Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The U.S. Legal History Survey Revisited: IV -- Methods of Evaluation -- Historiographical Essay

After a brief hiatus, I am returning to my series of posts on teaching the U.S. Legal History survey. (Earlier posts are here, here, and here). When I left off, I was pondering how to evaluate student learning. In retrospect, it might have been useful to find ways of evaluating the students throughout the course -- perhaps through shorter response papers or in-class exercises. (Do you all do this? What sort of assignments do you use?). This past semester, however, I based final grades entirely on a final assignment: either a ten-hour, essay-style take-home exam or a 20-25 page historiographical essay (student's choice).

The historiographical essay is an unusual assignment for a law school class, but I thought it worked well and I'll likely use it again. Here's how I introduced the assignment:
A historiographical essay is a review of the historical writings on a particular topic or field of study (for example, the law of slavery in the antebellum South or the “Constitutional Revolution” of 1937). Historiographical essays are rooted in the idea that there is no one, “true” history, but rather a set of overlapping interpretations, which are influenced by the historian’s time, place, and identity. How an historian interprets the past will be based on his or her values, education, theoretical perspective (e.g. Marxist, feminist, etc.), and social context, as well as by the primary sources that are available at the time.

A historiographical essay seeks to identify and explain change over time in how historians have approached a single topic. This requires, first, taking apart a number of books (five or six will do for this assignment). The essay should identify each book’s argument and demonstrate an understanding of how (i.e. with what evidence) the author built his or her argument. A successful historiographical essay will, second, link the books together, showing the ways in which the selected historians have built upon each other's work or are in dialogue with each other. Third, the essay should suggest productive lines for future inquiry: perhaps there is an angle that has not been explored, a theoretical perspective that scholars have yet to bring to bear on the topic, or a weakness that runs throughout the books under consideration. A historiographical essay need not be celebratory; indeed, it may be critical. What matters most is that the essay provides a thoughtful, nuanced portrait of the chosen field of scholarship.
Every student in this class is capable of producing an excellent historiographical essay, so do not be discouraged if you do not have a strong background in history. That said, this option might be particularly useful to students who have a deep interest in a particular topic and students interested in academic careers. 
There are many other helpful resources online. For example, I remember looking at this historiographic essay manual when preparing my assignment instructions. 

With just a little guidance, my students came up with terrific topics. For example, a student with a strong interest in race and electoral politics canvassed the literature on voter suppression in the post-Reconstruction South. Another student wrote about "agency, law, and society in progressive juvenile justice." A third traced a century of historical writing on the origins of the Fourth Amendment and along the way developed fascinating insights about the Supreme Court's use of this history.

Some students may not see the benefit of this exercise. It will not result in the sort of paper that one can ship off to a law review and easily get published.  It will not help students pass the bar exam. But I see several virtues: First, for students who aspire to be academics but are not working towards a PhD, an exercise like this can provide the foundation for original research. Until one masters a field, it is difficult to know where and how to intervene in it. Second, this exercise makes students think carefully about how knowledge is constructed and re-constructed over time, and therefore more likely to think critically and creatively in their work as lawyers. Third, and probably most important, it reminds them that what we see in the evidence in front of us depends largely on the questions we think to ask.