Teaching Constitutional Law

I’ve been working on my Con Law syllabus for next semester.  I must admit that I find Con Law the most difficult course to teach, even though it’s the subject that I enjoy the most.  Why is that?

1.  The subject matter is so vast that you can only scratch the surface in one semester.  To some extent, that is true for Torts or Contracts, but much less so.  Constructing a syllabus that must omit so much important material is frustrating.

2.  Students often come into con law with strong views about the material that they lack in other subjects. This can makes them less open to discussion or alternative views.  I want people to be passionate about the subject, but I’d like them to form their opinions after reading the cases, not before.  Many folks have a fixed view about abortion or affirmative action, for example, no matter what the cases say.

3.  Con Law cannot be taught well without a lot of historical background.  Many students (I find) don’t know a lot about history.  Since it’s hard to provide the full context for each and every case (e.g, what was the New Deal about?), I often think that people do not get as much from the opinions as they should.  I’m trying a different casebook next time that has more history — we’ll see if that helps.

4.  Con Law is not just about what the Supreme Court says.  Most (though not all) casebooks, though, do not include significant non-judicial texts.  I try to remedy this by handing out things like Lincoln’s First Inaugural or FDR’s Fireside Chat on “Court-packing” as examples of constitutional analysis that are just as useful from a teaching standpoint as Marbury.

We’ll see if a do a better job next time.

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5 Responses

  1. Lori Ringhand says:

    I have had exactly the same experience teaching the individual rights portion of our con law curriculum. One thing I did last year was to reduce the number of cases students read and instead have them read the briefs submitted by the parties in the leading cases. I assigned the briefs a day before I assigned the decision itself.

    I think this really helped the students better understand the nuances of the cases, and lessened the impulse to jump immediately to their preferred answer. It also brought con law into the realm of the actual practice of law – briefing and arguing cases – which seemed to encourage the students to think more critically about the materials.

  2. Vladimir says:

    Which case book, out of curiousity, are you switching to, with more history?

  3. SusanS says:

    The con law courses I had all did really well on points 1-3, but I felt like they never even acknowledged number 4. I really wish that had been emphasized more; the overall impression the courses tended to leave is that constitutional law is the sole domain of the Supreme Court justices and is never shaped and influenced by outside government forces.

  4. AdamJ says:

    The only way to really understand the subject and be able to analyze critically the issues arising is to understand the history as well as the context. I think assigning history along with the cases to be read may involve more work on the part of students, but it makes the learning experience complete and gives them the capability to understand and discuss the issues as well as potentially to change their views.

  5. DCLawyer says:

    Some Louis Fisher would be useful to deal with #4. He definitely takes a much more holistic approach.

    As to #3, good luck with that!