Thursday, December 27, 2018

Designing Assignments for Legal History Courses

Today I'm going to focus on the kinds of assignments I've used in my American legal history courses. 

When I taught on the semester system, I required students to write a five-page book review (of a book they chose from a list I provided). Since few students had much practice writing reviews of scholarly monographs, I attached to the assignment an extensive rubric that emphasized analysis over summary and listed various things their paper should do. (For example: “The paper describes and critically assesses the clarity and organization of the author’s narrative in light of what the author was attempting to accomplish; and the paper describes the specific kinds of primary sources used, and evaluates how well they support the author’s narrative and argument; and the paper discusses how well the topic is defined and critically assesses the author’s choices to include or exclude certain topics and groups of people.”) I also asked students to analyze their monograph as a work of legal history. (“The paper engages broader points about the relationship between law and society and the usefulness of legal sources in addressing this issue.”) Breaking down the assignment into pieces (each with a specific number of points assigned) helped students figure out how to approach the project (and, frankly, made the papers much easier for me to grade).

Students also took two in-class midterms and an in-person final exam that were a mix of IDs and essays. Several days before the exam, I passed out a list of essay questions that might appear on the exam. Since students had time to prepare, I could ask broad questions that asked students to reflect on and synthesize a lot of course material. Questions included:
  • The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Would the pre-revolutionary colonists we’ve studied agree with this? How might their reactions depend on their political, economic, and social status?  
  • In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Supreme Court observed that “In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home.” Is this a correct description of how law has operated to define gender relations since World War II? How much room have men and women had to define marriage and gender roles for themselves, and to what extent have these been defined by courts and legislatures?
When I moved to a school on a quarter system, I was reluctant to sacrifice any my eighteen class days for an in-class exam. I thus tried to design paper assignments that would assess students’ understanding of broad course themes, skill in analyzing legal history sources, and ability to synthesize primary and secondary sources while  developing an argument related to those themes. My now-standard paper assignment in my legal history courses gives students a source we have not read or talked about in class and asks them to analyze it. As I tell them, this is not a research paper, and requires no outside knowledge of the source; instead, I want to see how well they can make sense of the source given the information they have from class lectures, discussions, and readings. I also try to make it clear to students that they have freedom in how they approach the source; giving students a choice of documents, or a lengthier document where they can choose one part to discuss, reinforces that.

I’ve used a variety of sources for this assignment. I have asked students to choose an issue of the digitized Virginia Gazette and discuss some aspect of that issue (each issue is ~4 pages long, and the ads are a particularly rich source). The prompt read as follows:
  • Read the paper and, using the primary sources and historical articles assigned in the class, reflect thoughtfully on how one or more articles and/or one or more advertisements relate to the themes and material we have discussed so far. Some questions to consider: what does this document tell us about labor, servitude, or slavery? About morality, crime, and social control? About Virginia’s relationship with England? Choose one of these questions (or develop your own) and discuss how we should understand this document in light of the materials we have read and discussed thus far this quarter. (Another way to think about it—if you were to add the source to the syllabus, which day would you add it to, and why? How does it expand on themes and ideas we have discussed so far in the class, and/or how does it complicate or contradict it?)

I’ve asked students to do the same kind of analysis with sources including the New York State Ratification of the Constitution (1788), Cleland v. Waters (Ga. 1855); Hoke v. United States (1913), and United States v. Cartozian (D. Or. 1925). In my Gender & the Law class, which I teach chronologically using a historical approach, I recently gave students three late nineteenth-century cases: McIntyre v. McIntyre (N.Y. Misc. 1894) (a collusive divorce case), Hood v. Sudderth (N.C. 1892) (a seduction case), and Paulin v. State (Tex. App. 1886) (a criminal prosecution of a husband who had killed his wife’s lover). Students were free to focus on one case, pull out common themes in two or three of the cases, etc. 

I like to give students the whole unedited source for this assignment, which means the source should not be too long, and court cases should not be too full of procedural or technical language that might stump undergraduates. Finding suitable cases is challenging, and often means I’m frantically skimming nineteenth-century treatises on HeinOnline the night before I promised the paper prompt would be available. However, now that I use this assignment in several of my classes, I’ve been keeping a list of cases and other sources that might work well as I run across citations in books and articles. (I’ve been waiting for a chance to have students write about State v. Hunter [Or. 1956]).

Another assignment I’ve adopted and adapted to great effect in my legal history courses is the “50 word assignment.” As I mentioned in an earlier post, in my legal history courses, I am fortunate enough to have graduate student teaching assistants to lead students in weekly discussions of the academic article or book chapter assigned that week. I want to set everyone up for a successful discussion by making sure students arrive at discussion section having actually done the reading. Thus, I require students to submit a one-sentence summary of the assigned reading (no more than 50 words) before their section meets; each sentence is worth a small number of points. A concise summary of an academic argument is hard to do well, and this serves as an excellent writing exercise. In addition, one can see immediately whether students understood the reading. (I find that summaries work better for this purpose than the discussion questions I used to assign.) The sentences are also very easy to grade quickly.