The Blog of John Henry

A comment on Nick Barber’s thoughts on “The Legal Academic in the Internet Age”

How is the internet going to change the ways in which legal academics teach, publish, and engage with the outside world in the medium term? Nick Barber addresses this question in a provocative post over at the UK Constitutional Law Blog. Blogs, he argues are the way of the future, while both social media should be resisted, and traditional lectures are destined for the dustbin of history. You might think that as a blogging enthusiast I would agree, or at least find the idea exciting. But prof. Barber doesn’t think that the future belongs to any old blogs; he has a specific type of blog in mind ― professional, edited outfits (like the UK Constitutional Law Blog itself), which will fuse with more traditional journals. A future in which such outlets are the dominant medium does not strike me as blogging utopia at all.

I will not say too much about prof. Barber’s views on the future of teaching. He thinks

that lectures will increasingly be replaced by shorter, fifteen or twenty minute, vlogs that will be designed for the medium; that is, they will consist of lecturers talking to camera, perhaps with slides incorporated into the broadcast. A series of these vlogs will then combine to cover the material that used to be covered in the lecture.

This will be both less demanding for the lecturers, who will be able to re-use recordings, and less boring for the students, who will be able to consume them in more digestible chunks and at their own pace. Prof. Barber thinks that by replacing lectures, “the rise of vlogs will free up time for more interactive teaching” to small groups of students. It’s a tempting vision, as I’m planning my lectures next term to classes of, potentially, 270 and 60. But whatever the chances that it will be realized at Oxford, where prof. Barber teaches, or at similarly well-heeled institutions, I don’t see how law schools like the one at which I am will have the resources to replace my four hours of pontificating to 330 students by the appropriately astronomical number of hours needed to afford them all small group teaching.

Similarly, I will not say too much about prof. Barber’s dismissive attitude to social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter), which he says “encourage folly and, worse, they then go on to preserve this folly for posterity”. Steve Peers has responded with a Twitter thread that points out that Twitter, in particular, enables people to interact over the barriers that separate different professions (or branches of the legal professions) and academic disciplines, which (at least sometimes) makes it possible for conversations that would otherwise happen within these different groups to be enriched, for the benefit of all involved. I would only add that social media also help break down geographical barriers in a way that not only traditional publications, or even good old email, do not, and also the barriers of rank or standing within each profession or discipline. I understand why some people will prefer to heed prof. Barber’s call for caution, and do not agree with people who occasionally come close to saying that every academic ought to be on Twitter, but I am pretty sure that many will find it useful. I know I do; indeed I think that I have benefited a great deal from my (initially very reluctant) embrace of that medium. (To give just one example, I’m not sure if my collaboration with Benjamin Oliphant would have come about if we hadn’t been interacting on Twitter, as well as reading each other’s blog posts.)

I want to comment in some more detail on prof. Barber’s views on the present and future of blogs. Prof. Barber is enthusiastic about “the emerging capacity of blogs to permit academics to engage with important constitutional issues as they unfold”, without being constrained by the “glacial” pace at which articles, even short and topical ones, in traditional publications come out. Moreover, ” the rise of the blogs has also brought with it a welcome relaxation of style”, allowing scholars to engage with lay audiences. At the same time, as with social media, prof. Barber worries that

[t]he ease and speed with which material can be published increases the risk of error and of ill-considered scholarship. This may be partly due to the laziness of scholars but it is, also, the product of a collective pressure to publish quickly.

Half-baked or outright mistaken arguments that would never have made their way onto the printed page can appear in blog posts, and live on forever in cyberspace.

Prof. Barber sees the solution to this problem in the professionalization of blogs. “We need”, he argues, “to create structures that will make use of the speed and accessibility of the Internet whilst avoiding the risks of sloppy scholarship and blow-hard opinionizing.” Already, prof. Barber says, “[t]he best law blogs, like journals, now play an editorial role, reviewing and critiquing submissions before they are posted.” Whether these structures develop as part of what are now blogs or what are now journals, they will cause the quality of blog output to improve. This, in turn, will lead to academia finally crediting blog posts similarly to more traditional publications for the purposes of promotion, and also cause “the era of the personal blog as a serious academic enterprise [to] come to an end”, as independents are out-competed on quality by “edited blog[s]”.

