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Monday, August 01, 2005

How might we improve blogs as an academic medium?

With many thanks to Dan Markel and others in the PrawfsBlawg (PB) universe, I am so very pleased to guest-blog at this terrific locale.  For a variety of reasons (which I hope to explain in a future post), I resist urges to blog "off topic" at Sentencing Law and Policy and at another blog to which I contribute.  But I have been eager to have an opportunity to think out loud — blog out loud? — about topics like blogs as a medium, judicial clerkships, the law professor marketplace and similar topics.  I suspect (or at least hope) that PB is an especially good forum for discussion of these sorts of matters.

To get my guest stint off and running, I hope PB contributors and readers might be engaged by the question that is the title of this post: How might we improve blogs as an academic medium for law professors? 

With this question, I mean to pick up some themes that Ron Wright raised in this recent post about blogs in the academy.  Ron suggested, inter alia, that it may become important for legal scholars "to show how the blog format serves as a supplement to their other academic work, and not an efficient replacement for much of that work."   This insight raises the broader question of whether and how the blog format — either through improved technological infrastructure or through the development of professional norms about the medium — can and will evolve to become a more respected and trusted academic medium for law professors.

Of course, a lot of law professors may not want blogs to become a more respected and trusted academic medium, perhaps for fear that blogging will become just another professional obligation.  But I seriously doubt blogs will ever evolve into a required medium for law professors: I suspect tenure committees in the future are unlikely to be concerned that a junior prof has not done enough blogging, just as tenure committees now are unlikely to be concerned that a junior prof has not written enough op-eds. 

I am concerned, however, that blogs may never evolve into a truly respected academic medium for law professors, even though I think a case might be made, especially with the recent forums sponsored by SCOTUSblog, that we are starting to see more and more first-rate scholarly ideas appearing on the blogsphere well before they surface in more traditional outlets.  Thus my question for those interested in having (at least some) blogs further evolve into a respected and trusted academic medium for law professors: how might we help make that happen?

Posted by Douglas A. Berman on August 1, 2005 at 01:47 PM in Blogging | Permalink


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» Asking for A Little Respect: from The Volokh Conspiracy
Doug Berman, the latest lawprof guestblogger over at PrawfsBlawg (which perhaps should be renamed GuestsBlawg), has an interesting post asking how blogs c... [Read More]

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Douglas Berman asks:How might we improve blogs as an academic medium for law professors? With this question, I mean to pick up some themes that Ron Wright raised in this recent post about blogs in the academy. Ron suggested, inter [Read More]

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Some blogs may be "an academic medium" (Sentencing Law and Policy), others almost entirely frivilous (Fark), but the ones to which I return are written about whatever happens to interest the blogger at the time.

But yes, there is a place for "academic" blogging. Let those that wish to be such so state at their masthead, and be judged by their peers, much as The New England of Medicine does. And let them not be restrained by "editors" unless that, too, is noted.

During my time as a computer programmer, I read Computerworld and other profession-oriented publications. I still do read some. But that does not mean I wanted everything - or even most - of what I read to be "academic", any more than the world of magazines is entirely about computers without Model Railroader, Reader's Digest, Time and Newsweek, or even Bride.

I read Volokh Conspiracy at least three times a week, it is almost entirely about legal issues, and I can certainly imagine it as a resource for scholars - but I do not read it as a textbook, and hope it never becomes more than "extra-curricular" reading for law students since I would probably then find it unintelligible.

Posted by: John Anderson | Aug 2, 2005 5:16:06 PM

Doug, I'd like to add two cents from one practitioner's perspective. I am an appellate specialist at the Ohio AG's office (I'm the guy who works for Doug Cole; we've met a few times). You've asked "How might we improve blogs as an academic medium for law professors?" I'd like to suggest that any blog that tries to "improve" in that direction should first look at maintaining the value they already have: many key law blogs are now not just as academic medium, and are not just for law profs, but are working well as a real tool for practicing lawyers. Or, even if we don't use them as nuts-n-bolts tools, they allow us to keep in touch with intellectual legal debate without having to be profs. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. :-)) So, as a loyal fan, I'd like to remind some of the academics reading this of what they've done for me in the past few years, and what I hope they don't lose.

Blogs are better for me than L.Rev.s will ever be, in these ways:

1. I need speed. Often, we have a pending appeal that raises the same issues as a USSC case, so we need to do a supplemental brief, or adjust a brief-in-progress, and blogs that give us ideas are great. For example, as you know, Ohio (like every State) is dealing with Blakely fallout. Your blog was great for helping us do our Blakely case, but a year-later L.Rev. piece does no good.

2. I need easy-to-digest bites. Sorry, but we don't all have time to read your academic masterpieces.

3. I need a focus on what the law is or conceivably might be in my near future. I like insights into where the Supreme Court's jurisprudence is actually headed, not a Grand Unified Theory of what-might-be if 6 Justices retire and are replaced by Critical Legal Theorists or something.

4. I like being able to jump in discussions, and having other practitioners jump in as well. Marty nailed it when he talked about the interaction between the practitioners and the academics. I don't think the L.Revs capture enough of that.

