By Kevin O'Keefe

Doug Berman of Sentencing Law & Policy Blog [LexBlog Q & A]

Doug Berman, professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, is today’s LexBlog Q & A guest. Doug’s Sentencing Law & Policy Blog is part of the Law Professor Blogs network. As early as 2004, the SL&P blog received national coverage in the Wall Street Journal after it was cited in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee and by New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Doug’s latest project is Views From The Field, a blog designed to allow discourse between practitioners and academics in the criminal law world. Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit cited a post from the blog authored by U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf.

1. Rob La Gatta: How did the idea for Views From The Field first develop?

Doug Berman: I’ve been blogging on my Sentencing Law & Policy Blog for a while, and have been inspired by the number of thoughtful practitioners who will say things in comments and through e-mails that give me really distinctive views on the federal sentencing world. Being involved with the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, I thought we ought to have an online supplement, one that avowedly focused on getting the perspective of thoughtful practitioners (rather than just providing opportunities for law professors to write smaller versions of longer ideas).

That was the model. I lucked out that there was a very capable student who had just joined the journal, who indicated an interest in getting involved in some new projects. He helped us run with it and put together a lot of the infrastructure. I’ve [also] been lucky – through my work on federal sentencing – to get to know a number of federal judges….I sent out an e-mail to a bunch of district judges and said “Hey, we’d like you to write for this.” Fortunately, out of the 10 I wrote to, 4 not only wrote back, but actually wrote…and wrote really interesting stuff that, in a sense, comprised our first issue.

2. Rob La Gatta:

Do you believe blogs have played a positive role in how law professors teach/articulate their ideas and get their message across?

Doug Berman: Yes, absolutely…although I would say that blogging is a unique kind of media for expressing law professor ideas. I’ve been very fortunate to work in a field and to have kind of an A.D.D. attitude towards it that makes blogs a particularly useful way for me to get out a lot of smaller ideas. But I think for those who are interested in longer form idea development or other more traditional aspects of the scholarly conversation, blogs can be more challenging than beneficial. That’s where my big support for faculty blogging is based: a vision of the diversity of mediums that are valuable to get ideas out.

3. Rob La Gatta: I saw that for a death penalty course at the end of 2007, you were using a class blog. Was that successful, trying to incorporate a blog into the classroom? Were there any challenges?

Doug Berman: There are definitely challenges, in part because there isn’t the infrastructure for doing it easily. For a while, I was thinking about giving the students the password and having them blog directly, but for a variety of reasons I never quite got around to that; the comments sometimes got distracting; and because I try to maintain a lot of blogs, there were challenges with just keeping up.

But I very much believe in the blog medium as having – particularly at this stage – so many more upsides than downsides, that not only is it something that I’m eager to share with my students, but am eager to get them to experience the pros and cons of [as well].

4. Rob La Gatta: Do you think using a course blog is something you’ll do again in the future?

Doug Berman: I actually have a blog being used in one of the classes I’m teaching now, and I definitely will continue to gravitate towards integrating blogging with the course instruction, course development and project development. Basically, I’m so pro blog that my instinct is, “Hey, you’ve got an idea? Ok, good…why don’t you start a blog to work on that.” I think a lot of people I interact with get bored of hearing me talk about the opportunity that the blogs present.

There was a former prisoner, involved in a white collar offense who has gotten his life back in order, who wrote to me very nicely to say, “I really appreciate the work you’re doing…there are a lot of former offenders out here who are getting back on the straight and narrow, but there’s so much antipathy in various ways expressed to people who commit crimes, and such a misunderstanding of the opportunity for rehabilitation.” And he asked, “What can I do to help with this?”

I said, “Well, you should start a rehabilitation blog, and have stories about people who have gotten their lives back together.”  I’ve become kind of the hammer to that nail. Part of what has reinforced that is that I’ve heard feedback from many people who I’ve encouraged to go and blog, that they’ve been very happy with the experience. Nobody who I’ve encouraged to go blog who started blogging has come back to me and said, “You know, that was a terrible idea.”

Obviously, people get engaged in the blogging enterprise in different ways…but to me, that’s the not only unique, but a uniquely valuable aspect of the medium: you can make it what you want to make it, and there are very few conventions, very few expectations, very few demands other than those that you put on yourself. That’s why I find the blog format so liberating. You get to make your own choices rather than have a set of expectations that you must live up to.

5. Rob La Gatta: How have you seen traditional law reviews adjusting to handle the growth of the blogosphere?

Doug Berman: These online supplements are a very direct acknowledgment of one thing that the blogs have contributed to the law professor universe: sometimes, law professors have things they want to say and can valuably say in 500 words rather than 500,000 words.

As a byproduct of a lot of forces, law reviews had a size creep, where the standard article grew and grew (partially because technology made it easier to print more pages), and it got to the point where the norm of a law review was so massive and time consuming that even very senior and established faculty, who could get traditional scholarship placed in all sorts of ways, saw the virtue of expressing themselves and doing work in a blog setting.

Then, (particularly younger) law students who are very tech savvy and who didn’t enjoy sitting in a dank library checking footnote #427, felt that they could use the law review stature and resources to become a more active participant in the online dialogue. That has been great, because among the other virtues of the blog and the blogosphere, there is very little true competition…there’s a lot of collaboration. If I see a law review that does a bunch of pieces about federal sentencing, I’m not going to say, “Oh, they’ve taken away from OSCJL Amici.” I’m going to say, “Did they cite us?  Great!” Then we can cite them, and link back. And then, the world just keeps on growing.

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