Saturday, December 01, 2007

Themes emerging from the discussion of blogs as scholarship

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research This is part 4 of a multi-part post on the subject of blogs as scholarship. It is the first part of the discussion of the themes that emerged in the journal and law review literature. The last post introduced this section. The next section continues with the themes that emerged from the discussion.

Themes emerging from the discussion of blogs as scholarship

Blogs fit within existing arrays. Blogs enter an ongoing conversation. Scholars communicate in a wide variety of ways, for different purposes, and with the intention to reach different audiences. Thus, many authors start their essays by describing where they believe blogs fit within the existing arrays of academic duties and communication options.

Herring et al., assessing blogs generally (not focusing on whether they constitute scholarship), situated blogs among pre-existing off-line genres (diaries, travel logs, letters to the editor) and related Web-based genres (home pages), concluding that blogs are neither Web-natives nor particularly unique, but are hybrids of off-line and online precursors (2005, p. 160). They identified several characteristics of blogs that nevertheless have the potential to change the way we think about the Web:

  • blogs allow instant publishing without knowledge of hypertext markup language,
  • facilitate interactivity, even if not fully utilized today, and
  • can be used in a variety of ways depending on their owners’ desires (p. 162).

These same themes appear in the literature about legal blogs as scholarship, reported below.

Saper places blogs within “a larger process of rhetorical invention … which includes wikis, audio, Flash, tagging, AJAX-driven systems, database-run systems, etc.” (2006, par. 12).

In 2006, Harvard Law School held a Symposium on Bloggership: How blogs are transforming legal scholarship (hereafter, Bloggership). The Washington University Law Review collected the papers in volume 84, number 6, published only just this month (November 16, 2007). Twenty-three panelists discussed a wide variety of topics. Twenty-two of the panelists were bloggers. In his short conference paper, Eugene Volokh situates blogging among the three responsibilities of academics (cite). These include dissemination, discovery (constituting the core of scholarship) and "doing things," which, in the field of law includes activities that change law, litigating cases, or consulting on cases, among other undertakings (cite). He notes that dissemination to the public was not a high priority or a big part of most academics' lives in the past. They spent most of their time discovering and doing. But blogging is changing that for Volokh and others like him who see the reach of their blogs far exceeding the reach of their law review articles (cite). He believes, however, that one really only has the choice to spend more time disseminating knowledge publicly after one has tenure (cite). Notably, other pre-tenure Bloggership participants disagreed with this conclusion (Hurt & Yin, 2006).

Kate Litvak (2006), a widely acknowledged blog skeptic (and the only Bloggership panelist who is not a blogger), is totally unimpressed. This U.T. Law professor situates the blog within a milieu of significant changes in legal scholarship over the last couple of decades and concludes that a blog’s importance pales in comparison (p. 5):

[L]ots of new developments have been transforming legal scholarship lately. New technologies. Availability of data. Rapid distribution of current research. Co-authorship. Growing ties with other disciplines. The influx of people with Ph.D-level training. Increasing compartmentalization and specialization of academic disciplines. Rise of resource-intensive fields. The shift of practitioner-oriented work to practitioner authors. Internationalization of scholarship and faculties. As compared to all this, how important do you think blogs are?

Blogs can be synergistic with other academic duties. Volokh explores how bloggers may achieve synergism with discovery and doing, to avoid an "either/or" choice. For example, he believes being a well-known blogger enhances success when submitting an article to a journal, and increases the chances of receiving invitations to symposia, to work on legislative proposals and to consult on important cases, all examples of scholarship and doing. He also suggests that bloggers should serialize their drafts for comment on their blogs, find key nuggets from older works that might be new to many in the lay blog audience and summarize them on blogs, and use blogs to solicit examples to support arguments the scholar needs to make. He concludes by observing that blogging about current cases can very directly affect the development of law (that is, doing) if a judge reads and uses the scholar’s blog posts, and that micro-discoveries (small instances of applying law to a new situation) can be blogged quickly and effectively, thus placing discovery on the blog itself.

