Monday, November 12, 2007
Of the various news and blog items about my accepting the Chicago offer, the most striking was this one:
"Another Academic Career Destroyed by Blogging." That blog post raises, of course, a serious issue, namely, the effect of a blog on a scholar's professional prospects. (Daniel Drezner--a blogger who was formerly an assistant professor of political science at Chicago, and whose tenure denial there generated much comment on this issue--wrote a sensible piece on the risks.) Putting aside the extreme and rather sad cases (e.g., those who reveal genuine psychological disturbances through their on-line activities), it is an interesting question how blogs are affecting the academic prospects of their proprietors.
Because blogs are easily accessible and thus easier to read in a spare moment than, say, a scholarly article or scholarly book, blogs that purport to treat scholarly topics are far more likely to solidify an impression of a professor's mind and overwhelm the merits of his or her actual publications (assuming the two have different merits). This is why, it seems to me, it is particularly risky for either students or junior faculty to blog much: the first, and perhaps dominant, impression of this person's work is likely to be defined by the blog, whether fairly or not. If you're going to blog on scholarly topics, it had better be good!
But even blogs that avoid scholarly topics can bias the reception of one's academic work. If you blog about political topics, especially outside the spectrum of "ordinary" opinion (which is fairly narrow in the United States, of course), you run the risk of offending someone (or many), and thus prejudicing the reception of your scholarship. I don't know that this constitutes a particularly good reason not to blog; someone who wants to live in fear of what others think about fundamental moral and political commitments probably shouldn't go into an academic career. (Of course, there can be other kinds of reasons for not doing political blogging.)
And even if you avoid scholarly topics and politics, a blog can still reveal (or be taken to reveal) more about one's personality and quirks than may be helpful. I know of one case where a law school considering a blogger for appointment decided against going forward simply because the blog made the candidate seem "really weird."
So who among law bloggers have really helped themselves? (It is probably obvious who has harmed their professional prospects, so there is no reason to pile on.) The two that come to mind right away as scholars who have helped themselves greatly by blogging are Orin Kerr (George Washington) and Larry Solum (Illinois).
Kerr, who blogs here, consistently posts informative items about cases and issues in his areas of scholarly expertise. His political opinions are well within the spectrum of unoffensive opinions, and they also don't play a particularly large role in what he writes about. Experts in criminal procedure would, of course, know about Kerr anyway (indeed, as data I will release shortly shows, he is among the twenty most-cited scholars writing in criminal law and procedure, and the youngest on the list). But because of his blog work, he now has a much higher profile as a respected expert in these areas.
Solum, who runs Legal Theory blog, earns, first of all, gratitude from thousands for the diligence and regularity with which he posts links to on-line scholarship and other events and discussions of interest to those concerned with "legal theory" broadly construed. The sheer amount of work this requires, together with its value, must, I think, give any regular reader of the site a good feeling about Larry Solum! The wonderful service he provides with his generally quite good Legal Lexicon entries simply amplifies that sentiment. Add to all that his generous (perhaps too generous!) appreciation of the work of others, and it's not surprising that everyone interested in legal theory now not only knows Larry Solum but is generally well-disposed towards him. If some folks, through their blogs, bias readers against their scholarly work, Solum has surely done the opposite.
I venture no opinion on the topic that has, by now, occurred to at least some readers, namely, the effect of my own blogging on my professional prospects. It won't surprise anyone to learn that I haven't approached blogging with that in mind, though I've been pretty fortunate, indeed, in the professional opportunities I've had nonetheless. I certainly run afoul of many of the cautionary notes remarked on above. Although I rarely blog about scholarly topics, my political opinions are, on most issues, well outside the familiar spectrum. I also don't suffer fools gladly which, given their over-representation in the blogosphere (for an obvious reason: there are no meaningful barriers to entry), makes me prone to be a bit more abrupt and direct than is the norm in the pseudo-egalitarian blogosphere. (In real life--e.g., in the context of academic debate and academic hiring decisions--anti-egalitarianism is the norm, at least at the better schools.) So maybe I'm a counter-example to the cautionary notes sounded above? On the other hand, I had a decade of teaching, publications and scholarly presence before I did any blogging, which means the evidential base for informed judgments was far greater than it would be for someone newer to the academy. I am inclined to think that is significant in all cases, which is yet another reason for students and junior faculty to be very cautious about blogging.