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Blogs and Wikis and 3D, Oh My!

May 9, 2008

The Volokh Conspiracy is one of the most widely read legal blogs. It has been cited in court rulings. Its readership stands at over 700,000 unique visitors a month, many from academe and some from within the Supreme Court itself. Written by legal scholars and boasting instant, in-depth analysis of top court cases, the blog probably has more influence in the field -- and more direct impact -- than most law reviews.

The site, which was founded by the University of California at Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh in 2002, is only one of thousands of academic blogs written by individual professors or in groups that offer quick, widely disseminated and informed comment (to take another popular blog’s title) to both the public at large and to others in academe. Jonathan Adler, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law and a contributor to Volokh (as well as severalblogs on National Review Online), joined several other bloggers in a discussion held on the Cleveland campus about academe’s adoption of the online publishing format and how it has contributed to -- or hindered -- scholarly work in the real world.

It was part of a larger conference on Thursday, Collaboration Technology and Engaging the Campus 2008, which focused on Web 2.0 and other technological innovations as applied at Case and beyond. Other sessions explored mobile technologies, campus adoption of iTunes and YouTube, collaboration through wikis and more. After the academic bloggers discussed how their work was being perceived and gradually accepted among their peers (or not), a similar discussion took place among professors who debated the usefulness of a more recent phenomenon -- the Second Life virtual world -- in higher education.

Among academic blogs, Volokh (which has a “libertarian/conservative bent,” Adler said, “although we often disagree on things”) isn’t necessarily representative. It ranks third in popularity out of all blogs run by a law professor, Adler said, but the two higher-ranked sites (Instapundit and Hugh Hewitt’s blog) aren’t directly related to the law or to general academic discussion, although Instapundit touches on higher education with some frequency.

But even if it is unusually well-known, Volokh has the characteristics of most successful academic blogs: Its contributors are scholars and experts in a given field, and they use that expertise to provide on-the-spot analysis and running commentary on issues that matter. They interact with readers who comment on posts and build on (or push against) each other’s insights. Not unlike peer review ... except on a potentially wider scale, and in public.

“I do think it facilitates a sort of discussion, exchange of ideas, that one would hope you’d generally have in academia,” Adler said of the academic blogging world.

Of course, academic bloggers can broaden the scope beyond their field of expertise -- or even venture beyond their means. In academe, scholars “tend to be very narrowly focused,” noted Mano Singham, director of Case’s University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE) and an adjunct professor of physics. But talk to a professor, and it’s clear that most of them possess a “wide range of opinion,” he added, and why confine it to the cocktail party circuit?

(The economist Tyler Cowen isn’t just known for his popular Marginal Revolution econblog, for example; he also runs a widely read ethnic food blog and regularly comments on films and politics. The contributors to Crooked Timber comment on politics, current events and higher ed issues.)

Besides providing breadth, and an outlet, for scholars' extracurricular interests, blogs can also quicken the pace at which serious questions get considered. Commentary can be instantaneous, "which certainly in legal academia," Adler noted, is the "polar opposite of the rate at which things get published in academic journals."

And that can open the door to pursuits that scholars wouldn't otherwise expend time and energy on, given the constraints of peer review. Adler said an ongoing blogging interest in polarized decisions out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has led to formal collaboration on an empirical academic study that he'll seek to get published. Much of the input he's received came from responses to his blog posts, he said.

Yet some (or even most) in academe view blogging commitments as a distraction from scholarly work. "There is some tension between blogging and academia in certain disciplines. Many academics view blogging with suspicion," Adler said. "It is often assumed ... that it is time that one could and should have been spending on one’s scholarship." He disagrees, arguing that it all comes down to "free time." Still, before he earned tenure, he blogged under a pseudonym.

Singham, who also has a blog, added that the popular conception of bloggers as "no-life, underemployed losers” explains “why academics would shy away from that kind of association.” He argued that a frequent regimen of writing for a blog could actually improve efficiency and scholarly output in the long run.

Panelists also discussed two other academic blogging models: The Grotian Moment, started by the Case law professor Michael Scharf, began with Saddam Hussein's trial in Iraq and has since expanded to international war crimes trials in general; Peter Friedman, another Case law faculty member, started a blog on fair use co-written by students working on a mock lawsuit.

Scharf -- keeping in mind the varying quality of blogs -- said that he made sure to clarify his blog's intent and high standards by displaying awards that it had won and a prominent list of expert contributors "so that people were getting the sense that this was a very serious [effort], that these experts were well-qualified to be saying these things.”

Second Life: Classroom of the Future?

Proponents of the virtual world of Second Life seemed ready to fight an even more uphill battle against faculty skeptics at a session that featured one of the environment's founders, Cory Ondrejka (currently a visiting professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication). He pointed out that like any new form of communication, the idea that technology is mediating contact is often hard to grasp -- especially when, rather than a telephone or e-mail program, it's a 3D, self-made representation.

When asked (via a question posed through Second Life, where the proceedings were being simulcast) whether it would just be a fad, Ondrejka replied, “That’s pretty unlikely.” But, he continued, “as another step in our sort of path of improving human-to-human communication, clearly avatars have ... affordances that make them interesting.” He stressed that it would be up to educators to discover how best to use Second Life to improve their teaching. In that case, he said, "it will stick around."

But he also cautioned against assuming that a 3D Web would inevitably replace the one we have now: "We still have books. We still have watched Amazon.com, a 2D text-based asynchronous purchasing model, demolish real-world bookstores, a 3D synchronous purchasing model."

Perhaps, one participant suggested, the real reason professors are reluctant to embrace the Second Life environment is fear -- fear "that we’re not needed anymore," said Ed Lamoureux of Bradley University.

 

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