Prawfs on the Twitters

Anyone who followed Harvard lawprof Laurence Tribe on twitter had to wonder what he was thinking when he twitted “Louise Mensch is right.” Was he using his scholarly cred to validate a nonsensical conspiracy theorist? Did he lose his mind?

Carissa Byrne Hessick has drafted a short symposium paper directed to establishing “academic norms” for law professors on twitter.

This short symposium contribution discusses the virtues and the vices of law professors participating in a now-popular form of public discourse: Twitter. It also offers some tentative thoughts on what professional norms ought to apply to law professors who identify themselves as law professors on Twitter. Specifically, it suggests that law professors should assume that, each time they tweet about a legal issue, they are making an implicit claim to expertise about that issue. It also suggests that law professors who participate on Twitter should do so primarily to help promote reasoned debate.

Some of us see academics are living in an Ivory Tower. Apparently, academics see themselves bringing the Ivory Tower to wherever they are at the moment. Do lawprofs not get to have opinions on myriad subjects and issues, express their views even if they’re just hot takes, enjoy the occasional joke or have some fun and camaraderie, like us groundlings?

There’s an insufferable pretentiousness to the notion that academics don’t get to hang around with the “ordinary” folk because they represent an intellectual elite. One can almost hear the officious sniffling as they look down their noses at the ignorant masses.

It’s curious that Hessick has decided to wade into the cesspool of twitter. Her experience there is limited, She joined twitter in March, 2015 and has fewer than 6,000 twits. In twitter terms, she’s barely past n00b stage.* She brings neither institutional memory nor significant personal experience to her normative views of propriety. I don’t follow her on twitter, though I’ve seen her twits on occasion.**

Essentially, her paper is her “hot take” on how prawfs who have been there before her should behave now that there are new tone police in town.

There are a number of reasons that a law professor might want to post on Twitter. As compared to the other platforms available to law professors, Twitter has distinct advantages as a method of communication with other law professors and with the public more generally. Twitter allows law professors to broaden the reach of their ideas, increase their professional profiles, and communicate more easily and more quickly than other media.

Aside from the need to tell other people why they want to do what they want to do, a curiosity in itself, it’s notable that Hessick fails to include the possibility that people, who happen to teach at law schools, just want to have some fun, hang around with other people, let their extremely tight bun down and enjoy rubbing elbows with the common people. Is there anything wrong with that? Is there no place where “scholars” get to be just like anyone else?

The problem is that Hessick’s view of twitter is constrained by academic purposes, enhancement of scholarly reputation and dissemination of scholarly ideas, rather than just people twitting with other people for the hell of it. That a person on twitter is a lawprof doesn’t mean they sleep in a cap and gown. Some go to football games. Some drink a pint in a tavern. Some twit. Some don’t view their every action, every utterance, as an extension of their scholarly goals and purposes, with the requisite scholarly rules applying.

But the issue is that they are lawprofs. Their bios say so. Their handles often say so as well. Their students see their twits. Other lawprofs see their twits. The public, knowing they’re lawprofs, see their twits. Much as an academic may want to be able to play on twitter, their titles remain intact and their twits reflect on them, their schools and the academy.

Participating on Twitter allows a law professor to share her ideas and increase her
professional profile more easily than publishing traditional scholarship and attending
conferences. But when a law professor identifies herself on Twitter as a law professor, her
behavior on the platform reflects not only on her, but also on her law school and on the legal
academy as a whole.

Must they be that buttoned up? Are they not allowed to be prawfs and people too? Remember Tribe, whose scholarly reputation as a Harvard constitutional law professor gives his opinions on legal issues enormous weight. Does that mean the Marshal of the Supreme Court really will be arresting Donald Trump for a FISA indictment, as Louise Mensch claims? If Tribe validates her, she can’t be totally bonkers, right?

I have two suggested norms for law professors who tweet: First, law professors should assume that, each time they tweet about a legal issue, they are making an implicit claim to expertise about that issue. Second, professors who participate on Twitter should do so primarily to help promote reasoned debate.