Dan Berman also sees synergistic advantage for blogs. He believes blogging can reconnect scholarship with teaching and service, where the ultra-long law review article threatens to sever the link (cite). He believes that blogging facilitates all three of his responsibilities to the academy and, at the same time, fosters collaboration and makes it easier to update casebooks and treatises. For example, Bill Patry has a blog devoted to updating his year-old, seven-volume copyright treatise, in which he sets forth his lines of reasoning on changes he is considering for the treatise (2007).

Essential blog features include blog form and content, temporality, and a potentially broad audience. Saper’s report highlights one of the most frequently discussed blog qualities, quoting a series of authors comparing the ways they express themselves on their blogs and in their formal academic writing. They vacillate between belief that their blogging style spills over into their academic style, and that if blogs become mainstream, they may lose the informality that attracts many academics (par. 12).

Bloggership panelist Berman (2006) develops his argument, that blogs should be integrated into legal scholarship, in traditional law review article style -- he is logical, methodical, and generously footnotes his work. He believes that the legal academy needs blogs to improve both the form and the content of legal scholarship. He notes that law review articles have become so long and detailed that none but other scholars has the time to read and digest them. Berman agrees with contributor Volokh (2006), that "small ideas," those not justifying a 75 page law review article, should not be turned into a 75 page law review article, but can be more effectively and quickly disseminated by blogging (cite). Linking can replace heavy citation, letting blogs more directly engage with existing scholarship. Berman also notes that as a unique form of communicating, blogging may fit some scholars better than others (cite). He thinks that embracing blogging as legal scholarship will allow some professors who might not otherwise participate to make significant contributions to public discussion. He sees strength in diverse forms of scholarship.

The temporality of blogs is a common theme in discussions of their form and content. Some refer to this quality as “newsiness,” the tendency to build blog posts around the news item, and post frequently. Orin Kerr, for example, believes news is the main niche for blogs: "If you want a running commentary about the latest news in the legal field in short, easily-digestible chunks, blogs are perfect. The popularity of many legal blogs suggests that many people fit this bill" (p. 5). Kerr may be underestimating blog potential when he suggests that the reverse chronological order and newsy-orientation are tyrannical. He believes readers only read the recent posts (p. 4).

On the contrary, it is not a rare reader who investigates a blog’s categories links, or finds older posts directly from Internet searches based on key words. My own blog statistics (Google analytics) suggest that from 1/3 to ½ of readers arrive on particular blog pages from search engines, thus directly accessing older materials. The newsy orientation of blogs may not impede access to more deeply buried materials, anymore than would the location of those same materials in a back issue of a journal.

In a more considered concern, Kerr describes the year-and-a-half mulling over that a good law review article might get, compared to the currency of a blog post (pp. 6-7). Understandably, Kerr cannot see how a blog contributes meaningfully to the former. The assumption that this is what we expect blogs to do is likely in error, however, and further suggests that Kerr defines scholarship narrowly.

Blogs build community and encourage commentary. A common belief about blogs is that they build community – a loyal group of readers who will comment upon the author’s posts (Berman, 2006; Volokh, 2006). Litvak perceives of blogs exclusively in this way, that is, no more than a means to solicit feedback on raw ideas. In her opinion, however, they will fail in this regard because the risk of harm to the scholar in making preliminary statements publicly far outweighs the benefit of commentary and suggestion that cannot be required, but only requested (p. 8):

So, my grand theory has a lemma: blogs cannot turn into cyber-workshops unless they can punish a potential commentator’s silence. And I don’t think they can do that. I also have a corollary: if a blog cannot turn into a real cyber-workshop, the value of keeping exchanges public is not high enough to justify the costs (which are, again, possible embarrassment, understated criticisms, and preemption). Thus, in most cases, bloggers seeking a forum for their early ideas are better off asking for comments privately.

She may be correct that the risks in this area outweigh the benefits for some authors, especially those who envision public communication in such narrow and ego-centric terms. Litvak mentions other possible benefits of blogging only at the end or her article, in an offhand comment ( public dissemination, for example) (p. 9), suggesting that she has not seriously considered broader functionality, or has dismissed it.

