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Monday, January 09, 2006

Scholarship or Distraction?

This past Friday I sat in on a AALS panel discussion (Blogging: Scholarship or Distraction?) that Brooks earlier mentioned here.  The indefatigable Paul Caron has a very comprehensive post about the session, which I've reprinted after the jump.  I wanted to share a few reactions--aside from the remark that "Scholarship or Distraction?" could be an appropriate title for the whole AALS conference, and not just about the enterprise of blogging. 

First, I was surprised -- and, on balance, grateful -- to hear Randy Barnett say, essentially, blogging is great for senior prawfs, but dangerous and probably inadvisable for junior prawfs.  Randy did qualify his words of warning in several ways, and after hearing his full comments and after a brief discussion with him on the subject, I got the sense that his advice would be of especial concern to those junior bloggers whose political views (or views on legal subjects) fall sharply outside the mainstream of most law school faculties -- think Juan Non-Volokh -- or to those bloggers who have trouble finding time or inclination to write long (or now, medium-long) law review articles. 

As Vic Fleischer pointed out in his talk, many junior blogging prawfs are already productive; many are also in the mainstream politically (at least of law faculties).   That doesn't mean junior blawgers won't create an enemy on the faculty with something they write, but those factors might affect the odds.  Perhaps Randy's advice would be very worrisome if those of us on PrawfsBlawg were coming up for tenure this year.  But it seems to me that by the time most of us are up for tenure, blogging will be very mainstream (or at least much more mainstream) than it is now, and therefore less likely to be an issue.  Still, like Spinoza (Caute!), Barnett's advice is welcomed--and who knows, maybe some of us will step off our soapboxes as we get closer to promotion to help ensure that others think of us as, what Adrien Wing described at another panel on tenure, "the easy cases."  (Interestingly, Spencer Overton, on that same panel about tenure, actually recommended blogging by invoking the example of Orin Kerr.  I hope to post something later about that panel, which offered useful advice for tenure-seekers in law schools.)    

Moving on to something else: as Paul Caron wrote in his post, some audience members wondered why there aren't more female prawfs who are blogging.   My own sense, based on my experience, is that it's actually quite difficult to find (junior) women law professors who are willing and eager to blog--even for a short stint of two to three weeks.  Here at least it often seems that for every invitation accepted by a prospective female guest blogger, there are at least three who say they can't do it or don't wish to do it.  (By contrast, men seem to accept an invitation to test out the blogging waters here almost four out of five times.) 

Different reasons may explain this, but the main one I hear is the shortage of time available -- and female colleagues in the legal academy (whether they are single or married, with kids or without) tell me they don't have it.  I believe them and I understand and agree that blogging shouldn't be a priority.  When one professor asked Randy Barnett what he gave up to do blogging, and he said he doesn't watch nearly as much TV as he used to.  For me, I don't watch any tv (except movies) since I began blogging, and I've also -- perhaps surprisingly -- cut out a lot of the extra crap I used to read on the Net before.  As Vic said, blogging is a productive distraction and it might well prevent overconsumption of other leisure goods.  Blogging need not interfere with scholarship or family commitments, though for some I'm sure it does.  In all it was a very good conversation and I'm particularly glad that the panel decided (at what seemed to be the last minute) to add the perspective of a junior blogger (Vic Fleischer from the Glom). 

Two of the benefits about going to the conference were meeting so many people for the first time (including my co-bloggers Rick and Steve), as well as having a chance to reconnect with others.  Especially successful was the happy hour we sponsored with Concurring Opinions; I would guess there were almost sixty people there or so, and many of them are either bloggers or future guest-bloggers now!  So, the good news is we'll have a lot of new voices circulating in the blogosphere (and particularly, this corner of it) over the coming months.  But now is not the time to celebrate.  As the sages say, the day is short and the task ahead is great.

Update: Dan Solove, Larry Ribstein, Ann Althouse, and Christine Hurt have some further reactions. And now, Larry Solum has some more thoughts on his blog.

From Paul Caron's post:

After moderator Dennis M. Patterson (Rutgers-Camden) opened the program, the three panelists (all law professors with blogs) spoke for about twenty minutes each.  Lawrence B. Solum (Illinois & Legal Theory Blog) delivered the first set of remarks.

