Sunday, August 1, 2010

How Fares Legal History in Our Universities?

Many thanks to Mary and Dan for inviting me. I'm a regular reader of the Legal History Blog and am delighted to be a guest blogger.

I've been reading Martha Nussbaum's new book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (see Mary's post today -- perfect timing!). Professor Nussbaum appropriately sounds an alarm about the de-valuing and de-funding of the liberal arts and social sciences, and even basic sciences, in favor of applied fields that are more directly connected to material gain. This theme was also sounded in a video clip that has been making its way around the Internet (on YouTube, the link is of Professor Eva von Dassow of the University of Minnesota, offering a forceful challenge to proposed cuts in the humanities there.

Within law schools (which are feeling significant budgetary pressures), there is much talk of efforts to promote skills training, and the law school at Washington and Lee University has received attention for its plan to eliminate all traditional coursework in the third year, in favor of practica, clinics, law-related service, and a program on professionalism.

With all of this going on, I'm interested in hearing from readers of the Blog about how legal history -- in the curriculum, in funding for workshops and programs, in support for scholarship and conferences, etc. -- is faring at your institution: undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools alike.

Lacking data, I wonder if legal history might be increasingly attractive to undergraduate programs (because it has a pre-law, professional-school cachet) and less to law schools? But this is a hypothesis formed in the dark. I'm eager for your observations from your various vantage points.

Please post in the comments.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm a professor in a history department (non-R1), a medievalist trained in legal history (among other things). My first book was, more or less, a legal history of women. I know my field, and could easily put together a course on "foundations of western legal tradition" or some such. Yet so far, I haven't, primarily because I don't think it would enroll well, and enrollments are everything where I teach (a class that doesn't get at least 25 students in the first month of regular enrollment gets cut).

Perhaps it's different for modernists. Maybe I'm even underestimating student interest. It's something to think about, for sure.

Anonymous said...

In contrast to the last poster, I recently taught an undergraduate course in medieval legal history (focus was on French, Italian, and English) and an astounding number of students took it. 15 to 20 were expected, and in the end I allowed 40. They were eager and intellectually hungry. Very nice, eh?

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Tom, thanks for raising this issue. I’ve wondered as well about how legal history, and interdisciplinarity in general, will fare in an era of “skills training.” One question, of course, is what counts as a “skill,” and how those skills are taught. I think of critical reading and good writing as important skills for lawyers that are taught well in legal history courses.

I think you’re right that it’s a good time for collaboration between history depts, and law schools, not only because of the potential push away from interdisciplinarity at some institutions, but also because of the need to address job market problems in history. As some departments focus on alternative career tracks for Ph.D.s (e.g. in public history or digital history), I think it would be productive to explore whether collaborations with law would be useful for history depts.

On teaching – I suspect there is great variability at institutions, as the previous comments suggest, but sometimes there is great demand for legal history at the college level, as Morty Horwitz experience at Harvard demonstrates. Students have to participate in a lottery to get into his Warren Court course of nearly 500 students! At some institutions, I think you’re right that students would value legal history as part of a pre-law curriculum. But this doesn’t mean that universities will be quick to embrace law profs as teachers in their humanities departments. At many schools, there are revenue barriers to interdisciplinary teaching, with complex financial arrangements needed between colleges, e.g. when the revenue for a student goes to one department, and the costs of the course, including instructor salary, are borne by another. In my experience, recent financial pressures have made colleges less likely to work out these financial arrangements.

Back to your original point: I think this means that legal historians who teach at law schools need to, essentially, take up Nussbaum’s theme, and focus on the way our work is part of a skills oriented legal education, rather than seeking another venue.

Anonymous said...

At my law school, legal history isn't particularly valued, though neither it is disdained; it seems to be viewed as a peripheral course, not unlike, oh, Jurisprudence or Contract Theory, a class it's fine to teach it so long as you are offering some of the "core" classes as well (Property, Wills & Trusts, etc.). But something interesting has happened in each of the last three hiring years; people with PhDs in history were identified as potential hires by the hiring committee, not to fill a "legal history" slot but because they combined a history PhD with another substantive field, and so were seen instead as (say) a tax or property scholar taking a historical approach to their field. I wonder if this is a/the future of legal history in law schools, with fewer people identifying solely as legal historians even as more history PhDs (with JDs too!) wind up as law professors.

David Stebenne said...

Thanks, Tom, for raising this timely issue. I think you are exactly right about increasing undergraduate interest as a consequence of greater pre-professionalism. In the law schools the challenge seems to me to be how to offer everything students would like to take in a leaner budgetary climate. Collaboration is possible between law schools and history departments if all parties involved really want it to happen; what's needed, I think, is flexibility on the part of all concerned to work out viable strategies in these more austere times. Mary D. and I discussed this last spring; it's especially tricky in big research institutions, but it can (and should) be done.