Sunday, February 19, 2006

In Defence of Blogging

What is blogging? Is it worthwhile or is it a form of self-indulgence? It's both, of course. Trevor Butterworth in today's Financial Times Magazine tries to deliver a death blow to blogging by characterizing bloggers as get-rich-quick spoilt brats with too much time on their hands and an inflated sense of ego. Journalists, by implication, are thoughtful and altruistic in their vocation. The feeling generated by Butterworth's collection of quotes (which you can tell are out of context), errors, and mealy-mouthed expressions is one of pique and petulance, even, dare I say it, a sense of inviolable monopoly being threatened. Poor Butterworth. What is it that upsets him about blogging?

A number of untested assumptions underlie Butterworth's article. They are: (a) bloggers are in it to get fame, (b) bloggers want to make money out of blogging, and (c) bloggers suffer from verbal diarrhea.

Butterworth says, according to, there are 27 million blogs (now over 28m). Are 27 million writers in it for fame? Hardly. People blog for as many reasons as people write, keep diaries, and communicate ideas and opinions. The purpose of blogging has never been to usurp the press. Butterworth distorts his argument by focussing on blogging in Washington DC, inside the Beltway. He does mention blogging as heroism--Iran and China--as though that justifies the pursuit. If you're desparate, you can blog. While I'm not particularly interested in what happens in Washington (for me the West Wing became boring and repetitive a long time ago), I understand why it commands attention and will be a centre of blogging activity. Any city that runs on gossip will attract increasing numbers of gossips/bloggers, and that's where Butterworth is based. Of course some of them will become famous. Some of them will be imaginative, creative, and thoughtful. It's called good writing.

As to moneymaking, there are some who hope to make a buck but most are in it for the fun. Fun is a missing dimension from Butterworth's analysis. Plenty of bloggers go online anonymously in order to write about their lives and aspects of them in ways that couldn't be done with full disclosure. You may want to write about your employer, past lovers, kinky behaviour. Blogging enables this. Money has not been the driving force behind blogging.

Bloggers write too much. This is the monopoly argument: only journalists have legitimate authority to comment. There is junk blogging. But have you seen how much junk journalism there is? Just look at the Sun, the Daily Star, the News of the World, and I won't bother to mention the vast majority of the American press because it's dross. In everday life we learn to sift the bad from the good; it's called distinction.

Let me correct one error that shouldn't have escaped Butterworth. Although Judge Posner may have written about blogging in the New York Review of Books, he maintains one of the best blogs going with Gary Becker at the Becker-Posner Blog. Posner does put his money where his mouth is.

Maybe Butterworth needs to open up to the fact that the internet is an evolving entity, which has the potential to let people communicate in ways that circumvent official channels. Blogging and its derivatives don't reject the press, rather they will keep it on its toes. Blogging allows criticism. This may be the crucial bit: blogging has the potential to undermine the establishment, to threaten its authority. That's no bad thing, Butterworth.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Lawyers Investigating Lawyers

The New York Times today reported that the Office of Professional Responsibility, the ethics office of the Justice Department is to investigate the department's lawyers' roles in the NSA eavesdropping program ordered by George W Bush. Although he and his Attorney General consider the listening on citizens' communications to be legal, plenty of others don't, especially as it was done without the issuing of warrants. The investigation is explicitly not about the legality of the eavesdropping, yet the OPR acknowledges that it has to consider if the activities of the NSA were permissible under present law.

If the OPR were to find that its lawyers acted unethically, it would raise an interesting conundrum for the government and the legal profession. There would be a big gap between the behaviour of a government convinced of the legitimacy of its actions and its own lawyers found culpable of unlawyerly activities. Yet it seems as if a distinction is being made between those who are hired to be lawyers and those who are lawyers but carry out other roles such as cabinet member of congressman. Should this distinction be allowed?

Even though lawyers are taught about ethics, little of that appears to linger on after graduation. Ethical compliance becomes a matter of box ticking, rather than philosophising about the morality of action. Law has always been one of the original trinity of professions: law, medicine and the church. It has always had to decide that its members' behaviour not only comply with the law but morality too. The current mode of regulation omits this latter category, perhaps because it can't be measured.

My colleague, Andy Boon, has been trying to reinvigorate the debate on ethics among lawyers in the UK. While it's having some effect in the law school, we don't see much going on in the profession. On hypothesis occurs to me:

Regulation (and thereby morality) have suffered the same fate as much of everyday life, that is they are being increasingly juridified and subject to legal challenge that takes as its base the distinctions between rules, narrowly defined, rather than any principle-based analysis. This I would suggest is the case in the US and to some extent in the UK. Why the difference? In part, it's because the UK regulatory scheme likes the idea of principles rather than rules. But this distinction only occurs in selected areas. Financial control in the UK is not like Sarbanes-Oxley, but less rigid. However, farming regulation is carried out by the minute application of rules without the support of principles. One other distinction we can draw here is that lawyers who will find themselves on the end of financial regulations more than farming ones are better at lobbying/persuading government to impose different duties on them compared to other groups.
Interestingly, we have no equivalent to the OPR that I'm aware of. If we had then perhaps those who laboured on behalf of the UK Attorney General and helped draft the legal justification for entering the Iraq war, could have become the subject of some ethical scrutiny. As it is, there is no possibility of oversight.

