Teaching Humanities Softly: Bringing a Critical Approach to the First-Year Contracts Class Through Trial and Error

Teaching Humanities Softly: Bringing a Critical Approach to the First-Year Contracts Class Through Trial and Error


Ariela J. Gross “¢Â 17 Feb 2012

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.

More From California Law Review Online

Regulating Your Face

No one likes being told what to do. It’s the reason that philanthropists prefer to contribute to the charitable causes of their choosing, rather than paying more in taxes. It’s the reason that courts have equated enforcing a contract with imposing involuntary servitude. It’s the reason for viewing government as a “necessary evil,” rather than […]

Business Interruption Coverage in the Age of Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has surfaced many new and interesting legal issues. Among them: What legal recourse is available to a business that lost significant profits after a governmental order forced it to close? In March 2020, for example, the Bay Area enacted a shelter in place mandate and ordered all non-essential businesses[1] to either close […]

The Aftermath of California’s Proposition 22

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and other gig companies who authored and advertised Proposition 22 spent a record $200 million on the ballot initiative to persuade Californians to vote it into law. In the weeks leading up to the 2020 general election, Uber and Lyft bombarded its riders and drivers with endless messaging through its apps and […]

The Biden Doctrine?: The February 25 Airstrike in Syria, Article 51, and the Future of International Law in the Biden Administration

The February 25 Airstrike in Syria In a June 2016 interview, then-Vice President Joe Biden cast doubt on the utility of interventionist foreign policy. Citing the shortcomings of the 2011 NATO-led military intervention in Libya, Biden stated that he was “strongly” against the intervention. In reference to the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, Biden […]