Campus & Community

HLS hosts ‘bloggership’ conference

6 min read

Significant scholarship, or blogorrhea?

Lots of people at Harvard Law School’s Bloggership conference were busy tapping away on their laptops while the presenters spoke at the podium.

blogger at work during
Speaker Gail Heriot said that blogging offered the best opportunity for legal scholars to engage with the issues of the day and to have an impact on public discourse. (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

It would probably be wrong to conclude that these seemingly preoccupied audience members weren’t paying attention. True, some may have been catching up on their e-mail or working on a novel, but in most cases what they were doing was live-blogging the conference.

We know this to be true from reading the comments of the conference participants themselves, many of whom are well known in the law blogging universe. Take Ann Althouse, for example, the Robert W. and Irma M. Arthur-Bascom Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Here’s a sample from her blog of April 28, the day of the conference:

“I’m here, in the nerdy front row, and I’ll be live-blogging all day. … No video, so you’ll just have to picture a bunch of lawproffy types in a cavernous auditorium at Harvard Law School. Next to me is Randy Barnett, who’s reading my blogging on his Palm Treo 650, showing me that he’s reading it, taking a picture of me blogging, and e-mailing me the picture to blog. Is that self-referential enough for you? It’s really, really bloggy. And we’re just getting started.”

Blog, as you probably know unless you are part of a PBS special designed to simulate the lives of 16th century Icelandic peasants, is short for weblog, a form of electronic communication that allows one to carry on an ongoing dialogue with the world. There are blogs devoted to every imaginable subject, the law being one of them. The Law School’s conference, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, was titled “Bloggership: How Blogs Are Transforming Legal Scholarship.”

Althouse represented one extreme in the debate on blogging and legal scholarship. Her point seemed to be, Why worry? Just blog.

“A lot of people are agonizing about whether blogging should be free-form or dedicated to a serious topic,” she said. “I’ll be arguing for not drawing the line, for opening yourself up to the beautiful form of blogging, which is really a new form of writing. We shouldn’t be trying to lock it down.”

Althouse recommended creating a blog persona by approaching each new post as “a new window, a new chance to invent what blogging is.” She encouraged bloggers to take on a variety of topics and to be unafraid of not being taken seriously or of raising the ire of readers.

“I’ve been called a whore, and I’ve been called psychotic. It can be quite unnerving at first, especially if you’re untenured.”

One of the themes that seemed to lurk in the background of many of the presentations was the increasing obscurity and lack of utility of traditional legal scholarship. Some panelists, like Althouse, discussed blogging primarily as an escape from the drudgery of writing 100-page papers heavy with footnotes and citations and destined to be read only by a handful of other legal scholars. Others saw it as a means to revitalize legal scholarship and make it more relevant to the practicing legal community.

“The audience for legal scholarship is shrinking,” said Gail Heriot, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law and co-editor of “The Right Coast: Thoughts from San Diego on Law, Politics, and Culture.”

Heriot said that blogging offered the best opportunity for legal scholars to engage with the issues of the day and to have an impact on public discourse. She wondered if it would be “going off the deep end” to compare bloggers with Publius, the pseudonymous author of “The Federalist Papers,” the series of essays published in 1787-88 to advocate the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Orin Kerr, an associate professor at the George Washington University School of Law, dwelled more on the limitations of blogging. Kerr, who edits his own blog and serves as co-editor of a popular legal blog called “The Volokh Conspiracy,” said that the blog format is not well suited to the concentrated and prolonged thinking necessary for unraveling knotty legal problems.

“Blogs don’t support that kind of writing. The lesson of the Internet is that anything difficult, most people won’t read,” Kerr said.

And yet blogs do make a valid contribution to legal scholarship and ultimately may change legal scholarship for the better, Kerr said.

“They connect to an audience that is eager for legal news, even though they may not be furthering legal ideas.”

Randy Barnett, the Arthur B. Fletcher Professor of Law at Boston University Law School and co-editor of “The Volokh Conspiracy,” brought up a way in which blogging and legal scholarship may be incompatible.

“There’s a dirty little secret that most law professors don’t like doing legal scholarship, which is very hard to do well. It’s much easier to blog. There’s an immediate feedback. It’s very seductive.”

Blogging, Barnett said, does not lend itself to legal scholarship, which requires the careful examination of large quantities of evidence.

“You can blog about the meaning of the Ninth Amendment, but you can’t prove your point. For that you need the longer form. There’s no substitute for the long form in certain types of scholarship.”

Christine Hurt, an assistant professor at Marquette University Law School and co-editor of “Conglomerate: Business, Law, Economics, Society,” had a more positive take on legal blogging. In her talk, “Blogging While Untenured and Other Extreme Sports,” she answered those who would caution junior faculty from entering the hazardous blogosphere.

A blog, she said, can serve as a source of ideas for scholarly articles as well as a way of recording and filing one’s ideas. It can also be a way of developing a professional network and making contact with colleagues and mentors.

“As an assistant professor without the Internet, I would never have met most of the people in this room, and I wouldn’t have been invited to half the conferences I’ve been to. It has allowed me to be known in ways that otherwise I would not have been. Blogging has done a lot for my career.”