"Networks of Knowledge: Pedagogy in the Service of Society" Inaugural Workshop

Thursday, February 16, 2012
Humanities Writ Large

For the first workshop for the “Networks of Knowledge: Pedagogy in the Service of Society” group, 25 faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates met to discuss how to design a course that would introduce undergraduates to the ideas animating the History Department’s new concentration in Law and Governance. Professors Kristen Neuschel and Professor Jocelyn Olcott are leading the this Emerging Humanities Network. For this meeting, the group included faculty and students from the Law School as well as the History Department and two fellows from the Thompson Writing Program (TWP).

The discussion started out with members of the Law School faculty describing some of the habits of reading, thinking, and writing that they would like to see students develop before they begin their professional training. These suggestions squared well with the History Department’s more general learning objectives to teach research skills, critical use of evidence, and effective writing and argumentation from evidence.

Discussion then turned to the relationship between the humanities and legal education, as one of the TWP fellows (Aria Chernik) stressed the importance of having undergraduates consider what kinds of lawyers we want to have and how they might understand the relationships between human consciousness or human experience, on the one hand, and legal practice and legal structures, on the other. She pointed out that the law, in its emphasis on exemplary cases, can dehumanize people, and history courses can restore our understanding about the connection between law and humanity. Graduate student Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell, who had served as a TA in a US legal history course, noted that undergraduates come to these classes assuming that the law exists to uphold justice and need to learn that it frequently also can be a tool for injustice.

One thorny question for seminar participants was whether an introductory class might be broadly comparative — including not only constitutional law but also practices like the Inquisition and sharia law, community peace, tribal laws, etc., that might offer perspective on more familiar legal practices — or whether it should instead be rooted more deeply in the instructor’s area of expertise, in order to give students a deeper understanding of how law operates in a particular context. Graduate student Samanthia Smalls suggested having students begin with journal or blog assignments in which they describe their own understandings of the roles of law and government and then revisit those conceptualizations over the course of the semester. Law professor Jed Purdy underscored the value of introducing students to completely alien normative analytical structures in which there are no synonyms to more familiar terms and structures and no way of understanding them without completely entering into the logic of their production.

Referenced People

Director of the Thompson Writing Program, Associate Professor of History
Associate Professor of History and Women's Studies