June 18, 2004

Why blog?

Ambivalent Imbroglio emailed me, asking why, as a lawprof, I've taken up blogging. He's a law student interested in what motivates lawprofs to blog. I suppose the fact that I'm blogging an answer to email (which he suggested) rather than responding by email is the first hint of the answer to the why blog question.

I started blogging back in January, shortly before the Spring 2004 semester began, and after a period of being extremely busy with a series of scholarly writing commitments. There I was, neatening up my office one leisurely day in January:
I was in the midst of cleaning out my office, having just covered the floor with books and papers. I paused the direct streaming "Fresh Air" I was listening to and checked my email, which included a colleague's description of her reasons for starting a blog. I had just emailed her about my admiration for her and my own timidity: "I'll have to think about getting up the nerve to do this sort of thing. It seems if you're going to do it, you need to become somewhat chatty and revealing, which is a strange thing to do to the entire world." Then it seemed altogether too lame not to go ahead and start the blog.

That's the second post ever to appear on the blog. The first post was explaining the name choice, which I soon abandoned, for reasons I posted about back in January. The colleague referred to in that post is Nina Camic, whose link appears in the blogroll over there in the sidebar. She had been influenced by Jeremy Freese (also in the blogroll), who is in the Sociology department, and who is blogging today about how sociology profs don't blog as much as lawprofs (or participate in email list discussions). My colleague across the hall, Gordon Smith, was also already blogging, but I never regarded his blogging as a reason why I should blog. He had a particular blog-niche, his specialty of entrepreneurship, and he was using his blog in a particular way that didn't make me think there is a place for me. I suppose I was waiting for years for someone to say to me "You should blog." Maybe it seemed that because others had done it first, it would be unoriginal of me to do it too.

I had been reading blogs quite a lot, especially since the 9/11 attacks. Living in Madison and reading the New York Times every day, I really felt hungry for different perspectives at this point. It meant a lot at that time to read Instapundit and the people he was linking to. I found myself exchanging email with my two sons (both college students at the time) with links and comments, which ended up seeming very much like blogging, but with an extremely limited audience.

Though I was behind the curve about blogging, I was ahead of the curve about email lists. My FedCourts email list was, I believe, the first of the lawprof discussion lists, and CivPro followed soon after that. I think that was 1995 that I started those lists, which I still maintain today. I also started a faculty discussion list in the Law School here around that time, back at a point when I had to keep explaining to people what it meant to activate your email and when one person in the Law School begged me not to start such a list on the theory that it unfairly discriminated against people who didn't want to use email. All of those email lists and others (especially Conlawprof, which Eugene Volokh maintains) have been an outlet for discussing law and law school topics, but they have also been unsatisfying for several reasons. The law school email list has never unleashed the kind of vibrant discussion I was hoping for. Many people balk at putting things into writing for one reason or another, and the threads would die off way too early. You can't do all the talking on those things, so I found myself stifling most of the things I might have said. I was disappointed, for example, that after the 2000 election everyone wasn't excited about talking about the details from day to day. I forwarded email from the Conlawprof and the FedCourts lists to the Wisconsin faculty list, but stopped when I heard the first too-much-email complaint. If you're the most talkative person on an email list, a lot of people on that list will see you as something akin to a spammer. And there was never much range to the topics discussed. You couldn't really chat about American Idol or the contents of your junk drawer. Email lists are also unsatisfying because everyone who receives what you write also receives email from people who jump on what you've written, and many times these people write intemperately, making personal attacks or getting weirdly outraged. Often they just misread what you've written. Every time you check your email, you feel a certain anxiety about what people are saying about you on the list, and responding can become a chore.

So when Nina gave me the slightest personal invitation into blogging, I accepted. I really had been wanting to do it for a long time. Once you start, you discover from day-to-day why you are blogging and what your subject matter is. You have a record of what you're interested in and can go back and learn a lot about yourself. I surveyed my interests after the after the first 10 days--I actually counted the first 100 names dropped, to get a picture of what had caught my eye. I haven't formally surveyed myself since then, but generally I'm interested in seeing what I'm interested in. So many thoughts run through your head every day as you observe the world around you and read or have conversations or remember things from long ago. The blog form is a wonderful thing, because it creates a habit of writing every day, allows you to write about anything, and transforms everyday passive experiences like web-reading, print-reading, and TV- and movie-watching into an active process of writing. Once you know people are reading you, you feel even more activated to keep writing. You can see how many people are reading you, who is linking to you, what words people have Googled before coming to your blog--that's all quite amusing and energizing.

As to the law part of all of this: I like to have a place to opine immediately about various things about law and law school. I especially like being in a position to write about new Supreme Court cases within an hour or so after they are issued. When the Newdow case came out this week, I found that really exciting, and wrote the equivalent of 7 pages on the case that day (even though it was otherwise a busy teaching day, the first day of my summer Conlaw class, and I had several hours of exam-grading that had to be done). If it weren't for the blog, I would not have read the case so intensely, so quickly. I would have scanned it and perhaps planned to write about it in the next month or so, but the blog created a great momentum and made it quite satisfying to try to figure things out on the first day and to put out some written analysis that people could link to.

I also like having the opportunity to convey some of the feeling of what it is like to be at the University of Wisconsin Law School, which is a special place, and in Madison, Wisconsin, which is also pretty special. Maybe I can influence some law school applicants to consider coming here rather than somewhere else or just make some people who want to come here anyway have something of a feeling (a good one, I hope) for the place that they will be going. Maybe some alumni and other former residents will enjoy checking in here to reminisce about good old Madison. There are also some issues about teaching law that I like to be able to air my opinions about, and the blog is a great place to do it. For example, very soon I'm going to blog about the downloadable class outlines that are available on the Law School's website.

Finally, after the first 2 months of blogging I figured out how to post images here, and that led me to buy a digital camera. The process of walking around in Madison and elsewhere with an eye out for things photographable is extremely rewarding in itself. Being able to put the pictures where a lot of people can see them has been probably the best part of blogging for me. I went to art school a long time ago, and I know what it is like to produce a lot of images that are not seen. So the ease of reaching out with the pictures through the blog is a miraculous pleasure.

Let me just end this long post by saying, the blog is a great format because of its day-to-day entry structure, the ease of reaching out to the whole world, and the power of the link. But it's just a format, the way a magazine or a slot of television time is a format. You can put anything you want into it. I know that some lawprof bloggers are trying to be very strictly focused on legal topics and others blend law with some other things, especially political news and analysis. I haven't set out in advance to have any particular set of things on this blog. I get up in the morning and know I will blog about something even though I have no idea what it is yet. But I'm interested in finding out what it is and gratified to see that other people are too.

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