Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Undergraduate Major in Law, History, and Culture

One of the great pleasures of being at USC is getting to work with undergraduates each year as the instructor of Law 101: Law and the U.S. Constitution in Global History. I have this opportunity as a result of USC’s large, innovative and growing Law, History, and Culture (LHC) major and because of USC’s openness to having law professors teach undergraduates. In this post, I describe the genesis and operation of the major, catalog its successes, and note some risks and shortfalls of the project.

The LHC major was originally the brainchild of my colleagues Ariela Gross, Hilary Schor, and Nomi Stolzenberg. It came into existence because of their determination and their ability to frame it as a solution to two inter-school challenges.

Back in the aughts, the proposal was met by resistance. Then, earlier this decade, USC grew receptive. One reason was that the law school and humanities departments faced financial pressures. Law school applications were down nationally. Growing numbers of undergraduates were choosing majors outside the humanities.  Another reason was that USC became invested in providing undergraduates inter-disciplinary and inter-school experiences. Ariela, Hilary, and Nomi knew both dynamics well. They were co-directors of USC’s Center for Law, History, and Culture, which drew together law and humanities scholars from around the university. Seeing their opportunity, they pitched the LHC major as an inter-disciplinary, inter-school way to grow law and humanities enrollments.

The LHC major piggybacked on the community and intellectual project that the Center for Law, History, and Culture had built. It aimed to draw new students to work with faculty in law and the humanities. After all, many students are interested in the humanities but believe (incorrectly in my view) that the humanities are impractical. Adding a legal component could provide an attractive path in.

The major is structured to combine a couple of courses taught by law professors with a much larger number of humanities (and social science) courses. The hope is that courses by law faculty will attract pre-law students and students who want to know a little law without having to go to law school. Once enrolled, the students will get hooked on what the courses illuminate and facilitate: exciting and generative work on the humanistic study of the law.

The LHC major is housed within the History Department and overseen by an interdisciplinary steering committee that I co-chair with my colleague in history, Nathan Perl-Rosenthal.  We have been lucky that those who teach in the major have been willing to serve on the steering committee, attend events, and speak to students.

In terms of attracting students and boosting law enrollment, the major has been a success. The major is large and growing. There are already more LHC majors than pure history majors. My Law 101 course has around three times as many students as all my other law courses combined. The other law course required for the major enrolls about half as many total students as matriculate into USC’s J.D. program each year.

I get great students who are eager, smart, and often from far from knowing that they want to do with their lives. As compared to teaching law students, I make a different kind of difference in their lives and get to lead more free-ranging discussions. Plus, I get to join pedagogical conversations with colleagues in history, religion, English, and other humanities fields.

The major can also advance research by drawing together like-minded professors from disparate departments and schools. I’m currently working with Nathan Perl-Rosenthal on a history of birthright citizenship. Recently, the major facilitated a connection between a law school and a history colleague who share an interest in the quantitative study of medieval legal history. Ability to teach in this thriving major can also be part of what makes a scholar attractive to departments and schools as a potential hire.

There remains work to be done. The promise that the LHC major would boost enrollments across the humanities remains partly aspirational. We hope that a new set of distribution requirements, which will soon be implemented for the major, will help to bring student demand and course supply into closer alignment.

Conversely, there are potential dangers in driving students towards courses in professional schools.  One justification for the LHC major was that it might coax students from the professional schools, sciences, and social sciences back to the humanities.  To the extent that the major is routing humanities students into law courses instead, we may be making the problem worse, not better.

Then there is the problem of expertise. Professional schools have deep experience in educating students who already have their bachelor’s degrees. The college houses the experts in undergraduate education. A resultant expertise and experience gap can result in poorly designed courses and even-worse-designed majors. If a professional school prioritizes graduate students, undergraduates may receive less desirable instructors. Competition for tuition dollars can also encourage reducing course requirements as a lure to students.

The LHC major itself avoids the potential professional-school trap. Tenured and clinical faculty teach the law courses that count toward the major. Those courses were designed in conversation with colleagues in the college and with an eye to serving a major that was neither designed nor housed within the law school. LHC is not a pre-professional major in law, which I don’t think would serve college students well. It instead identifies and takes as its raison d’etre a pre-existing space in which faculty are crossing disciplinary lines to collaborate and produce cutting-edge scholarship. It is thus an attempt to live up to USC’s ballyhooed commitment to interdisciplinarity rather than to pay it mere lip service.

The danger is that the LHC major is an opening wedge for other, more pre-professional law courses. My hope is that it is instead a model of a better approach to involving professional schools in undergraduate education.

--Sam Erman (with gratitude to Nathan Perl-Rosenthal and Hilary Schor for assisting with this post)

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