My favorite course to teach to undergraduates is one that explores the connections between social movements and changes in American law, which is adapted from a course taught at the University of Chicago by Jane Dailey. I fondly refer to the course as Hot Topics in American History due to the vigorous (and occasionally heated) discussions that arise from readings on civil rights, feminism, and the emergence of the New Right.
The class meets two days a week, and for the first meeting, students read history. For the second meeting, they read case law. This format is standard from week to week, so students know what to expect when they sit down to read or come to class. I find the layout satisfying, as it gives students context for the cases and gratifies my love for twentieth century American history. Cases like Shelley v. Kraemer and Milliken v. Bradley read differently when juxtaposed with Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis than they do on their own, and I find that my students are perceptive and sensitive to the complexities of concepts like state action. Reading history and case law together raises new questions as the course proceeds, and they learn to think critically about how the law translates into American life.
The students are a diverse bunch—some have their eyes set on law school or come from Women’s and Gender Studies, and assorted others just thought it looked vaguely interesting—and most have never read a Supreme Court case. Often, when they first look at the cases, they know little or nothing about how to read and understand them, and it can be frustrating for all of us if a big section of the class is lost.
Because I teach in a constitutional studies program, I deal with this challenge head-on. Instead of giving students short excerpts, I provide them with longer sections of cases that range from five to twenty pages so that we can work with the cases in all their complexity. Before the first discussion of cases, I present the students with four questions to ask as they read—a practice that is slimmed down from what law students do but still gives undergraduates the basics.
- What are the key facts of the case?
- What is the constitutional question?
- How does the majority opinion answer the question at hand?
- What is the logic the majority uses to get to its answer?
I find that using a transparent guide like this helps students to think critically about the cases before they even come to class. By the time they arrive, they should have considered these elements, and this often brings them to new questions that we can discuss in class. This format allows us to discuss alternate arguments presented in concurrences and dissents, and it ensures that students understand what they should know about a case in a standardized way. It also keeps them honest—we all know the questions are fair game during class, and I feel more comfortable cold-calling students than I might otherwise. Students who are quieter can prepare answers before class and get their participation points with less anxiety.
It takes time, but eventually all of the students can read a case and identify the primary arguments at hand. I also teach an introductory course on American constitutionalism, and we spend even more time working through the questions in that course. Many of those students are freshmen, and cases sometimes appear entirely foreign to them. I use weekly multiple-choice quizzes to reinforce their reading outside of class and use the questions as scaffolding as the semester progresses. The first quizzes are generally a bit of a mess—some students pick it up more quickly than others—but by the end of the semester, they are given a blank sheet with only the questions and have to answer them at length on their own. With few exceptions, they do well.
When I teach Marbury v. Madison early in the semester, the confusion is palpable as they puzzle over why on earth they should care about the Judiciary Act of 1789. But it’s important to me that they figure out how to understand the cases on their own, regardless of whether they plan to go to law school someday. It makes good sense to me that ordinary people—and not just specialists—can understand what the courts are doing, and it is gratifying to see students gain a skill that is so important.