Ariela J. Gross • 17 Feb 2012
Teaching Humanities Softly: Bringing a Critical Approach to the First-Year Contracts Class Through Trial and Error
This piece was written for a program held by the American Association of Law Schools Section on Law and Humanities, “Excavating and Integrating Law and Humanities in the Core Curriculum,” on January 5, 2012.I began teaching Contract Law in 1997, and because I wanted my students to benefit from an interdisciplinary approach to the subject, I chose a wonderful casebook edited by Amy Kastely, Deborah Waire Post, and Sharon Hom, called Contracting Law. Rather than the sterile doctrinal analysis of the traditional 1L classroom, I hoped to have my students gain an appreciation of the human dimension of legal problems and the encounters between ordinary individuals and legal institutions. My own research at the time explored the intersection of law and local culture to uncover the way people made race in their everyday lives. I hoped that in the classroom we could similarly think about law in its cultural-historical context. Likewise, I thought that only by situating law in its cultural-historical context could students gain enough purchase to be critical of the legal status quo.I think it is fair to say that Contracting Law was the first (and it may be the only) critical race feminist Contracts casebook. It is also the only Contracts casebook that I know of that attempts to engage the humanities. It is filled with poems and excerpts of novels, in addition to law review articles from a variety of viewpoints. It didn’t even look like other casebooks. It was bigger and heavier and the typeface was large enough to read easily. My students hated it.They hated that it was different. They hated that there were things in it that were “not law.” They hated that it appeared to have a perspective. And they hated every time our class appeared to depart from “black letter” law. The literary excerpts elicited not empathy but derision. When assigned O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” and John Elemans’ “The Gift Economy,” they did not probe deeper into the bargain-gift distinction. Assigned a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath, they did not make the connection between farmers in the Great Depression and the plaintiffs in a promissory estoppel case, Standish v. Curry. Reading bell hooks’ “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance,” and Denise Chavez’s “The Wedding” did not make them think more carefully about the emotional distress arising from contract breach and the exclusion of emotional distress damages. Student evaluations said things like, “I didn’t pay $35,000 a year to read poetry.” Clearly, I was doing something wrong. My ambition to integrate a humanities approach to introductory legal studies had obviously fallen flat.