Monday, May 2, 2011

By way of a beginning...

Having gotten through most of the academic year without allergies (a happy byproduct of being on leave and far from the always blossoming South), the pollen season has finally caught up with me. I guess it's nature's way of helping prepare me for my return to Florida. But as a result, I'm more than a bit foggy and unfocused and this is probably not a good time for trying to write a complicated blog post. Instead, I thought I'd start the month with a question or two about teaching.

Before the questions, we need a bit of context. Once a year, I teach a legal history course (or seminar) to a mix of second and third year law students and graduate students (mostly history grad students, though I also get some from political science, anthropology, English). Some years, the course is a lecture, sometimes the course is a seminar. The subject varies from year to year as well; it might be your basic bread and butter American Legal and Constitutional History course, or a legal or constitutional history course focused on a particular topic (work law, one year, citizenship law another), or a seminar in comparative constitutional history.

By and large, the courses work, or at least they appear to have done so. We more or less cover what I want to cover and deal with the things I think matter. My teaching evaluations for the courses track those of my other courses, students speak to me after the semester is over, some students take a course again from me another year, others ask for letters of recommendation, some sign up to participate in our JD/MA program. These seem to be signs that the courses and seminars are reasonably successful.

But looking back on the various semesters, I'm not sure I've quite pulled the courses off. Specifically, I have the feeling that what I've managed to do is teach to some not terribly happy medium--at some point early on in the semester we find a space that the law students and the non-law students find tolerable and then we stay there.

That's better than a lot of alternatives, but it means that the non-law students don't benefit from taking a course with law students and the law students don't get much out of taking a course with the non-law students. Instead of managing to create a new and interesting synthesis that pulls from their different disciplinary perspectives, I wind up with a course that seems both generic and a little dull.

Of course, perhaps students' disciplinary identity is such it is impossible to create a new synthesis. Or maybe its possible, but not every year with a random group of students (some of whom might be appalled to learn that they were signing up for new experiences and perspectives). Or maybe its possible, but only in courses taught by truly gifted teachers.

But let's imagine that it's possible for the merely competent, rather than the extremely gifted, to teach a legal history course that manages to create a synthesis between law and history. If so, how can it be done? What does it take to encourage students to engage one another at points of difference and build on that engagement?

I suppose that to get to that point, we need to engage the assumption underlying it, so feel free to do that, too. Am I right to think that a class that produces some sort of interdisciplinary synthesis is more valuable than a class that simply muddles through and leaves everyone a bit more informed at the end of the semester than they were at the beginning?

2 comments:

Anders Walker said...

Interesting post. My first inclination is to assume that history grad students will bring a deeper knowledge of historiography and theory to the course. By contrast, law students will probably be better able to read and understand cases, placing them within their doctrinal context. Is this right? Do law students respond more to doctrinal/case oriented questions, but grad students historiographical questions/debates?

Elizabeth Dale said...

Hi Anders. It's what you suggest, but on a couple of different levels, at once.

On one hand, law students tend to think about historical materials vertically--what does this tell us about today? Non-law students (especially history students) tend to engage more horizontally--what does this tell us about the context of that time?

At the same time, law students tend to engage the primary sources from a theoretical or policy point of view--what assumptions (about economics, or polities) does this case, or constitution, reflect? Non-law students tend to engage the secondary sources (articles, books) from a theoretical point of view--what is this author assuming about that time period.

So there are obvious points of overlap, but there's also a lot of potential for people talking past one another.