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Friday, April 10, 2015

Reflections on Prawfs at 10: interstitial ideas & serious fun

PrawfsBlawg is ten years old? Whoa. Tempus, as the Latin-speaker says, fugit. As with many of the other OGs, I recall well my first involvement with Prawfs, back in January 2006 when I was still a pre-prawf Fellow at an undisclosed location in the American Midwest. And as with most or all the others, of course, the impetus for my participation in the blog came from Dan, who I’d known since law school. Back then, blogging was still not quite accepted as a mainstream form of discourse for legal scholars, so I wasn’t entirely sure how the medium worked or what it would do for me, but I took the leap and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made at that early stage in my career. Prawfs has been a huge positive force in my professional life, and I am certainly indebted to Dan for inviting me to get on board all those years ago.

I’ve been a bit out of the blogging loop, but when I saw the Prawfsiversary stuff developing this week, I belatedly sought and received a dispensation from the current BlawgFathers to lob in a few guests posts this month (thanks, guys). So to pick up on the proposed question, what has Prawfs meant to me? A ton, but I’ll sort it into two basic categories—one serious and one not so serious—each of which I’ll elaborate below the fold.

First, Prawfs has provided me an invaluable forum in which to articulate ideas that didn’t fit elsewhere. This is a slightly different point than the one Howard made earlier this week about blogs as incubators for ideas for writing projects (though that is another function they serve well). When you start to hit mid-career as an academic, I think the challenge in writing ceases to be figuring out what it is you want to say, and instead becomes sorting out which of your various ideas warrants the time to turn into a full-length article or essay.

In other words, not every interesting idea warrants a separate law review article, either because it does not require 60+ pages of detailed, footnoted explication (if that is ever truly necessary) or because it does not relate to the kind of topic that would be appropriate for law reviews. But that does not mean those ideas aren’t interesting or worth sharing. And while there are now more options available for these intermediate-level ideas (online law review companions, for example), one good place for them is the blogosphere. This is what Prawfs has meant to me professionally: A space within which to express interstitial ideas that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside.

Sometimes, this resulted in essaylets that I thought turned out well and was proud of. One example is Puzzles and Prescriptions, a post I wrote after some good conversations with Dan and others at various PrawfsFest about the meta-question of what kind of thesis a paper has to deliver (i.e., normative claims about how the law should be versus explanatory claims about what theories best make sense of observed anomalies in the world—and yes, now I see that this dichotomy leaves out at least a third category, descriptive but non-explanatory claims such as the kind that typically emerge from quantitative empirical studies). Not everything was a winner, though. In looking back through my old posts, I ran across one from the same 2009 guest-blogging stint, System Externalities, and it just didn’t seem to work. I still think the idea has promise, but it’s not that well explained, and I can see why the commenters found it murky.

But that’s the point: By lowering the entry costs of getting your ideas out there, blogs have enabled a lot of heterogeneity, and the downside is that some of those ideas may not work out, it’s more effort to sort through everything that’s out there, and sometimes you’ll take a shot at something that just doesn’t work.  But on balance I think it’s well worth the costs to make the marketplace of ideas richer, even if that means the marketplace is more like a teeming open-air bazaar than a genteel Whole Foods, and I’m grateful to Prawfs for doing that—and letting me play a role in it.

Second, and on a much less serious note, Prawfs has been a hell of a lot of fun. Dan included “Odd World” as a category in Prawfs, and I took the cue in one of my first posts to write about the early modern practice of subjecting animals to criminal punishment (often as co-defendants in bestiality cases), and in a later post to contemplate Walter Sobchak’s observation that “the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint” in The Big Lebowski. The legal-academic world did not cease to spin on its axis following these posts, of course, but it was cool to write them, and more generally I think the light tone of many Prawfs posts and discussions gave some needed leavening to the somber- and seriousness of mainstream academic discourse.

And PrawfsBlawg led to the spinoff workshop PrawfsFest! (I include the “!” not because I seek to end that sentence with emphasis but because, of course, that is how Dan always wrote it.) I attended my first ‘Fest in late 2007 and found myself in the regular rotation for the next several years. It’s a great regret of mine that I had to bail on the December 2013 iteration because as it turned out that would have been a last chance to visit with Dan in person. These workshops were always a great time, not only because Dan drove everyone to engage in serious discussion of ten papers over two days, but also because the conversations were as entertaining as they were productive, with equal parts good humor and rigorous debate.

I will cap this walk down the ten-year memory lane there. Thanks again to Howard et al. for letting me weigh in and to others for their contributions so far. I look forward to reading the rest of them throughout the month.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on April 10, 2015 at 04:31 PM | Permalink


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