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.