Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Books, books, books

I apologize for the radio silence, I spent the past week or so enveloped by a swarm of page proofs--page proofs for books, page proofs for articles, anything that I had out there with some publishing entity appeared before me in page proof form within the past ten days. I guess I like the fact that it's possible to use the sticky note function to make corrections on proofs without having to print them out and write cryptic codes on the margins, but I am a shadow of my former self.

Of course, that might be a good thing. At the very least, I'm sure the dramatic streaks of white in my hair make me look almost distinguished and wise.

As anyone who has read proofs knows, there comes a point where you simply can't read another page that day. Unfortunately, I don't seem to be good for much of anything else when I hit that point, so I spent my free time staring into space and obsessing. And for fairly obvious reasons, I started obsessing, once again, about the issue of using books in law school classes and what works and why.

I did have a number of thoughts. It seems to me that the couple of times I assigned "short" books (say 200-250 pages) that worked pretty well. But I also had some success using a fairly long book as a sort of text that we returned to week after week, using different chapters as reading for the week.

But I'm not sure what that proves, since a chapter even in a long book is rarely as long as a short book. So the secret of success doesn't seem to lie (or only lie) in page counts.

I wondered, quite a bit, about how much subject matter played a role making a book work, but here my sense of what worked in different classes did not add up to any clear rules. Mostly students seemed to prefer books on US legal or constitutional history, which is reasonable, that's what is familiar. But I can't come up with any other obvious trends. Some books that I would characterize as legal history told from a social or political perspective got panned, some did not. Some books that were written as narratives were well received, some were not. Some books that had a clear point of view, even one that was opposed by most of the students in a class, were well received, others were not. Some books that I thought were well written were deplored by my students, and some books that I thought were not very well written were well received.

And so on.

The only aspect of a book that I could identify as more often than not leading students to like a book was what I guess I would call immediacy or focus. I think that every legal history that was directly about a case that we were dealing with in class was well received, regardless of whether it was a study of the parties to the case or of the doctrines and legal arguments relied on by the attorneys and the courts. In contrast, histories that put a case into a larger context or provided some sort of background or traced out the implications of a decision (or group of decisions) received more mixed reviews.

That suggests to me that the histories that are most likely to be well received in law school classes are those that help explain why this particular case came out this particular way, either by setting out the development of a legal rationale or by providing a sense of the participants to the case. And that suggests that law students have a fairly utilitarian understanding of what legal history should do.

But that strikes me as kind of odd, so I suspect I am misremembering or misreading the evidence. Fortunately, I don't have to rely on my own recollections in this regard. A lot of people here have written books of legal history, many in the blog community have either assigned legal history (or history) books in legal history courses they've taught in law schools or have taken law school courses where legal history books were assigned.

What worked? And why?

I should be clear--I'm not really interested in the names of particular books or authors. Nor am I interested in tales of failed assignments. I'm interested in trying to figure out what types of legal history books are more likely to work well in law school classes and I'm also interested in people's sense about what the market, so to speak, will bear and why. One historical monograph a semester, assigned over a series of weeks as a sort of textbook? Two books, assigned as readings for the week at different points in the semester? Four books, assigned every third week? Six books, assigned to students who do presentations on them? No books, ever?