Should we then attempt to resurrect ethics or just abandon the project entirely?

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Value of Fear in Student Surveys

A friend of mine, David Wall, was gently chided by his university. His error? To tell students to think carefully when they completed the national student survey. This is how the Times Higher Education Supplement put it:

"It is a delicate balance universities must strike: how to encourage students to complete student satisfaction surveys while at the same time not prejudicing the outcome.
It is a predicament that David Wall, head of the School of Law at Leeds University, appeared oblivious to: "Before you tick the neutral, disagree or strongly disagree boxes, just think about the message that it will send to the world outside about the quality of your education at Leeds," he warned students in the school's most recent newsletter.
To ensure that students grasped the point, he went on: "We want to be able to say that we are one of the top ten law schools in the country... it is in your power to make that happen in the survey."

Of course David was right to caution students. His words don't mean that students will slavishly follow what he says, but they may give them pause to think before they cross the line. Students should consider the consequences of their actions.

But surveys are frightening instruments. They are not scary in what they do, rather it's the effect they have on senior administrators/managers in universities. These are the ones enslaved by student satisfaction surveys and league tables. If they don't score highly, it's like a personal insult. Perhaps if they flagellated themselves in public before the student body and faculty on receiving a bad ranking, we could be a little more credulous. Usually, however, they like to cast around to place the blame on others. It's part of the overly reactive nature of university administrations. Because their role is artificial, they are unable to come up with any real ideas.

If this occurred in the US, I might understand more. If the football or basketball team loses, the president of the university better have a good story to tell the state legislature next time he goes before them with his budget. You can bet they will be sore! And those alumni cheques will begin to dry up too.

When I was on the faculty at Indiana University, Bobby Knight was the best known basketball coach in the country--Olympics and NCAA. He was the second most important citizen of the state of Indiana after the governor. Bobby was fractious and bad-tempered but his boys won the games and the Hoosiers loved him. He took part in a documentary about stress. The interviewer asked him how he coped. According to Bobby handling stress was no different to handling rape: just lie back and get it over with. There was a huge furore with calls for Bobby's head. The president was considering asking for Bobby's resignation, New Mexico was offering a half-million dollar salary, then the governor called the president. The message was clear: if Bobby goes, you go. Bobby stayed.

Some of the elite universities have found a solution to the dilemma of surveys--they ignore them. They get on with the task of educating students and doing first class research. They don't let themselves get distracted with ephemera. They have confidence.

Why then don't universities in general have confidence in what they do? A big part of it is that universities have split into two organisations. One is the normal part of teaching and research; the other is the parasitical administration which is trying to justify itself largely through Fordist techniques of command and control. (So 2oth century, darling!) This part of the university institution has no real way of calibrating its success or failure. Academics publish, get grants and so on. Administrators hold meetings.

Perhaps some of the effects of globalisation need to permeate British universities. One of the given goals of an American university president is to raise funds for the university. Indeed, he or she must account each year for how many millions of dollars they've raised. Apart from a few Oxbridge college heads and a couple of London institution heads, I know of no university vice-chancellor who goes out and returns with money for the university. And I don't mean the kind of money that government hands out. In this respect, British university vice-chancellors have an easy ride. True they are good bookkeepers, but as ambassadors for their institutions, they are an embarrassment when it comes to fundraising. They should be getting funds for endowed chairs, research institutes, and student programmes.

It's time for a culture change. It's time for British university administrators to adopt a "can do" mentality, to have a vision, to interact with academics and find out what they need. The grey bureaucrats--in appearance and approach--like the dinosaurs have had their day.

Bye, bye...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

What the Hell is Knowledge Transfer?

"John, your head of department said I should talk to you about knowledge transfer in the law school. When would you be available to meet?", the nice fellow from the university research office asked.

"I don't know what knowledge transfer is, but don't I do it already. I research, I write it up and I publish it. Bingo, knowledge transferred to the public domain." I replied.

I next received a copy of the university's research and knowledge transfer policy. Now this I had already seen and considered it a pretty anodyne piece of writing which mainly seemed to let those not doing research off the hook. What's more even though it rambled on about knowledge transfer, it left me none the wiser. I have mentioned before that our research record in the law school is good and this extra bit of the research policy appeared as though it might be a distraction from doing what we are good at.

