A Scholar Blogs: The Wrong Question

Over at Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr admits that he’s evolved. 

Back in 2005 and 2006, a lot of law-professor bloggers wondered whether blog posts could and would serve as ways to advance scholarly ideas about law. At the time,  I was very skeptical :

Can blogs help advance legal scholarship? I think the answer is that they can, but that the format isn’t well-suited for the job…

Fast forward to the present, and I now think my old self was wrong. Or at least a bit off. I now think blogging actually does provide an effective way to present new scholarly ideas in many cases.

What Orin neglects to mention is that he, and Eugene and others at VC, are largely responsible for the seriousness with which the ideas offered in blogs are taken.  Other lawprof blogs have followed suit.  And, some might argue, have offered an idea or two themselves from time to time. 

But Orin’s measure of scholarship is the old standard, law review articles. 

The main reason my view has changed is that I think the legal academic culture has changed. In the past five years, legal blogs have become an acknowledged and accepted part of the world of legal scholarship. Exactly why is open to debate. It might be because more law professors are blogging. It might be because our experience has been that what profs say on their blogs is usually the same as what they say in their articles. Perhaps the new online journal supplements have blurred the traditional paper-vs-on-line distinction. Whatever the reason, there seems to be more of a convergence between scholarly blogging and “traditional” law review articles today than existed 4 or 5 years ago. That convergence encourages more scholarly blogging and recognizes its value.

The implicit, or maybe not so implicit, message is that scholarship is what’s written by lawprofs in law review articles, those tedious, footnote laden dinosaurs read by some student editors and maybe one or two other lawprofs, diehards in a niche looking for inspiration to write their own law review article perhaps?

As my buddy CharonQC would say, bollocks.  Scholarship isn’t what shows up in some moribund law review, but creative ideas subject to peer review.  That law journals were once the only game in town for the aspiring scholar to strut his stuff means nothing in a world where ideas can be floated before a jury of one’s peers without ever killing a tree.  Break free from the chains, brother.  And remember, it’s not like  real people read law review articles, not that lawprofs care.

The point is that it’s about the ideas, not the format.  A good idea in two paragraphs beats a good idea in two thousand any day.  And it’s a lot harder to do.  As my good buddy, Dan Hull, reminds:

I have made this letter longer–because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), mathematician, physicist, philosopher, in “Lettres Provinciales“, No. 16, 1657

Which leads inexorably to the next issue, already anticipated by Orin : the adoration of “complex and sophisticated words [to] create the impression of complex and sophisticated arguments.”  The point is to create the appearance of brilliant scholarship when the substance is lacking.  Ann Althouse calls it the “obfuscation” of ideas that could be presented “crisply and simply,” and takes up too much time to interpret.  Big words do not scholarship make.  It’s the ideas, and ideas are no more constrained by $10 words than by law reviews.

But that doesn’t mean that every blog by a lawprof qualifies as scholarship.  Not because it can’t, but because it doesn’t.  Some provide remarkably little in the “idea” category, more like squibs about cute or funny news without any commentary, deep or not,   Others provide a stream of news within a very narrow niche, along the lines of “isn’t this interesting.”  Informative, but not scholarship. 

At the same time, one can even find scholarship in trench lawyer blogs, like this post by Mark Bennett.  Is it heresy to suggest that lawyers have ideas worthy of note?  I think not.

Blogs are merely a delivery mechanism.  That they are too brief, and usually too clearly written, to meet the approval of students who determine what writings end up in the next volume of a law review is only meaningful if one concludes that the medium is more important than the message.

There is, however, one huge distinguishing factor differentiating blogs from law reviews.  People read blogs. 

3 comments on “A Scholar Blogs: The Wrong Question

  1. Ernie Svenson

    I was the managing editor of my law review, thus I was responsible for obsessing about Bluebook form. Even though all of my fellow editors had little idea of what properly constituted ‘legal scholarship’, we lorded over the law professors who submitted their articles as though we were giving thumbs up or down at the Roman Coliseum.

    I went to work for a federal trial judge after law school. He was whip smart, and had been the editor-in-chief of the same law review when he was in law school. He had complete disdain for law reviews, but only because he experienced first hand their puppy-like ineptitude. He submitted one article, as a favor to someone I believe, and they edited it without his permission to change words and thereby alter the carefully crafted meaning of his text.

    He constantly reminded me that nothing I learned while on the law review would be of any practical use to me as a lawyer. And, of course, he was right.

    When he passed away, I wrote a blog post about what it was like to serve in his chambers. The final passage ended with me describing how he used to come down the hallway and bellow my last name, which he used to mispronounce as ‘Swenson.’

    In writing the blog post, this observation was a carefully crafted point to illustrate that he had a profound influence on me even though he never learned how to pronounce my last name. No one who read the article could fail to miss this point, and the bittersweetness of it.

    Someone came up with the idea of doing at tribute to him in the Law Review that he and I had served on. Many people wrote tributes, and I was asked if I would grant permission to have my republished. I agreed, and emailed the editors a text file of the blog post.

    My words didn’t need any editing, or fact checking. They didn’t contain citations, so there were no Bluebook issues. Nevertheless, the editors took it upon themselves to edit my words. And guess which one got changed? Yep, the last sentence was changed so that my name was spelled correctly, which of course completely undercut the carefully crafted point.

    The irony of that moment is almost too much for me to bear. All they had to do was copy and paste, but the simplicity of that task was too much for them. My judge was right: law review experience is worthless. And, in most cases, it’s actually dangerous.

  2. My Shingle

    Why Big Firms Don’t Blog Well: Not Too Much Risk, But Too Little Passion

    Chalk one up for the solos and small firms. For what it’s worth, we dominate the ranks of the Third Annual ABA Blawg 100. By contrast, only two large firm blogs made the cut, Mark Herrmann observes at Drug and…

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