Unlike prof. Barber, I do not see these developments as something to be wished for. It’s not that I’m against quality, of course ― I try to achieve it with my own posts here. But I know that I occasionally produce bloopers, and suspect that I am not quite alone in this. So I can see the attraction of prof. Barber’s position ― if we think that the most important thing for us (as scholars or as lawyers) is that everything written on law be of high quality. But I don’t think that this is the only thing that matters, and I’m afraid that rather more will be lost ― and perhaps less gained ― in the quest for quality than prof. Barber cares to admit.

For one thing, I’m skeptical about the ability of blogs to “play an editorial role”, at least a meaningful one, in a timely fashion. As they become more institutionalized, less the preserve of enthusiasts who pour the hearts into blogging without counting the hours, and especially if the volume of contributions (and perhaps the competition to get published) increases, as prof. Barber expects that it will, edited blogs will be likely to acquire some of the less pleasant characteristics of the journals, the “glacial” pace among them. The more quality assurance one wants to have ― the more editing and stages of peer review ― the slower the process becomes, until the only time savings over the traditional journals are those made by eliminating printing.

More importantly, the institutionalization of blogs and the disappearance of independent blogging would likely close down an important avenue that is now available to people who lack the exalted status and distinguished credentials of prof. Barber and his fellow contributors to the UK Constitutional Law Blog for communicating their ideas about the law. When I started this blog, I was a graduate student with exactly one academic publication to my name. Nobody would have given me a platform in a serious edited blog. But less than three years later, Double Aspect was named the best law blog in Canada. Paul Daly had a much fuller CV and a higher perch when he started Administrative Law Matters, but he too was “only” a junior academic at that point. Yet within a couple of years his blog was an indispensable resource on public law, and he also won (well deserved, in his case!) recognition as the best in Canada. Independent blogging democratizes academic and professional conversations about law by allowing upstart voices to join in and, just possibly, be heard if they have something interesting to say.

Independent blogging can also be an avenue by which unorthodox ideas that might not pass the test of editorial quality control can be developed. I doubt that any blog editor would have cared much for my early musings about originalism. Two peer-reviewed articles later, I can say that they were not as silly as they might have seemed at the time, though of course the process of working on those articles with Mr. Oliphant involved developing and clarifying my (and his) initial ideas a great deal. But without those early unedited musings, the articles would not have happened. And, to repeat, if I didn’t have my own blog, and had to count on the good will or open mind of an editor ― who would, in the nature of things, be an established, and more or less orthodox, academic ― to get them published, I doubt that they would ever have seen the light of day.

I also think that personal or (relatively) small-group blogs (such as the Volokh Conspiracy or Balkinization) have another advantage over institutional ones: they require, and thus select for, commitment. Institutional blogs make it possible for any given person to contribute at large intervals, perhaps only sporadically. That can of course be a good thing ― people who only sometimes think they have something to say in blog post form have an outlet for those occasions. (For this same reason, I think guest-posts are generally great, and am delighted to have hosted a number of them of the years.) But I do think that there is something to be said for committing to a platform that leaves you no cover and forces you to blog not just now and then, but week in and week out. It’s bloody hard ― as my occasional bouts of silence show, even maniacs like me sometimes find it impossible ― but as with so much else, there are benefits to regular practice. It makes one develop one’s voice and style; it allows one to cover a variety of subjects in some depth; it provides one with a well-developed record of one’s observations and opinions that can be useful for other purposes (like teaching, or simply keeping track of legal developments) in the future.

Even if the personal blog cannot compete with a professionally edited platform for high-level scholarship on pure quality, it has its own, different value. It can be a way for new and rebellious voices to enter into and enliven the conversation. It can be a proving ground for people and ideas. It can be the record of a coherent or developing thought process. In can, in short, be many things that a edited blog cannot. Call me a blogging romantic if you will,

But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.


Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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