Some people can’t imagine driving on a road without clear lines. Hessick’s concerns about academics not using their scholarly cred to spread misinformation are well-founded. But her solution is misdirected overkill. While wearing her mortar board at all times may bring her comfort, other academics are witty, interesting, and just as entitled to engage in discussions of breaking news, legal and political issues, fun stuff, outrageous stuff, as anyone else. And they often have a great deal to contribute, even if it falls a sniffle or two shy of a law review article.

Does that mean academics get to enjoy the benefit of scholarly cred, lording it over the groundlings as faux experts? Hardly. As with all social media, the solution is the medium. If some academic offers a twit that’s wrong, some other academic can challenge it, correct it. It’s the internet. Being wrong has always been at its core, as has correcting someone on the internet. That’s how real people express their views and others give them a smack when they believe they’re wrong. If a prawf twits something stupid, another prawf can call her out on it. If that’s too bold and unseemly for a prawf, the problem isn’t twitter, but lack of intellectual honesty and fortitude.

Disagreement isn’t a flaw, but a feature. Someone with institutional memory of the internet, of the twitters, would know this. But then, there are always people trying to impose rules on the unruly, as they can’t bear the idea of people, even academics, just having some fun.

*For comparison purposes, I’ve been on twitter since 2008.

**While Hessick has some interesting twits, my sense is that she would feel far more comfortable using a medium that allows for 240 pages than 240 characters.

37 thoughts on “Prawfs on the Twitters

  1. Keith

    There’s a difference between incidentally attaching your prawf title to a tweet, by virtue of it being in your bio and adding the position to, say, a brief to bring that detached scholarly cred to promote advocacy.

    The internet has always been a place where we had one online persona (per platform) for what we used to have multiple personas in the old days.

    I get the sense that people growing up in the digital age may not fully appreciate how it worked before every audience saw every comment in all situations.

    1. SHG Post author

      If they opine “I say x, and I’m right because I’m an x scholar,” then they’re using their cred to vouch for the value of their opinion. If not, then they’re just another rando with an opinion, and they’re allowed to be a rando with an opinion.

      1. Billy Bob

        Lawfprawfs on Twitter,
        Each a heavy-hitter.
        The Stentorians have spoken,
        Have the peons awoken?
        All that Glitter, is not Gold.

        We hereby pronounce 2018, The Year of the LawPrawf! (It’s all Trump’s fault? He ruined it for everybody who was just having fun.)

        1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

          Stentor was a guy, Billy, not a group of people. A guy who was very, very loud. Remind you of someone?

          1. SHG Post author

            Correcting Bill’s referential word choice may not be the best use of your time. Remember, he prefers the royal “we.”

          2. Billy Bob

            You are so Teutonic there, DML BB invokes “poetic license”. He is using Stentorian in the generic/symbolic sense–obviously–as it has become down thru the ages. You and Pedantic Grammar PoliceMan should get together. SHG is correct; correcting BB is not the best use of your time, but thanks for the gesture.

  2. Conner Leo

    A professor might can have experience with a given subject. While this adds weight to their tweets it shouldn’t allow people to become complacent with their trust. Never explicitly trust anything on the Internet. Chew on it for awhile.

    1. SHG Post author

      Prawfs disagree all the time. More importantly, prawfs have a terrible tendency to confuse their books with our trenches. By my highly scientific calculation, they’re wrong 79.2% of the time when quoted about current events because they have no actual clue how anything in law happens.

  3. LocoYokel

    I actually think I agree with this particular point.

    ” Specifically, it suggests that law professors should assume that, each time they tweet about a legal issue, they are making an implicit claim to expertise about that issue.”

    It seems to be that a lot of them are doing exactly this even when they , from the content of the tweet, are absolutely wrong. So much so that it’s apparent even to dummkopfs like me. I think even you would agree that it would be better that, when tweeting on legal issues, they have actual knowledge and tweet the principles and law correctly rather than what they wish it was in their (supposed) perfect world. If they are just blowing about their favorite hockey team or the latest Game of Thrones episode, go for it.

      1. LocoYokel

        I understand the concept. It just annoys, frustrates, etc me, and I know it’s worse for you, when they are so completely wrong that even someone with no real knowledge of the law can see how wrong they are.

