Friday, March 11, 2011

The Survey: Choosing Texts



Just had a conversation with Paul Finkelman about the new (4th) edition of Hall, Finkelman, & Ely American Legal History: Cases and Materials. I used the 3rd edition last year and found it a good source of primary sources, more coverage of the Twentieth Century than Presser and Zainaldin's Cases & Materials on Law & Jurisprudence in American History. I'm still debating what the best complement to such a sourcebook is. Texts I've tried include Lawrence Friedman's History of American Law, James W. Ely's Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights, and John Fabian Witt's Patriots & Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law. Witt's chapter on Reconstruction ("The Exodus of Elias Hill) won rave reviews from students, so much so that I began combing the stacks for more (relatively short) reads that bring the big topics to life. Included in last year's syllabus were excerpts from Mike McGerr's Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America and James Green's Death in the Haymarket. This year I've moved more to period pieces (historic newspaper articles and magazines (Punch, Look, etc ...). Any other ideas?

4 comments:

  1. Are folks still teaching the one-semester survey of the entire field, colonial times to the 20th century? Is that manageable within the space of a single semester? Or is there movement towards dividing up the survey into two or more semester courses, using documentary sources such as the Jack Greene reader for the colonial/revolutionary period that focus on narrower time periods? Do we have a sense of where the field stands in this regard, pedagogically?

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  2. I'm not sure that the field stands anywhere in particular. When I taught at the Univ. of Iowa a long time ago, Herb Hovenkamp and I divided U.S. legal history into two parts, chronologically. At many schools, though, I think it's a one-semester survey, perhaps in part based on student interest (lack of demand for 2 semesters?) or instructors needing to offer other courses. I focus on 20th century constitutional history, since I think that area is important and the 20th century warrants a full course. I've moved more in the direction of cases and primary sources coupled w/ occasional articles or book chapters. I'd be curious to hear about what others do.

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  3. Mary -- thanks for responding to my initial (anonymous) comment. I have not yet begun teaching a legal history course at my law school (though hope to begin doing so soon), but I am somewhat skeptical of just how satisfactory a whirlwind tour of the entire life span of American legal history can be. I imagine that people who do offer the one-semester survey will necessarily have to be selective in picking topics/specific periods to cover, but still, that is a large space within which to have to select a semester's worth of work. Where I attended law school, the legal history courses were broken up into relatively contained time periods, at least on the American side (colonial to early republic, revolutionary era to the late 19th c., a course that more or less covered the 20th century), and several more focused offerings within the field of 20th-c. legal history. But most schools (including where I teach) will not have the luxury of having 6-7 legal historians on board to divide up the territory in this way. I think it would be both interesting and useful to have a coordinated discussion of some kind on this issue, if there is enough interest, to see how people deal with periodization and choice of themes, in addition to the question of texts, etc.

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  4. Dividing the survey into two semesters would certainly make sense, though overall enrollment may go down. I tend to get high enrollments in the survey (70-80 students), partly because students feel like they're getting a grand overview, without sacrificing upper level electives(particularly bar courses). That said, the challenge remains organizing the material in a meaningful, substantive way -- which is partly why I've become interested in a more thematic approach. Would love more discussion on this as well.

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