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Legal Commentary: Prawfs
A bit more navel gazing for the week's end
By Dan Markel, Ethan Leib, Rick Garnett, Matt Bodie, Paul Horwitz , Steve Vladeck, and Orly Lobel
Since I started the week navel gazing, I figured I might as well usher it out on yet another "how does this impact academics?" note. I wanted to raise the issue of blogs and blogging and how they fit into the grand scheme of evaluation and review that define our professional lives (or at least that define our professional lives in the two state universities I've taught at, where we were expected to report on our activities every year or semester).
I am not, I hasten to add, particularly interested in the debate over whether one should blog before tenure, or in perilous political climates, or anything like that. Rather, I am interested in how we, as evaluators of hires, people up for pre-tenure review, people up for tenure and promotion, and people undergoing other sorts of evaluation (for raises, for post-tenure review, whatever) should think about their blogging.
To make this easier, let's set aside the blogging that is not academic in any sense of the term. You want to blog about your organic garden, great, but that's not relevant to your tenure file. While we're at it, let's also set aside the people who, while academics, blog about national or local politics. Maybe for political science professors, that's career related, but let's take that out of the picture as well and simply hope that the First Amendment and/or some collective bargaining agreement protects you if you do that.
That still leaves a lot of blogging activity for us to think about, and perhaps to try to think about how we should think about it as we evaluate colleagues and future colleagues. I can think of some categories, and some questions, but that's about as far as I go. So let me lay out some categories and the related questions and see if we can come up with something better.
Type 1: What do we do about our colleagues, let's imagine there are four, who use blogs in teaching in a variety of ways? One uses a class blog as an information system: getting out extra readings, or calling students' attention to current events, etc, that are relevant to the course of study. Another uses the blog as a site for student research and writing on materials related to the class, it's a sort of public (or quasi-public) space for response papers. Yet a third uses a blog as a sort of discussion space that supplements the class, an online (and permanent) office hour. And a fourth has students create a blog on issues raised in the class (or their research for class) as a public document as one assignment for the course.
All of those things seem to me to be worthwhile, if well done, I've done a few of them with classes myself (though I'm not sure how well). And it seems to me that they are fairly easy to assess or evaluate as part of a teaching portfolio, just as we might assess syllabi or discussions in class, or whatever we look at when we look at teaching. My only question with respect to this sort of blogging is how we think about it--is it a sign you are a good teacher if you do this, and not one if you don't? That strikes me as wrong, some classes (and some semesters) simply don't lend themselves to that sort of activity. But perhaps we should treat these sorts of activities as positive signs that we wish to reward, to the extent that we reward teaching at all. If so, how do we do that?
Type 2: But that brings us to another colleague, who blogs about her main research field. Let's assume she does it well, her stuff is timely, interesting, well written, and done on a farily regular basis. And she teaches core courses and produces a law review article a year. What a great colleague to have!
How do we think about this paragon's blogging work? Do we treat it like an article and ask peers to comment on it? Do we treat it like an SSRN posting, and worry about hit counts? Do we look to see if people link to her, as if we were doing citation counts? Or do we look at what impact her blog has institutionally (do students read it? do alums read it? does it bring us good PR?)
Assuming we think about her stuff in any of those ways, or all of them, do we give her credit for her blog work in her evaluations? Or do we just congratulate her on doing the blog, on top of everything else and assume our heartfelt congratulations are reward enough?
Type 3: In addition to our energetic colleague who publishes a blog on her substantive field, we have another colleague who publishes a blog on subjects that are not really part of his teaching and research portfolio. It's not gardening, or politics, or even baseball, it's a fairly erudite blog on how fictional works treat law and lawyers. Some of the books he's written about are classics (Bleak House, of course), some are from mystery series, some are from the sorts of novel you pick up in airports. But he writes about them really well, what he says does tell you something about the book and read as a whole the blog is a great meditation on law in one aspect of popular culture.
Do we give him credit for this? How? As scholarship? As public service? As a subtle form of law porn? (Our law school is so cool we have a professor who writes witty reviews of novels! come be cool like us! we'll let you teach in jeans, as long as they're black!)
Type 4: What about the other colleague who falls somewhere in between our paragon and our culturally inclined colleague? This colleague blogs about a legal field, but not one he teaches or writes articles about. He teaches legal history and torts, but he blogs about tax law.
And he's good, people who teach tax have told you that what he writes makes sense and is interesting. So maybe this is scholarship? But maybe not. There are no footnotes (it's a blog for heaven's sake) and his blog entries never get turned into articles or conference papers or anything that looks scholarly. In fact, now that I think about it, his stuff is all sort of popular, like a newsletter or something. Does that matter? If it does matter, should we take into account the fact that his blog gets a lot of hits (far more than the paragon, roughly the same number of hits as the guy who writes about law in fiction). His blog clearly helps draw attention to our school, it provides useful and professionally relevant information to the public (in contrast to the literary blog), do we care about any of that? And if we do, how do we assess it, how do we reward it?
Assuming that blogging is here to say, we need to think about how we are going to evaluate it and what questions we need to ask (and I do not wish to suggest that the questions I list above represent the universe of questions that need to be asked, or even are the questions that need to be asked). Some institutions may already have guidelines, formal or informal. It would be interesting to know what they are.
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