Why Is Teaching Constitutional Law the most difficult course?

October 13th, 2009

My academic goal is to one day teach Constitutional Law. it is the topic I am most passionate about, and get so excited talking about it. But is it the toughest course to teach?

At Concurring Opinions, Gerard Magliocca writes “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.

Very interesting points. Constitutional Law is so fascinating because it is so deep. Students (myself included) definitely had lots of views coming into class. Also Con Law requires a huge amount of history. That is why I am such a big fan of Mason’s Founders Constitution class. All 1L’s must take an entire course reading the Federalist, the anti-Federalist, and other early writings that influenced our founding generation. That class provides a huge amount of context.

I agree with the author’s fourth point. The Constitution is not just about what the Supreme Court says. Though, I would argue that speeches given by Lincoln and FDR after the Constitution was written shed no light on the original meaning of the Constitution. That’s where the Founders Constitution class comes in.

One day I hope to teach Con Law. I am assisting Judge Gibson teach a Federal Courts class at Penn State Law in Spring 2010 and am now constructing the syllabus. I’ll post my thoughts about that later.