, Heidegger, or whoever rings your bells. But, even if it is someone no one else in the room has heard of, you get the perfect combination of presumed authority and de facto correctness.
5.31.2009 12:44am

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