Sunday, August 25, 2013

Entering the Field of Legal History


This is the time of year when all thoughts turn back to …. school.  Legal historians generally do a LOT of school.  When others talk of “finishing,” this crowd talks of the long haul.  As Bruce Mann once said, this kind of training is not for the faint of heart.

So what draws people – otherwise talented and accomplished people – into legal history?  I asked a group of people who are either just about to start graduate school or at an early stage of graduate work (a total of six: three joint degree students, two more doing a history PhD first and then law school, and a third who has completed a JD and is now in the second year of history graduate work).  What, I queried, drew you to the field?

Most often, the answers had to do with research.  Sometimes it was on the job – going to the NAACP archives to research a case, and finding that the most exciting questions were debated in past generations.  Or finding that research in a state archive far from home was more challenging and rewarding than a summer internship in law, even a highly competitive public interest internship.

The joys of research, said this group, made the prospect of all that school less daunting.  They knew, in other words, that eventually they would be released back into the world of archive rats, and there they could flourish.

Others talked a different language, saying that they wanted to do something more than history.  Several said that law, at least the prospect of studying law in one case, gave them the sense that they might make a difference in the world.  Especially when the subfield of their own research is close enough to similar problems in the world today, this group is drawn to the tactile qualities of law and legal practice in addition to work in history.

Those currently in graduate school say that their initial goals have been modified now, in part by finding so many more aspects of the legal past that interest them.  Several have pressing questions that they thought less about a year ago – what WILL the dissertation topic be?  How do I hone fields for my exams?  How can I keep going on a dissertation during law school, especially if my legal training changes the way I think about the topic and my own approach to it?

One person I spoke with is planning to attend the ASLH meeting in Miami this year.  She was crystal clear about the joys of community among legal historians.  Our field and its occupants, it seems, still have the capacity to welcome and nurture new entrants.  Having found an intellectual home and many friends there myself, I took heart from hearing such praise from a new generation.  I hope she will stop by our SLH series book table, to eat hard candy with Tom Green and talk with us all.

As a legal historian of religion (SO MUCH graduate school), I think of these tales of entrance into legal history as conversion stories.  One acquires a vocation through experience as well as rumination.  And a vocation in our field means lots of long, slow work, amid which a convivial and substantive annual meeting is a rave-up.

Finding a single moment when a vocation becomes apparent is difficult.  When asked how I could stand so much school, sometimes I replied that I can’t live without the smell of books.  It’s true, but of course not complete, because a vocation is not a simple thing, and never static.  The transmission of the craft to a new generation appears on the screen along with wrinkles – the former an unexpected gift, the latter not as bad as expected.

To all those at the edge of our field and starting the path inward, you are most welcome. 

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