Blogs publish instantly. Another important theme is the quickness with which blogs allow their authors to disseminate their ideas, and the benefits of avoiding the lengthy delays of traditional publishing. Volokh observes that blogs raise the pleasure-to-"scutwork" ratio of disseminating publicly: no dealing with editors; no arbitrary word limits; no time delays (cite). Kerr acknowledges the value of being able to just write up a post, hit send, and have the post appear (2006, p. 9), but does not explore the implications of this ability. Recall also that even Leiter, scholarly blog skeptic (though he does blog), acknowledged the benefit of instant publishing (2006, par. 2).

References:

Berman, D. A. (2006, April 2006). Scholarship in action: The power, possibilities and pitfalls for law professor blogs. Public law and legal theory working paper series Retrieved October 9, 2007, from http://ssrn.com/abstract=898174

Herring, S. C., Scheidt, L. A., Wright, E., & Bonus, S. (2005). Weblogs as a bridging genre. Information, Technology and People, 18(2), 142-171.

Hurt, C., & Yin, T. (2006). Blogging While Untenured and Other Extreme Sports. Bloggership: How blogs are transforming legal scholarship Retrieved November 13, 2007, from http://ssrn.com/paper=898046

Kerr, O. S. (2006). Blogs and the legal academy. Paper presented at the Bloggership: How blogs are transforming legal scholarship. Retrieved October 12, 2007, from http://ssrn.com/paper=896994

Leiter, B. (2006). Blogs as scholarship: Conference at Harvard [Blog post]. Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, April 28, 2006. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2006/04/blogs_as_schola.html

Litvak, K. (2006). Blog as a bugged water cooler. Paper presented at the Bloggership: How Blogs are Transforming Legal Scholarship. Retrieved October 12, 2007, from http://ssrn.com/paper=898186

Patry, W. (2007). Chapter 2: Statutory interpretation [Blog post]. Patry Treatise Blog. Retrieved November 13, 2007, from http://patrytreatise.blogspot.com/2007/02/chapter-2-statutory-interpretation.html

Saper, C. (2006). Blogademia. Reconstruction: Studies in contemporary culture Retrieved October 12, 2007, from http://www.reconstruction.eserver.org/064/saper.shtml

Volokh, E. (2006). Scholarship, blogging and trade-offs: On discovering, disseminating and doing. Paper presented at the Bloggership: How blogs are transforming legal scholarship. Retrieved October 10, 2007, from http://ssrn.com/paper=898172

2 comments:

lms4w said...

Fascinating discussion of blogging as scholarship, Georgia. There's a lot here to chew on--blogging as instant publishing, the synergies with other professional duties, the ability to build community. I'm especially struck by your comment that most academic bloggers think that they're doing is scholarship, but that you only occasionally encounter posts that you would consider scholarship. This important point raises the question --a question important to tenure committees--of what criteria we use to evaluate blogs. Quality of the ideas expressed in the blog? Following familiar scholarly practices of citation? Size of the audience? (By the way, I love the Copyright Crash Course and think it's so cool that you're reinventing yourself as a librarian. The community could really use someone with your knowledge and skills.)

Georgia Harper said...

To Ims4w: Your point about the discrepancy between opinions about blogs as scholarship and the appearance of actual scholarly posts is a good one. The question of what proportion of academic blogging is scholarship is probably a better statement of the question than whether it is/is not scholarship as a whole. I haven't been privy to any specific faculty requests to consider *this* or *that* post for tenure (I'm not in a position to know about that kind of thing), but I would bet that such a request would likely be specific as to posts.

And your raising the issue of the criteria for deciding what's scholarship -- that gets to the heart of the matter. As the paper continues, these issues are addressed in the discussion section. I agree that these are the most interesting questions, but I also feel that I need to do more research of a descriptive nature, just getting out there a picture of what's actually happening on blogs at the moment. So, it might take a few steps to get to the meatier discussion of change in academic viewpoint about what constitutes scholarship.

And thanks for your kind comment about the Crash Course!