The Risks of Blogging for an Aspiring Academic

December 10th, 2010

In my podcast with Jeanne Hoffman at Kosmos Online, she asked me a question that I have given a lot of thought–what are the risks of blogging for an aspiring academic. Here is my answer:

JH. I know a lot of academics are a little worried about putting things on the web because they’re not sure how it will affect their career. Maybe they’ll say something that lot of people will view negatively and it will affect their future or their ability to get tenure. What’s your opinion about that?

JB. Well maybe you should ask me after, or if I ever get a teaching appointment. That would probably be a safer vantage point to ask that. It’s worth noting that I realize I’m taking a risk. I recognize that fully. I’ve spoken with a lot of professors and nearly every one of them told me not to do it. I just ignore them. Here’s the way I look at it, to put this in IHS terms: if I have a comparative economic advantage which is blogging, writing, promoting ideas, developing thoughts, why would I not milk it? I think as the academy evolves towards the next generation, when you see blog posts being cited in Supreme Court decisions, some of the most leading professors in the world blogging, and you see current events in the law being decided on the blogosphere before they even make it into the law reviews, I think there is a certain added value, and I kind of recognize this, and I recognized that I was pretty good at writing quickly and responding to things quickly. For instance one of the things I do is instant analysis. For example if the Supreme Court decides a case, if it’s a 150 page opinion, I can just read it in maybe about an hour or so, maybe an hour and a half, and as I’m reading it I basically comment on it, and these posts get significant amount of traffic because people don’t have the time to read through the opinions so quickly. If the Supreme Court has oral arguments in a case I either attend or if I read the transcript it’s really the same thing, I can get it out really quick, and I’ve been able to get really good insight before anyone else on the internet. I mean, I’ve had the first analysis on some of the most important cases. So I think there’s a real need for me to build a brand for myself.

Now, as far as if there’s a risk, oh certainly. I’m 100 percent positive that if, one day, if someone on an appointments committee wants to spike my candidacy, it will not be very difficult for him or her to find a single tweet or blog post or something I wrote with one objectionable sentence. I think the same probably applies to some of the law articles I’ve written. I don’t really modify my style of writing based on the form too much.

So I think the broader point is whether an aspiring academic wants to write in areas that are controversial. I think the medium is less important. If I’m writing on constitutional law and people might not agree with my views, it doesn’t matter if I have a blog or a law review or I write an op-ed or if I write some other scholarly piece, they’ll find something they don’t like. So I would rather use my comparative advantage to go ahead than to risk it.

This is a question I am often asked, so perhaps I should elaborate. First, let me provide the same caveat I gave in the interview. I have not yet gone on the market. I do not have a tenure-track teaching position. Everything I say in this post may turn out to b 100% wrong, and I will be shuttered out of the ivory towers of academia forever after. As I blog, I understand those risks, and am willing to accept them. With those caveats, allow me to elaborate, and provide some anecdotal evidence based on experiences during the past year of blogging.

I’ve heard one too many horror stories about interviews, job talks, and visiting stints at other schools, in which a Professor was denied the job because of some quote taken out of context in some article. The same reasoning, it would seem, applies to blogging. It is probably much easier for an antagonistic academic to google a candidate’s name, and find a treasure trove of material. In fact, it is more likely that a blogger (myself included) makes an errant comment in a blog post, or a tweet, than he would probably not include in an edited law review article. Blogging is a risky job–but I think it’s worth it.

In the last year this blog has give me so many opportunities. I went from receiving zero hits a day to making it onto the ABA Blawg 100 in less than a year. I have received unsolicited offers to publish articles based solely on a blog post. I have launched a massively popular Fantasy Supreme Court League. I started a non-profit that is dedicated to helping students learn about our Constitution and the Supreme Court. I have provided insights and analysis on some of the most pressing Supreme Court cases before anyone else. I have made countless friends and contacts around the world. I have put my stamp on some of the defining legal issues of our time. I have made a name for myself, where there was none before. For these reasons, I am so grateful for my blog.

I could have taken the safe path and written articles about banal stuff, tried to fly under the radar, and hoped I would get lucky at the meat market. Or, I could roll the dice. Perhaps this gamble will not pay off. Perhaps in a few years I will look back at this as an act of juvenile immaturity,and regret it. Perhaps. I doubt it though.