Monday, May 30, 2011

Some final thoughts

My guest month is winding to a close and since I’ll be traveling Tuesday this is probably my last post unless I’m stuck in some airport. So let me thank Mary and the rest of the Legal History Blog folks for inviting me over; it’s been fun. And thanks, too, to the folks who commented and/or wrote me personal emails about my posts. I’ve appreciated those messages, as well.
Before I leave, I wanted to address a couple of comments to my last post, and follow up on Mary’s response to one of those comments. The comments dealt with the issue of whether legal history was in fact a moribund field; one commenter asked me why my colleague suggested it was; another was worried that at some universities legal history not as popular as other history courses.

I guess I would say what I said to Kermit Hall long ago in that restaurant in Clemson, S.C.: I think legal history (or constitutional history) is in fine shape. It’s true, I bitch and moan about my classes not working as well as I want, but that’s more than a little precious of me. By any matrix my employers use, or have used, legal history is healthy. I’d like the courses to be better; I’d like legal and constitutional history to address more and engage more. But that’s just my secret perfectionist talking.
In fact, my experience of teaching legal and constitutional history to undergraduates (or law and grad students) over the past 16 years has been essentially what Mary said--it’s a very popular subject. I’ve taught at least one semester of legal history to undergraduates every year I’ve been teaching, and many years I’ve taught at least two undergraduate courses in legal history. A couple times, I taught three undergrad legal history courses in a year.
Over that period of time, I’ve taught legal history to undergraduates in every configuration the institutions I’ve worked at have allowed: I’ve taught plain vanilla American Legal History courses to classes of anywhere from 30-120 students.  I’ve taught undergrad lecture/discussion courses in the 30-45 student range on US Constitutional History or the Founding Era. I’ve taught senior research seminars that studied specific trials in their historical context, looked at the history of a Supreme Court opinion, or focused on some particular aspect of legal history (History of Criminal Law, for example). I’ve taught an introductory methods course we require of our majors using legal history subjects and materials. I’ve taught combined undergrad/grad seminars on subjects like the “long history” of civil rights in the US. I’ve taught a course on Famous American Trials that was a historiography course in disguise. Next spring I’m going to teach a world history course that looks at human rights. And there are other legal history courses (History of Women and Law in the US; History of Criminal Law in the US) that I could teach  but don’t because I don’t want to poach on other colleagues’ turf.
It’s been my experience that any legal history topic I could think of worked as a class, and that any type of undergraduate class could be used to teach some aspect of legal history. Likewise, it’s been my experience that almost any approach to legal history worked. Some of my courses have approached legal history from a social history perspective, some from that of cultural history, others from the perspective of intellectual history, and some from some combination of historical approaches. Some courses have been case studies, some have focused on a development of particular area of law, and some have been general overviews.  
Across all those courses, I’ve never had a problem with enrollments. I’m not saying my legal history courses are the most popular courses in the department, or that if I booked the biggest teaching auditorium in the school I’d fill it. But the classes always “make,” in the sense of meeting their enrollment goals, they often fill early in the enrollment cycle and I typically have a couple of students who beg me to overrule the enrollment caps to let me in the class.
None of this is because I am a legendary or even a particularly fine teacher. I have had colleagues, both at Florida and at Clemson, who won every award the university offered in teaching, at every level; some more than once.  I’m am nowhere near that class. Frankly, I figured my teaching evaluations got a boost from the fact I taught a popular subject, not that legal history was popular because I taught it.
So I’ve always assumed my colleague who made the remark to me in the department meeting was, to borrow a phrase from a judge I used to appear in front of, showing a little fang. I think I was up for tenure that year and that he wanted to make sure I didn’t think I was a shoe in. Or maybe he was of the view (as Mary suggests) that legal history, like political history, economic history, or military history, was an old style of history that was being replaced by social and cultural history.
But regardless of what he was getting at, my experience has always led me to believe that legal history, in an almost infinite variety of manifestations, would be a popular undergrad course anywhere. My lamentations that all types of legal history could be better reflect my belief that there is a lot of interest in the field, which we could respond to by making it even better, not the fear that the field is in bad shape.