        1. SHG Post author

          Academics live in an odd place. Will their names be uttered in hushed lecture halls a century from now for divining a universal truth that no one ever thought of before and which solves a fundamental problem that’s plagued society, or will they be ignored, forgotten, their very existence erased and worthless. They are desperately fragile, needing recognition and validation, and this depends on people outside the academy giving a flying shit about their attributed credibility.

          Remember, a prawf is credible because some law school hired them, not because you think they’re particularly knowledgeable. It’s the title that gives them cred, not that they actually know anything or have any deep thought worthy of respect. So they must protect the title at all costs, for without it, they’re just like anyone else and they will never get a statue in Harvard Yard.

          1. LocoYokel

            Guess that’s an advantage to being a nobody. 2 days after I’m in the ground people will be saying Loco who?, if they aren’t already. I know this and accept it so I don’t have to worry about protecting any title or legacy except what I leave in the lives around me.

            It’s really liberating when you think about it.

  4. Terence Roberts, lawprawf (Ret.)

    She sounds like she’s bucking for a deanship somewhere. She also sounds like she would be insufferable at faculty meetings which are altogether insufferable per se.

      1. Anon Prawf (Not Yet Ret.)

        The young, officious ones adore rules. Without them, people could color outside the lines.

  5. Kirk Taylor

    Love the XKCD comic.
    I have it saved for those many times when it’s useful.
    XKCD is my first stop in the morning (you are 4th – behind 3 webcomics – read that however you like)

  6. bmaz

    If they say something dumb (or smart for that matter) not just other profs and scholars can correct them, but….gasp!….people who actually practice, and the interested public, can too. And some of them are quite fine with that, which is admirable, but some get their knickers in a not or won’t even engage, which is not admirable.

    1. Lee

      Exactly. Law Prawfs have just as much right to make an ass or fool of themselves on Twitter, as the rest of us.

      Realistically, anything they tweet will have not great effect outside of their respective echo chamber, anyway.

      1. SHG Post author

        Some, sure. But others, like Tribe, seem to have a broader impact. But he is exercising his right to make an ass of himself with gusto.

    2. SHG Post author

      Some are happy to engage, but they’re the same ones who don’t twit with a rod up their ass and can discuss like normal people. The others only like us when we’re blowing smoke up their rod. Beyond that, they have no use for us as we can’t enhance their scholarly reputation. And they really hate it when we call bullshit, since their colleagues are far too polite.

    1. SHG Post author

      That sounds like fun. Everyone can be happy, civil, vapid and happy. They need a series of “thank you” emojis so no one sprains anything.

      1. Miles

        I did some more poking around in there, and it would appear that there are at least a few prawfs who seem to want speech codes. What the fuck is with these people and their desperate need to control other people’s speech?

        1. SHG Post author

          I don’t know whether this is as much about speech, as it is about maintaining the “propriety” of the Legal Academy. Of course, there’s overlap there.

          There is a strong trend against “unseemliness,” as it reflects poorly on prawfs in general. Remember Bernie Burk’s “toxic tone”? Burk was also a prawf at UNC, I note.

          Of course, these norms won’t be of any use, since the unseemly ones won’t give a damn or will believe with their gentlest responsive admonition that they’re adhering to them when they venerate Louise Mensch.

  7. B. McLeod

    So far as I have ever noticed, law professors don’t observe “professional standards” on any other medium. I don’t see why Twitter would be special.

  8. Nigel Declan

    This seems like a classic case of a law prawf finding something he or she likes, or that is new and shiny at least, and then deciding that this is worthy of academic study. Maybe it is Nietzsche or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or arguing on Twitter – nothing seems to be off-limits if a paper can be cranked out on the topic, however superficial or esoteric. Had the prawf in question acquired a box turtle instead of joining Twitter, there is a non-trivial chance that the paper in question would be about the legal rights of box turtles, about which she would similarly deign to lecture the Academy.

    1. SHG Post author

      Maybe a prawf discovers something new and shiny she kinda likes, but she would like even better if she got to recreate it exactly as she wants it, and so wants to take something that others have been doing for years but is new to her and remake it her way?

      We went through this in the blawgosphere years ago, where n00bs would tell us we were doing it all wrong.

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