by Jeff Sovern
The question assumes that law students pay for faculty blogging, in that the tuition they pay goes to law faculty salaries. That assumption is probably true, in that most law schools are largely tuition-driven, meaning that law student tuition pays for what most professors do. You could, however, argue that blogging is something we do on our own time. I don't know how to figure out whether that's true. Certainly a lot of blogging gets done outside of normal business hours, but then so does teaching at the many law schools that offer evening program. It's likely that a lot of bloggers put in more than the standard forty-hour week on their work, which suggests that blogging is an extra. But then, probably most bloggers report to their deans that they blog, in the hope of eliciting higher raises, which would suggest that the bloggers view it as part of the job, and if it does generate larger raises, that the school does too. Anyway, let's assume that blogging is part of the job that law students are paying for.
So what do law students get from professorial blogging? At least three things: first, to the extent that blogging enhances a school's prestige, the students benefit from that. Some compare being a student or an alum of a school to owning stock; as the stock/law school's reputation appreciates in value, so does the student/alum. But does blogging really enhance prestige? The argument that it does is that blog posts reach a lot of people which may enhance readers' views of the professor and hence the institution. The argument that it doesn't is that the people it reaches may not vote in the reputation rankings for U.S. News, and unfortunately (in my view, at least), that seems to be the chief measure of prestige in the law school world. At the end of the day, this is a question that can be tested empirically over the next few years: do schools with more and better bloggers rise in the rankings? I'm not holding my breath, but we'll see.
Second, professors who blog may become more informed teachers. My own experience, and I have no idea how universal this is, is that the fact that I blog increases my diet of consumer protection news, because I look for things to blog about. Often what I blog about ends up as fodder for class. But that helps only in my consumer protection class.
Third, as my colleague Chris Borgen pointed out to me (Chris founded Opinio Juris, a leading international law blog), students also benefit when their professors blog because they can learn more about the subject by reading the blog. Probably that also helps them understand their professor's thinking better.
The conclusion that students benefit from professorial blogging (blogging is also useful in other ways, but I'm just focusing here on student benefits) answers only part of the question, because of the opportunity costs of blogging. If professors weren't blogging, what would they do with the time? If they would, say, go to theater or watch TV, then students are better off when professors blog because the alternative doesn't benefit them. But if professors would work on a scholarly article, would students be better off? I'm not sure. First, there's the broader question, which I'm not addressing at the moment, of whether conventional scholarship benefits students, and on which people are divided. But assume that it does benefit students. Blogging seems to reach a lot more people. SSRN gives us some measure of how many people read articles, and the answer is not many. An awful lot of papers never get as many as 300 downloads. In contrast, many blogs register that many hits in a day; this blog, which is fairly specialized, gets far more than that a day, and still others read our posts via email. SSRN is not a complete record of who reads a particular paper, since once a paper is published, people can read it in print without it showing up on SSRN, and some papers are posted elsewhere, but the available evidence suggests that more people read blog posts than law journal articles. On the other hand, a blog post, which typically reflects far less thought, research, and care than an article in print, surely adds much less to the prestige of a writer or institution than an article. A further complication is that all of this ignores the connections between blog posts and law journal writing. For example, authors can use blog posts to try out ideas they will later use in articles, then post links to the article on their blogs.
But that assumes that the alternative to blogging is conventional writing. What if it's something that benefits students more directly? For example, many law school doctrinal classes famously base grades on a single exam at the end of the semester. Suppose that professors took all the time they put into writing and instead administered midterms, and provided feedback to students on those midterms? Or gave drafting assignments with feedback? Or--well, you get the idea. My own suspicion is that while students might not be enthusiastic about more work and feedback (remember the famous quote: "education is the only thing people pay for that they want less of"), the extra work and feedback would do more for them than any writing we could do for any outside audience. But most of us would rather do our own writing than grade, say, and as Adam Smith wrote in his 1776 book, On the Wealth of Nations, universities are run for the faculty.