Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Moving from semesters to quarters


In my first post, I discussed my approach to developing a two-semester survey course in American legal history. After several years of tinkering, I was pretty happy with the course; I needed to rethink it, however, when I moved from a school on the semester system to one on the quarter system.

When I joined the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University, I began teaching a variety of undergraduate socio-legal and legal history courses, eventually including both halves of a two-quarter legal history survey co-listed in History and Legal Studies (Legal and Constitutional History of the United States to 1850/since 1850). Moving from semesters to quarters in the first half of the survey was pretty easy; my semester-long class had ended at 1890, so I had almost exactly the right amount of material for a roughly nine-week class that ended in 1850. The second half of the survey, however, posed a challenge, since I now had only 18 class periods but more than 30 lectures worth of material that I thought was important and enjoyed discussing with students. Keeping all of this content was obviously impossible, though, and I had to decide which topics I really wanted to preserve in the course. I had organized my semester-long course around certain recurring themes, and saw that the course would still hold together if I lifted out the stand-alone lectures and assigned readings on changes in American legal thought and legal theory (i.e. formalism, sociological jurisprudence and legal realism, legal process, and originalism). I now cover these topics only briefly in class, where necessary to understand other sources; I do hope to use this material someday in a stand-alone class entirely on American legal theory where we can delve into these ideas in some depth.

I made some other coverage decisions based on topics and material I was teaching in other classes. I work in an interdisciplinary legal studies program and teach a variety of other law-related courses, including Constitutional Law II, focused on civil rights and civil liberties (co-listed in Political Science), and Gender and the Law (co-listed in Gender and Sexuality Studies). Undergraduates who are interested in legal topics often take more than one of these classes, so I’ve tried to eliminate as much overlap as possible, both in topics covered and reading assigned. Where there is some inevitable overlap (i.e. abortion, segregation, marriage equality), I have approached the material differently (doctrinal in some classes, historical in others) and assigned different readings whenever possible.  

I also suspected that my previous approach of assigning monographs to read alongside the primary sources would be less successful given the pace of a quarter system. While teaching a semester-long course, I had generally assigned four or five monographs that matched, chronologically, what we were covering and gave the students more background on particular issues than I had time to cover in class. I frequently changed up these books, both to highlight different themes and to keep things fresh for me, but I did repeatedly rely on John Ruston Pagan’s Anne Orthwood's Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2001). Both worked particularly well and were always a hit with students.

In a nine-week course, I wanted to use more focused readings; I thus moved from assigning a few books to be read over multiple weeks to assigning one or more journal or book chapters per week. Here, too, I tend to switch up most of these readings each time I teach, but some articles that work extremely with students include Cornelia Hughes Dayton, “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series, 48 (1991): 19-48 (there’s a companion website); Laura Edwards, “Textiles: Popular Culture and the Law,” Buffalo Law Review 64 (2016): 193-214; and Nancy Cott, “Marriage and Women's Citizenship in the United States, 1830-1934,” American Historical Review 103 (1998): 1440-1474.

Moving to articles and book chapters also addressed two pragmatic concerns. First, these readings eliminated significant course costs, since students are able to access journal articles through library databases and book chapters through e-reserve. (I’ll add here a plug  for helping out academic journals by posting stable links to assigned articles.)

Second, my courses now included weekly discussion sections led by graduate teaching assistants, and I wanted to use this time effectively. Since I use class time to lecture and to discuss the assigned primary sources, I ask the graduate teaching assistant to lead students in a discussion of that week’s article or chapter. (A very short weekly assignment where students summarize that week’s reading before their section meetings ensures that students have read the article and come to their section meeting ready to discuss it.) This approach focuses section meetings on the specific task of discussing the author’s question, argument, and use of sources, and gives the students the opportunity to relate the reading to that week’s lectures and primary sources. In addition, my graduate teaching assistants have been excellent and enthusiastic, but they have had varying levels of familiarity with American legal history. I think this approach makes it fairly straightforward for them to prepare for and lead discussion.

Finally, I rethought the assigned primary source reader, since I couldn’t justify asking students to spend their money on a large, comprehensive casebook that they were going to use so little of in nine weeks. I initially adopted Melvin I. Urofsky and Paul Finkelman’s Documents of American Constitutional And Legal History, using volume one (from the founding to 1896) for the first half of the course, and volume two (1896 to the present) for the second half. I no longer use these, however, since the books are not inexpensive (approximately $60 each), and contain much more material than I could ever assign. (This is not necessarily a criticism of the books themselves—they simply do not map well onto the courses I was teaching. The first volume has little on colonial American law, and the second volume’s starting date of 1896 does not really work for a class beginning in 1850.) I supplemented each volume with a collection of sources I’d edited myself, and soon realized I’d be happier in the long term if I took the time to simply assemble and edit all the sources myself. I’ll discuss my process of choosing and assembling sources in the next post; for now I’ll just say that it was an enormously time-consuming endeavor that I am nonetheless glad to have done.   

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