What is Law, Politics, and Society?
My department at Drake University: Law, Politics, and Society, is an interdisciplinary undergraduate legal studies program.
That’s a mouthful.
I find, as chair and professor, that much of my work with prospective students, current students, and … yes … our graduating students is to help them understand what our major is – and how to translate that major, and the knowledge and skills they develop within it, to their parents, to potential employers, and to graduate programs.
When our faculty revised our curriculum a few years ago, we did so with a large amount of willed ignorance about the name of the major – and a considerable amount of attention to the learning objectives we have for our students. We used to try to be sure students took a specific number of courses that were “political,” a certain number that were focused on “society,” and a certain set of courses that were “legal.” When we revised the curriculum, we realized that our faculty didn’t see those divisions starkly, and that we didn’t want to encourage our students in that mindset, either. Rather, we focused on what we hoped that students should be prepared to do, by the time they left our major.
Our goals for student learning include graduating students who can:
- participate actively as citizens in civil society;
- read and understand legal texts, court decisions, and theoretical writing, and use those texts effectively to convey complex ideas and arguments in writing;
- know and articulate the difference between law as a professional practice and law as a topic of interdisciplinary, undergraduate liberal arts inquiry;
- demonstrate awareness of how issues of justice, morality, authority, order, legitimacy, individualism, and community create tensions within ordered social life;
- explain how historical development and different cultural practices, social organizations, and political systems affect law and justice around the world;
- assess critically how people interpret, respond to, and experience law and the legal system based on factors such as race/ethnicity, class, gender, and religion;
- deploy contemporary legal, critical, and/or interpretive theories in their own analysis of political, social, or legal events or situations.
And, we agreed that the best ways to help students accomplish this learning included encouraging all classes to include interdisciplinary readings, discussion-based classrooms, and writing-focused assignments.
In other words: we agreed with Austin Sarat and others, that a strong liberal arts foundation was the best way to achieve our goals, and to prepare students for life after college – whether or not they enrolled in law school.
What sets our major apart from other reading- and writing- intensive majors is simply our focus on issues of power as constructed through law. What sets it apart from public law within political science, or other more traditional understands of law, is our insistence that law is located in both the formal and informal realms, and our desire – rooted in a law and society tradition – to decenter courts from the study of law, to recognize legal pluralism, and to investigate the contingent and constitutive relationships between law, politics, and society.
Most prospective students simply want to know: is this a pre-law major? With the decline in law school enrollments, I do get this question less frequently – but it still comes up at every admitted student day. Because any major could be a good pre-law major, the answer is both yes, and no. It’s also a pre-teaching certificate major, a pre-Masters of Social Work major, a pre-political campaign job major, etc. Our students go on to a range of careers – it is our hope that they go into them understanding the value of interdisciplinary perspectives on law, and prepared to think in complex ways about the complex relationships they will encounter between the component parts of the major: law, politics, and society.
- What do your majors and programs focus on?
- How do you achieve your goals for student learning?
- To what extent do liberal arts traditions inform what you do?
- Where is the role of the humanities in your students’ education?
Let’s chat – in comments!