Saturday, April 29, 2006

Law professor blogging

(Update, May 2, 2006: In this related post, here, I offer one specific example of what blog legal scholarship might look like, in the area of public international law scholarship and methodology.)

(Update, April 30, 2006: Hmm ... after observing below that this blog is mostly surfed by undergrads looking for a quick term paper fix on just war theory, and doesn't get read by law professors, Roger Alford, Transatlantic Assembly, and 3LEpiphany have all linked on this post and brought over some prof surfers. Welcome, anybody checking out this site! Here are two of my favorite posts on this blog, here and here.)

I've been reading with considerable interest the papers on law professor blogging from the Harvard conference this past week. Larry Solum has posted them here, at Legal Theory Blog. Roger Alford of Opinio Juris has pulled from the conference some striking observations about blogging, the effects of the web, and the future of law professor scholarship and roles, here.

I have some doubts about the "flattening" effects that some have imputed to blogging and the internet on legal scholarship. Certainly the pressure is on services like Lexis and Westlaw - merely having a proprietary database won't work as a long term business model. On the other hand, there are many circumstances - in high pressure, high billing law practice, for example - where a well organized, easily searchable data base has immense advantages over running all over the Web. In that case, of course, it is not the data per se, but the service provided by its data base features that is the selling point.

SSRN is crucial to me, because the frankly weird areas of international law that I tend to write about - international NGOs and global civil society, for example - are highly interdisciplinary and don't really have much of a law school audience. Many of my readers, to the extent there are any, are abroad, and many are far outside of law faculties. It is usually by accident that law professors have an interest in my areas, alas. SSRN enables me to bridge those gaps.

Still, I think that the branding of top law reviews will continue to dominate even in the future, because no one has time to read a truly level playing field, and we will all want someone to do the culling, at least at the first level. The striking unwillingness of law professors to create and staff genuinely peer reviewed journals I take as an indication that we collectively prefer to allow someone else to do the culling. Brand will matter.

Will law professors increasingly become public intellectuals? Well, maybe, but then it's all a matter of numbers. What does it mean to have so large a group of public intellectuals that no one knows who they are? Judge Posner, in a moment of frankly unjustified kindness, included me (far down) in his lists of public intellectuals in his book on the subject a couple of years ago - almost entirely because I've written occasionally over the past dozen or so years for the Times Literary Supplement in London. What I've noticed, however, is that because (up until pretty recently) it has been available only very sparsely online - unlike, say, the New York Review of Books - its visibility among academics has gotten smaller and smaller. My younger colleagues have frankly not heard of it. This is too bad, because it remains the best written and edited of the major literary reviews. But it has guarded its content so thoroughly that it has lost recognition among younger scholars - and cachet, too, as it is difficult to attribute cachet to something you don't know exists.

My not very major point is simply that public intellectuals can be so exclusive as to stop being public anymore - or so inclusive that every blog counts. I am, actually, all in favor of the democratization of the public intellectual marketplace, but I don't think it will flatten as much as some think, nor do I think it will stay flat for all that long - and the driver will be reader attention spans, including mine.

Put another way, if I were someone strolling across the web, this particular blog is not one I would pause upon. I don't think of it as quite the same as the categories in the Harvard conference - it's really something less. It's more or less a public filing cabinet, consisting mostly of articles that I don't want to lose track of, with relatively little commentary from me. There's also a component of self-salesmanship, posting my own articles and stuff like that. But mostly it's a filing cabinet.

Random thought about web traffic statistics and how deans might use them as they now do citation lists. I don't do very well in Westlaw citation lists, in large part because my writings, to the extent they have an audience, reach to people outside of law. But when I look at my site meter to get an idea of who stumbles onto this blog, well, I think it mostly visited by undergraduates looking for term paper help on topics like just war theory. Hope it's useful that way. Is that what law school deans should be looking for when trying to assess web-based scholarship?

Another random thought. I say explicitly at the top of this blog that it is all first draft stuff, and subject to changing my mind. Readers post comments that more than occasionally cause me to rethink things. However, blogs are taken by plenty of people not to be first draft, discussion, subject to revision stuff, but as something to cite as evidence of - well, I mean the "gotcha" moment. I got into a discussion in blog posts and comments with some folks over the definition of torture and interrogation policy last year - I found it all very annoying, not very scholarly, and definitely not enlightening - the tendency was to treat blog posts as statements in depositions for cross examination. Instead of trying to make sense of what was said, to advance the debate - it was, on the contrary, trying to twist phrases out of context - what litigators do all the time, naturally, but nothing of any scholarly value. Which may be another way of saying that it is a mistake to try and pursue moral philosophy with a lawyer in deposition mode.

I would probably stop blogging here if I thought what I said here was being looked at routinely by my colleagues at my law school - or I would turn it into essentially a web page for my scholarship - at a minimum there would be a lot more self censorship. I admire the measured, careful, deeply respectful tone of Opinio Juris - it is what a group blog should sound like when it is deliberately and admirably heterogeneous in its politics, and widely read by the profession. This blog isn't that, and if it were, I would definitely sound a lot more like it. I wouldn't write, for example, about what a shabby response Yale president Levin has given in the YaleTaliban case, for example. I would probably (probably!) include less Mark Steyn. I think people underestimate how much of what people say in blogs is tacitly on the assumption that, although not anonymous and theoretically in the open, nobody to whom you have to pay attention actually knows it exists or cares.

I like to blog in part because it gives me a place to chat informally about books that I read - I like to review books because I like to read them. I like knowing that someone can hook into this blog through google even though they have no interest in anything else on this blog except the weird post on Rene Char - my former Harvard student Adam Lewis, now at Debevoise, just dropped me a note to say he'd run across my blog looking for Rene Char stuff - hi Adam, and this is one of the very cool things about blogs - or my passion for the chamber music of Buxtehude.

Is blogging a time waster? On the one hand, it has given me a place where I do get feedback on stuff I am working on. On the other hand, I have three overdue articles - one on reciprocity and the laws of war, one on method and politics in international law scholarship, one on legislative responses in the war on terror, a short book manuscript on the UN, global civil society, and global governance. And a book review of Francis Fukuyama's Neo Con book for the TLS. And here I am chatting about blogs and future of legal scholarship!

2 comments:

AML said...

Hi, Ken. Is Rene Char weird, or do you think your post on Rene Char is weird? Because I think he's awesome. Although I guess one could -- if one were kind of pretentious -- say something thin or thick about the old senses of "weird," as "fateful" and "becoming," in which case I suppose he is pretty weird for some people.

As for the value of blogging, for the most part, I hate and fear blogs' repetitive, monotonous, violent populism, but that is a wholly idiosyncratic view.

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