Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Can Law and Literature Be Practical?
Last year I was asked to teach a session in my school’s honors law and literature seminar, in which the students read a different play or novel each week. I was assigned to teach Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which I hadn’t read (or watched) in at least 15 years. What struck me as I read through the text was how much it reminded me of a transcript of deposition or trial testimony. Although the play is not a “courtroom” drama per se—most of the action takes place outside the courthouse, or in the “anteroom” just outside the courtroom proper—most of the dialogue is in the form of interrogation. And given that the central issue driving the plot is whether the testimony regarding witchcraft is genuine or fabricated, there are numerous evidentiary issues raised, including those relating to relevance and undue prejudice, hearsay, character evidence and impeachment, and expert opinion testimony.
As an evidence professor, I am always looking for ways for my students to learn evidence not in a doctrinal vacuum, but in the context of adversarial litigation. I often have them role-play as lawyers, addressing hypothetical trial scenarios. I realized that “The Crucible” presented a myriad of such hypotheticals, with a much richer factual and strategic context than most law school problems provide.
Not only did I teach the honors seminar class that way, I ended up writing an article about how the play could be used as a teaching tool. In doing so, I challenge the notion that “law and literature” and skills-based learning are unrelated, at opposite ends of a spectrum, or even antithetical to each other. I am curious if others have thought of ways in which law and literature and skills training are or could be symbiotic, either generally or with regard to specific texts.
Posted by Martin Pritikin on July 17, 2012 at 09:34 AM | Permalink
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a great play--I often talk about the Crucible when discussing HUAC during a con law class I teach to undergrads.
Posted by: Chris Edelson | Jul 17, 2012 1:46:50 PM
I think Law & Literature and skills training can absolutely be symbiotic, especially when it comes to imparting the importance of word choice. Poetry can get students to think about close reading in a way that has concrete applications for, e.g., avoiding ambiguity in drafting contracts. If you teach a poem like Weldon Kees' sestina "After the Trial," in which the poem's key words change position from one stanza to the next and simultaneously change meaning, students have to make sense of those shifting meanings in context. A contract is not a poem, but lawyers on opposing sides may seek to read in ambiguities, so the drafter needs to consider terms' potential alternative meanings and learn how best to use external tools (dictionary, industry norms, etc) for guidance.
(Shameless plug for my recent piece on law and poetry, which discusses the Kees piece in more depth, in 10, 9, 8... http://www.texaslrev.com/issues/vol/90/issue/6/roberts)
Posted by: alex roberts | Jul 17, 2012 2:30:38 PM
Wouldn't it be better for students to teach them about drafting conventions, ambiguity, and so on through the examination of legal texts? That is, to teach a student how to read a statute or read a contract, why not have them read a statute or read a contract, rather than a poem?
Some of the basic linguistic canons that apply to literature will also apply to statutory or contractual language, but determining the meaning of the legislature (or of the parties) is a fundamentally different task from determining the meaning of a poem.
Posted by: andy | Jul 17, 2012 6:57:38 PM
@Andy, certainly in a practice-oriented class students will work with the primary texts (contracts, statutes, etc.) 98% of the time. When we talk about incorporating lessons from L&L into other courses we're talking about the other 2% of materials we can use to keep students engaged, appeal to a variety of learning styles and backgrounds, and generally unsettle expectations in a skills-based class to the benefit of the students and their future clients.
Posted by: alex roberts | Jul 18, 2012 11:28:38 AM
I agree that there should be room for law & literature in the curriculum, especially in a seminar--there's a lot to learn there; I had always wanted to take the course but couldn't find it offered where I was.
Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Jul 18, 2012 2:27:41 PM
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