OK, I come clean. I sound cynical, don't I. University managements get bees in their bonnets and every so often thing certain things are good things to do. A recent example was to have faculty record 5 minute lecturettes on various topics. To be filmed the mark had to stand very still and look straight into camera and talk continuously. These filmettes were loaded on the university intranet to be played whenever the student wanted. There was a slight problem: no student wanted to watch these stiff mannequins rambling on. It was also virtually impossible to update them without filming the entire thing over. Yet the management thought this was going to bring in the students and sank a lot of money into the project which has now died a graceful and forgotten death.

I just know they are going to hear about podcasts next and the decrees will flutter down...

Back to knowledge transfer. Is everyone paying attention? I'm going to hold a test soon to "formatively assess your skills" (another thing they're keen on[?]). Today, the fellow from the research office and I met. After he admired the carpets in my office--I've no room at home, so had to put them somewhere--he got down to business.

"Tell me, A, what is knowledge transfer?" I asked. The ensuing conversation lasted just over an hour. I'll fill in the details as best I can in a minute, but when we had finished I went down the corridor to see a colleague.

She asked me, "Well, what is knowledge transfer?"

I had one of those awful moments when I realised I had been deeply immersed in a conversation but I was unable to recall anything that was actually said. My mind was blank. I profoundly understood the concept of "knowledge non-transfer". None had been transmitted nor received.

But back to the conversation with A. He first started by telling me that the government was keen on knowledge transfer and that it was different from research and teaching. Was this the third way in education, I wondered, the true holy grail? Since the government wanted it, the universities must want it too and they were keen to push it. Indeed, our senior management was all for knowledge transfer, but I don't recall any of them actually saying what it was, only that it was a good thing and we must embrace it.

If you've read my previous blog, you'll know that embracing things incurs risks. Still, I said, we in the law school are not risk averse and we do embrace it. By this stage the conversation had taken on rhythmic flow of easy interchange between us. Back and forth we went throwing ideas into the air, catching some, missing others. A threw a high one.

"You have a capital punishment studies centre!", he exclaimed, "That's knowledge transfer." This was close to match point. "But," I rejoined, "when P started the centre the senior management were asking him why was proposing a centre that promoted the death penalty." It seems they got the wrong end of the stick; P was actually against it. And he got an OBE for it recently too.

So, perhaps, I entertained, law is not the safest area for knowledge transfer because people might get the wrong idea about what it is we're transferring. A pooh-poohed my objection. "SMEs would love to know about law," he advocated. I pretended to know what SMEs were so I would not upset him more than I had. The topic of SMEs and their addiction, so it seemed (they were insatiable), took us forward for at least another 15 to 20 minutes--A was into scenario setting with SMEs at one point--with A becoming more animated. He was excited; he was definitely embracing the concept. I, however, was still searching for it.

Since research was different from knowledge transfer, I proposed, maybe it's like academic versus vocational studies. If you're not quite good enough for full-blown, pukka research, a bit of quick knowledge transfer on the side will see you through. A felt that didn't capture the full essence of knowledge transfer. It was still eluding me. He further ventured that it would be one of the pillars on which the law school would stand. "There could be as many as five pillars", he said. I think research was on another, but I got lost among them after that hoping the law school wouldn't fall down if I couldn't remember what the pillars were supporting.

Sadly, our conversation drew to its natural conclusion. I promised to report our conversation to the law school research committee when it met soon. "I'm sure they will be eager to hear about knowledge transfer." I said. "And I promise I will let you know what they think." A was pleased with that and we parted with a better understanding of our own positions, perhaps not each other's. We mutually assured each other we would stay in touch, but I was able to give him several names of colleagues who would dearly love to discuss knowledge transfer with him, and who would be planning their revenge against me before long.

As A left my office, I ruminated.

Now it's post-rumination and it's time for that test I promised.

  1. In no more than two sentences express the core meaning of knowledge transfer with no more than three examples.
  2. You are the senior manager of an university and your task is, without sinking into deplorable silo mentality, to exhort the troops to take to the barricades of knowledge transfer in no less than 20 PowerPoint slides without the use of verbs.
  3. You are an exhortee and you have been ordered to come up with a fantastic idea, an opportunity for knowledge transfer in your field of autopoietic medieval metaphysics. You have one week, or else.
And if you find out anything, would you mind letting me know.....

Friday, February 10, 2006

Divorced from Life? Ingrown Toenails and Abba Concerts

I've been unsure about including this one, but occasionally academics do get caught up in everyday life. Here is a recent day.

For a long time I have had an ingrown toenail on my left foot. Most of the time I've endured it with infrequent visits to a podiatrist. The last one I went to said it could be removed permanently. I mulled over the possibility until my toe began to hurt again. I need good feet because I run in the morning and walk my dog amongst other things. I called to book nail surgery and to my disappointment was told I could be done the same day.

