Law, Life and Blogging (and the small matter of a doctoral thesis)

This is a short (or not-so-short) essay on the subject of how I try and connect my blog life and my PhD life. It’s in response to a question from my supervisor, Eoin O’Dell (who was in turn responding to Jack Balkin and others). As this blog is now a year old (although with some periods of inactivity within that year), it seems useful to reflect a little on how things are going.

Click to read on, but be warned that this is over a thousand words of ‘reflection’…

I do, truth be told, have quite mixed feelings about the role of blogs (and my blogging) in research (and my PhD). The ability, as I described it to someone last week, to use a blog as a ‘sandpit’ – a space for (pre-)first-draft material, with the added benefits of the drafts being in a commentable, linkable, classifiable and linkable format, is most definitely A Good Thing (for me). But it can certainly be time-consuming, and eats evenings like nobody’s business.

Something that I was particularly attracted by was the way that being ‘a blogger’ rather than a mere reader makes it easier to tap into the ‘community’ elements of the ‘blogging community’, and engage more meaningfully in cross-linking, Spartacus moments and all that. I did read blogs for quite some time, before taking the plunge, and the difference is quite noticable (although I feel that living in Cork would make it easier!) Similarly, it seems that events like Barcamps and the Blog Awards are much less accessible if you are a passive information-consumer. (Having said that, I’ve yet to make it to any of those events). And finally, running your ‘own blog’ (and getting your hands dirty with the code, template, database etc) is a great way to build up some practical knowledge; I should thank Ross, my ever-patient hosting provider, for keeping the ship afloat for a year.

On specifically legal issues, it seems to cut both ways. Law blogging (‘blawgs’) is a major feature of both blog culture and legal-academic culture. The Blawg Review (which I’m honoured to be hosting next October) gives you an idea of how much great writing is out there; Harvard’s symposium produced some very provocative ideas. However, it also means that there is a lot to read – and important or useful voices (whether well-known or otherwise) are churning out words – sometimes instant reactions, sometimes fully-formed (or close to fully-formed) analysis and commentary, sometimes useless but lengthy. While certain PhD students in the past may have worried about what they would turn up in a last-minute literature search, every trip to Technorati or Google brings megabytes and megabytes of new and relevant posts (and that’s before I start to talk about SSRN – saviour and curse of the researcher!). Of course, this is a question that is especially relevant to a topic like Internet law!

Instead of sitting quietly and figuring out what a new case might mean for my research, I have instant access to what everyone from first year law students to leaders in the field think of a decision that may be no more than 24 hours old. It is a challenge to originality, and a further indication of how engagement, synthesis and understanding takes the place of solitary original contemplation. I feel that the blogging, blogreading PhD student is truly writing a “Mode 2 PhD” (Mode 2 was described (by Michael Gibbons and a large group of coauthors) in the 1994 classic The New Production Of Knowledge and the 2001 follow-up Rethinking Science; I don’t have the book to hand so I’ll give you the Wikipedia summary: context-driven, problem-focused and interdisciplinary).

Anyway, back to myself. As I said earlier today, blog and PhD share a stop-start feeling. Sometimes, they coincide – other times, I am productive in the non-blogging world but making great progress with the actual piece of writing that I’m supposed to be producing. On a few occasions, I’ve falled out of the blogging habit, and found it quite hard to get started again. More recently, I’ve tried to strengthen the links between blogging and actual grad-student life, and that has led to more posts, more comments, more links and more reading. Being frank, it’s also important as a potential shop-window or resource for future opportunities (whether research-related, job-related or otherwise). I’ve found it quite helpful to be able to say to someone that you can get an idea of what I’m interested in by looking at my blog; I’ve also met people in a research or academic context that were familiar with the blog before meeting me. Lots of bloggers have this experience, of course. In the PhD context, though, it comes at a particularly unusual point in your life and career, which leads to a mix of opportunities and threats.

One threat that I did think about, quite a lot, was how much ‘personal stuff’ to put in. I blogged for a short while in early 2005, when I was working full-time for the Students’ Union; this was a much more ‘random’ blog, with a mix of anecdotes, news stories and silly links (and on Blogger, too – eugh). When I started Lex Ferenda – just weeks after being accepted onto the research programme – I made a conscious decision to set up a focused, research-related blog. I haven’t always succeeded, and around one post in three is not connected to cyberlaw- or media-related topics. While I worked as a library assistant, quite a few of the ‘other’ posts were related to libraries and librarianship. But in general, I’ve been working towards getting the balance right – writing about the other things I’m interested in (Apple, travel, education policy, etc) but not letting it dominate the blog. While I’m aware that future employers or funders are probably not too interested in what sort of trains I’ve been on, it helps me to have a single outlet, rather than running two blogs, one serious and one ‘fun’.

So, what next? I started using del.icio.us in a serious way this year; this one, I must admit, was prompted by my blogging supervisor (I bugged him about blogging, he bugged me about del.icio.us!). And that raises another question – supervisor and PhD student blogging (and crosslinking) is still a relatively unusual phenomenon. I think it’s healthy, though, and would be interested to hear of others who are in that situation. (What’s more, the use of blogging or (groan) Web 2.0-like applications as part of the supervision process is a topic of great interest and potential). I do like to think that I’ll use this blog for playing with ideas that I’m debating including or discussing, and building that up over time. I’m involved in a course proposal that, if implemented, may involve a lot of blogging on the part of the course participants. And of course, there will be more. You wanna hear moooooooooore? Thought not.

Tomorrow, as it happens, many of these issues are being discussed in New York. And I’m hoping to attend the London conference later this year. But if you’re out there, and experiencing similar questions about PhDing, blogging and so on, please do hit that Comment button. Readership has spiked recently (due in no small part to writing about zambonis!); a few kind people have even emailed me from afar to say that they are reading. As for the rest of you, though, don’t be shy. Tell me what you think. Is this a distraction or something I should keep doing? If I submit the blog as my transfer report, what will happen?

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