So, for me, I think the question is where each blog wants to be on the spectrum between L.Rev/academia and on-the-ground practice, and/or how many "layers" of depth it wants to offer for different audience segments. To serve a grassroots DUI/divorce/tort trial practice, a blog should perhaps be more down-to-earth than Volokh. But for those of us who practice appellate law, constitutional law, etc., SCOTUSBlog and Volokh are in a pretty sweet spot right now, straddling academia and our-segment-of-practice, and I'd hate to see them get "more academic" at the cost of losing what they do for me now.

My preference is for the more sophisticated pages to continue the trend toward having layers/segments, with quick hits for me, and deeper academic discussion as well, for other readers, or for me when I get more time. Your Sentencing Blog is a great model, as I like having the posts down the middle, with links to your scholarly work and to think-tank reports, etc., on the wings. Mirror of Justice also does that, with its posts down the middle, and links to bigger academic papers down the side. On Volokh, individual posts have SSRN links, or you can link thru the contributor's law-school page to get to his/her work, etc., but maybe it would be nice if Eugene expands his "Stuff From Us" section on the right to cover more of everyone's scholarship.

Bottom line -- don't turn perfectly good blogs into L.Revs.

The better question, then, may be this -- should L.Revs get more bloglike, rather than the reverse? How can more L.Revs become useful tools for practitioners, while still maintaining their deeper scholarship? But that's a whole new topic, and my budgeted time for lunch-time blog-checking is up. (That practitioner slant again).


Stephen Carney

Posted by: Stephen Carney | Aug 2, 2005 12:15:51 PM

Here's the take of a non-academic, non-lawyer who finds the topic interesting beyond just law blogs.

Why is there a need for the medium to be respected instead of the message? There have been bad articles and books published in paper and there will be bad articles written online. That's what peer review is all about. I'd worry less about respect for the medium and more about respect for the individual writer, whatever medium you publish in.

Posted by: Tom Hanna | Aug 2, 2005 12:09:53 PM

Good point, Orin, which perhaps suggests the need/importance of (external?) mechanisms for sorting/assessing blogs. In other media, editors provide the sorting/assessment mechanism for journal article placement and op-ed publication. But such editors do not provide this kind of quality control for blogs, and it is clear that some bloggers will not desire (or be willing to spend the needed time) to make blogs a respected academic medium.

And, to raise a somewhat distinct point I also wanted to bring up in this context, there is also the issue of effective access. The on-line services of Lexis and Westlaw (and now also SSRN to some extent) provide a ready means for fellow academics to find, access and utilize traditional legal scholarship. My sense is that, despite the genius of google, the blogsphere currently lacks means to ensure quality scholarly posts are easy to to find, access and utilize.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 1, 2005 6:59:17 PM

Doug writes: "I am concerned, however, that blogs may never evolve into a truly respected academic medium for law professors. . . ."

Doug, can you explain why you are concerned about that? My sense is that over time, respect tends to go where it is deserved (albeit imperfectly). If blog posts end up providing serious academic resources and food for thought, they will be respected. If they end up being of poor quality or of limited long-term value, they will not be. So I suppose my thought is that if you want blogs to evolve into a truly respected academic medium, the best solution is for us academic bloggers to write posts that deserve that kind of respect.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 1, 2005 5:21:19 PM


What you folks did at SCOTUSblog highlighted one way in which the blog medium could be structured to engage effectively top-notch academics and commentators, and it will be interesting to compare/contrast the comments there with what ends up in the law journals. It will also be interesting to see if any of the early blog commentary gets cited/referenced in more traditional scholarly works on these matters.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 1, 2005 3:17:57 PM

Most of those SCOTUSblog discussions -- principally on Kelo, Grokster and the Ten Commandments decisions, although we also had proto-discussions on Raich, Livestock Marketing and Castle Rock -- can be found by clicking on the chosen subject in the "Categories" section on the right-hand side of this site:


The idea behind these discussions was to bring together a cross-section of academics and practitioners with real expertise on the case in question, for their initial thoughts in what amounted to the first 48 hours after the case was decided. I think the experiment worked rather well, and revealed some provocative and unexpected fault lines (see, e.g., the reactions to Burt Neuborne's ideas in the Ten Commandments thread). These discussions were distinct from individual blogging, and from the scholarship that will follow, in that they were somewhat interactive -- a discussion of sorts, in which the persons writing were actually trying to persuade and to test ideas, rather than preaching to the choir (which unfortunately is all-too-often the case in blogging). The key to making it work is, of course, to choose very good participants -- those who really know the law and who are willing and able to do more than simply regurgitate sound bites -- and, quite frankly, to exclude most of the many folks who wish to participate (many of whom would have valuable things to write), so as to keep the discussion *fairly* focused and interactive. I hope we were successful in that regard, although I'm sure we'll improve in future Terms -- assuming there's an audience for these things, which is the only reason the best participants will continue to agree to contribute.

I suspect these are similar to the discussions that take place around proverbial academic water coolers after a decision is issued -- after which everyone goes and shuts themselves in their offices for the purpose of producing *the* definitive reaction in scholarship nine months later. Here, it will be interesting to see how many of the ideas that SCOTUSblog (and others) published on, say, Grokster and McCreary County, make their way into the scholarship and, perhaps more importantly, to see whether the scholarship focuses on ideas and nuances that the discussion-bloggers overlooked in the heat of the moment.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Aug 1, 2005 2:11:57 PM

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