At 4pm I was at the podiatrist's watching her prepare the anaesthetic and being asked if I wanted to watch. I did although I couldn't actually watch her insert the needle. The bit after was all right. Ten minutes later my toe was dead. It was pinched and poke--nothing. Then my chair was whizzed up to her eye level and she prodded and cut away. I was unable to draw my eyes away. Finally she burnt out the quick with some acid to prevent regrowth. That was it: half a toenail was better than a hurting full one. By the time the bandaging was finished, my toe looked like a ping pong ball balanced on the end of my foot.

I came to the podiatrist on my bicycle but they wouldn't let me ride home. I had to take a taxi except they didn't know any taxi companies. I went to find one and couldn't, so I rode home. Still the ping pong ball glowed unsullied by any red. As the podiatrist prettily put it: "Oh, good, you're not a bleeder!"

It had also slipped my mind that Eleni had booked us to go to the Hackney Empire that night to see a "Sing-a-Long with Abba" concert. I wasn't too sure if my foot would enjoy this. But since, like many of my male compatriots I pretend to be impervious to pain, I would go. The Marquess of Anglesey is our patron saint. At the Battle of Waterloo he was hit by grape shot in the knee and remarked, "By God, sir, I've lost my leg!" Wellington paused in his survey of the battlefield and glanced over and said, "By God, sir, so you have!" and continued his survey. For me it was only my toenail.

Eleni, Maria (our friend) and I walked to the Hackney Empire for 10 minutes briskly as we were late. My foot took it calmly. At the theatre many people were dressed in blond wigs and shiny suits. If my foot felt poorly, my eyes wouldn't. I bought us drinks and sat at the end of the row where I could stick out my foot. I was beginning to relax.

The concert started and quickly the audience was joining in the songs. Me too. We had goody bags with SOS cards, fake money and more. And although I had never before listened or paid attention to Abba's lyrics, I thought they were rather good--inventive, witty, not the usual pop pap. As an academic I was subconsciously trying to justify being there by analyzing the songs.

Then the audience was commanded to sway, joining hands with one's neighbours. We stood and swayed. I hoped to sit down soon. But my spare hand was grabbed from the other side of the aisle by an unknown woman, who forced me to sway around the aisle. As the song ended I reached for my seat but didn't make it. The next was a very dancy tune and she grabbed me to dance. My foot wanted to discuss if this was a good manoeuvre on my part, or its. I felt I couldn't be impolite and say no, especially as we had just swayed together. I would try to dance mainly on one foot and swing the damaged one out of harm's way. This technique, while effective in almost preserving my foot from harm meant that the dance took on a circular form as we twirled around. My companion, who was pretty, kept up but changed the steps after a while so that we came into closer proximity. I glanced over at Eleni and Maria. Hopeless, they were singing along and were oblivious to me. Still feeling it would be impolite to stop, I continued. She wrapped her arms around me and drew me close. Her hands began to move around my body. At one stage I felt one of them glide its way up my back--under my shirt. Maria looked at me and her eyes widened as she saw how I was. I could see her nudge Eleni who also looked over. I mouthed a silent "Help!" They did nothing. At last the song ended and I eased myself from her grip. Both my toe and chastity intact. Maria and Eleni made me change seats so that I was seated between them. No one would ever be able to break through that fortress: I was safe.

After the concert we came away. I was a turmoil of emotions, pleasure, sensuality, curiousity, puzzlement, and most of all a toe whose anaesthetic had worn off and was throbbing painfully. God, I had to lie down.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Blogging in Britain

Look around the blogosphere in American academia and you will see debate, discussion and also perceive a feeling of anarchic creation. Among legal academics the Alito nomination to the Supreme Court (now confirmed) caused opinions to fly all over. It's wonderful to see the conversations.

Over the pond, we haven't caught on quite so quickly, yet. For me, blogging is a recent venture, but one that is liberating and rapid. I think everyone should do it, especially academics! Recently I saw the University of Chicago Law School Blog which discusses the issues of the day and also announces events and so on at the school. It's a collective enterprise and that in my view adds to its power.

Seeing it prompted me to imagine the University of Westminster Law School Blog. Today I emailed my colleagues with the idea. I've had two sorts of response. Those that think it great and those who are more cautious, raising the question of what would the university think and even its impact on freedom of information requests. I am going to wait a little longer for responses to see which way they go. My suspicion is that quite a number will wonder what it's all about and they won't respond. That's all right. As to the rest, may the force of the blog be with you.

There's lots going on that would engage legal academics. For example, the role of police commissioners vis-a-vis the press (who's institutionally racist now?); the proposed reforms of company law being challenged in parliament; the resurrection of the EU constitution; travelling to Switzerland for an assisted death; the reform of the legal profession, and many more. These are things that we might want to write learned articles on, but sometimes one has to make a quick response that can't wait for journal timelines.

I wonder how we will resolve this?