Larry divided law blogs into three categories:

  1. Blogs by academics with a legal focus (like his Legal Theory Blog)
  2. Blogs by academics with a non-legal focus (like Glenn Reynolds' InstaPundit)
  3. Blogs by non-academics with a legal focus (like Howard Bashman's How Appealing)

He then listed seven ways in which blogs are important for legal scholarship:

  1. Internet-time (v. snail mail-time)
  2. Open-source revolution
  3. Google searches
  4. Disintermediation (the declining influence of scholarly intermediaries)
  5. Lifting the cone of silence (the waning of the acoustic isolation of the academy)
  6. Globalization of the dissemination of legal scholarship
  7. eBayization of legal scholarship (changing the marketplace of scholarly ideas)

Larry concluded that blogs do not mark the end of the scholarly world as we know it.  Rather, blogs are part of the changing world in legal scholarship.  The old proxies (author's school, placement of article, etc.) are still important, but they are part of in a new context.  The traditional bounds for scholarly conversation (symposia, workshops, etc) continue.  The web and Google are the key new powers.  It remains to be seen what role blogs will play in the revolution wrought by these forces.

Victor Fleischer (UCLA & Conglomerate) offered a junior's (non-tenured faculty member's) perspective on blogging:

Vic noted that blogs are not the best way to make a lasting contribution to scholarship and instead are a distraction -- but "the most productive distraction."  Blogs can serve a very worthwhile pre-scholarship function:

  1. Test-drive ideas before they are published in a traditional scholarly product.  Get early feedback in time to shape the piece
  2. Keep up with scholarly trends in your field
  3. The act of writing down your ideas for a blog post requires more discipline than merely talking about them in the faculty lounge
  4. Self-promotion
  5. Invitations to conferences
  6. Network (meet more people, more quickly)

But blogging also has downsides:

  1. Distracts you from traditional scholarship
  2. Magnifies your personality
  3. Risk of offending senior colleagues

Randy E. Barnett (Boston University & The Volokh Conspiracy) offered two major points in his talk:

    1. It is not too late to join the blogging revolution
    2. Blogging is great for senior faculty, but should be avoided by junior faculty

Randy noted how blogs can further a law professor's scholarly career (he called his talk "Career Advice for Law Professors"):

  1. Great opportunity to try out new ideas -- a "virtual faculty lounge"
  2. Connect you to a community of scholars
  3. Stimulates your thinking
  4. Immediate feedback
  5. Promote your scholarship
  6. Penetrate mainstream journalism -- get influence in non-legal circles

But Randy also noted the pitfalls of blogging:

  1. Not a substitute for long-form legal scholarship (opinion people are not necessarily scholars)
  2. Must self-monitor to preserve your academic reputation
  3. Time drain

Randy's bottom line:  blogging is a wonderful activity for senior faculty to enhance their scholarly careers, but should be avoided by junior faculty because the career risks are simply too great.

For the final 45 minutes, the panelists responded to questions from the audience. Three highlights:

    1. One law prof (whom I will not name here) spoke wrenchingly about how blogging has harmed his scholarly career.  He noted that his scholarly productivity has plummeted since beginning his blog and warned those in the audience to be careful before starting a blog.
    2. D. Benjamin Barros (Widener & PropertyProf Blog) made the point, to which Vic and Randy agreed, that the risk to junior faculty bloggers -- offending senior faculty who will later hold it against them in tenure decisions --  is much less in the case of subject-specific blogs than with general interest blogs.
    3. The last question came from a woman law prof who asked (1) why there were so few women law prof bloggers, (2) why there were no women on the panel, and (3) why no women had even asked a question of the panel despite the large number of women in the room.  Much discussion ensued about the gender aspects of blogging.  Ellen S. Podgor (Georgia State & White Collar Crime Prof Blog) noted that roughly 40% of the 25+ blogs in our Law Professor Blogs Network have women editors.  (Although not mentioned at the  session, the November 2005 census of law professor bloggers by Daniel J. Solove (George Washington & Concurring Opinions) revealed that roughly 25% of the law professors who blog are women.)

Posted by Dan Markel on January 9, 2006 at 12:03 AM in Blogging | Permalink

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» Lawprof Blogging: Scholarship or Distraction?: from The Volokh Conspiracy
Paul Caron has a post summarizing the panel discussion on lawpof blogging at the AALS conference this past week. The panelists were Victor Fleischer, Larry Solum, Denn... [Read More]

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I got your trackback--did you actually provide a link to my post in there somewhere? I didn't see it. And also, the link to Professor Caron's post is broken: it sends you to the same post by Professor Holland you linked to earlier.

Great post!

Posted by: David Schraub | Jan 8, 2006 9:03:49 PM

David, thanks, I fixed the link you mentioned.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 8, 2006 9:19:15 PM

Dan, one additional thought on the gender imbalance in blogging, which echoes a comment I made back in May to a post Orin had at Volokh on a similar imbalance in law review articles (http://volokh.com/posts/1116522166.shtml#3320):

I think a significant reason for the imbalance is provided by Zofia Smardz, an editor for the Washington Post (Zofia Smardz, "Just Give It a Shot, Girls," Washington Post, Mar. 27, 2005), who noted a gender disparity in the number of editorials submitted for Outlook (WaPo's Sunday op/ed section).

Smardz paraphrases a neuropsychiatrist she's worked with: "Think of a man as carrying a quiverful of arrows. When he spies a target, he lets fly with the whole caboodle. Most of his arrows will miss the bull's-eye, but one is likely to hit. And that's the one people will remember -- and applaud. A woman, though, proceeds slowly and considers carefully. Only when she's pretty sure she has a perfect shot does she send off a single arrow. And she hits the mark! Amazing! But . . . too bad. The guy's already walked off with the prize."

My instinct is that this is largely accurate; why it might be true (biology, sociology, psychology, etc.) I leave to others.

Posted by: Laura Heymann | Jan 8, 2006 10:54:56 PM

none of the professors at my law school blog (a state school). I suggested it one of the professors and sent her a link to U of C faculty blog. at first she thought it would be great, but then later she worried that posts could jeopardize funding (since it was a state school). did that come up?

Posted by: a-train | Jan 9, 2006 1:20:17 PM

It's never come up in the conversations I have heard, and it bears mention that many leading bloggers are bloggers at state schools (Eugene Volokh, Bainbridge, Mark Klaiman, Doug Berman, Gordon Smith, Ribstein, etc.).

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 9, 2006 2:55:34 PM

Dan -- Having been unable to attend the panel, I guess I still have my one basic question: So long as a junior prawf is still productive w/r/t written, law-review-ish work, and so long as s/he is careful in making sure that their online publishing is of at least reasonable quality and academic/intellectual rigor, how significant did the panelists (and questioners) find _other_ potential drawbacks?

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Jan 9, 2006 5:02:17 PM

I think, in truth, those were the two big concerns. I suppose some might say that blogging, like any activity that elevates your profile too much outside of the school (litigating SCT or other high profile cases; publishing opeds in the NYT) could raise the ire (and envy) of senior colleagues, but my raw sense is that if you keep writing the law review articles and the teaching and the committee stuff, it would be hard to lodge a reasonable complaint. That said, Randy did say that all you need is one angry powerful person and that can sink your tenure chances because tenure decisions are not always done "on the merits." Or, more accurately, if one has one angry powerful enemy because of blogging, then that might motivate him/her to do the dirty work of exposing the well-hidden deficiencies that may/must lurk in one's scholarship. All said, it was somewhat bracing to hear.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 9, 2006 5:25:46 PM

Not trying to jinx my own chances, but ... as Leiter has noted, opined, and even, perhaps, ranted, achieving tenure in law schools is relatively easy compared to departments on other parts of university campuses. If that remains the case -- and it's an interesting but separate question as to whether it will -- an excessive amount of exposure shouldn't affect one's chances so long as one avoids the obvious pitfalls of blogging in an exceptionally controversial manner (e.g., straying from the boundaries of "acceptable" discourse, lying about oneself, coming across as a total jerk, etc.).

I just don't see a Drezner case (high blogging volume/ quality + high research volume/ quality but denied tenure) occurring in the legal academy. Indeed, given the opportunities to move laterally in the legal academy, the law blogging Drezner would have had significant market power by the time he had come up for tenure. Ultimately, I think a junior person makes herself far more vulnerable through actions that are internal to the institution -- speaking out forcefully during the appointments process, for example, or failing to spend sufficient amounts of face time at school.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Jan 10, 2006 8:32:22 AM

the problem is, a blogger is not himself well placed to know if he comes across as obnoxious. There are untenured (and tenured) legal bloggers out there who I'd welcome as laterals at my top 20 law school, because their blogs make them seem interesting and smart and potentionally fun to have around. There are other bloggers I know solely though blogs who seem like self-important asses, and I'd be very reluctant to see them hired laterally. Err on the side of humility.

Posted by: lawprof | Jan 11, 2006 11:04:20 AM

Any non-scholarly forum which draws attention to junior faculty has both advantages (publicity) and disadvantages (you might piss some people off). It depends how much you care about getting tenure. If you have other non-academic career options that interest you, then you can take more risks. NYU's Noah Feldman has been writing in the NYT magazine, and UVa's Rosa Brooks does columns for the LA Times. They both got tenure. As far as I know neither of them blogs, but the issues are probably similar. Obviously they decided it was worth the risk.

Posted by: Cynic | Jan 11, 2006 9:14:59 PM

COULD YOU MAKE YOUR SPEECH SHORTER!

Posted by: Olivia | Feb 8, 2007 2:02:36 PM

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