Recent Books on the Constitution
Every year, I teach a seminar called Recent Books on the Constitution. I initially designed this course when I visited Georgetown in 2005. Because I tend to read what relates directly to my current projects, I felt that I was not keeping up with the literature. By assigning recent books on the Constitution to read as part of my teaching, I would actually read them. This has really worked for me.
The complete list of all the books I have assigned is below. Since 2005, I have assigned 85 books by 79 authors, with Sandy Levinson, Gerard Magliocca, Eric Segall, Dan Farber, Philip Hamburger, and David Bernstein each making 2 appearances. Four books were assigned in manuscript before publication. This fall, I am assigning a portion of my book with Evan Bernick: The Original Meaning of the 14th Amendment: Its Letter and Spirit, plus these 5 books:
- Helen Norton, The Government’s Speech and the Constitution (2020)
- Aziz Huq, The Collapse of Constitutional Remedies (2021)
- David Bernstein, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America (2022)
- Stuart Banner, The Decline of Natural Law: How American Lawyers Once Used Natural Law and Why they Stopped (2021)
- Philip Hamburger, Purchasing Submission: Conditions, Power, and Freedom (2021)
I choose books I think I ought to read–either because of the subject or the author. I then hold off reading them myself so I can read them at the same time as the students. This enables me to react to the books along with them, and for me to remember their nuances for class discussion.
The seminar format is to read 6 books, taking 2 weeks on each book, with the author coming to the class during the second week to discuss the book. The first book is now always one of mine to use as a trial run and to give the students an idea of where I am coming from when we discuss the other books. When books are longer than 250 pages, I ask the author to tell me which 250 pages I should assign. If I assign much more than 125 pages per week, I fear the students won’t read them, or won’t read them carefully enough. To help assure that they do, students submit one-page summaries of each half of the book (graded pass-fail). On the day before the author’s visit, they submit a 5500 character critique of the book, which I send to the author electronically the day before class. (They all read them.) When the class ends, there is no exam or paper for the students to write or for me to grade. We are done!
Students consistently tell me that the course is extremely enriching, and helps them develop their critical skills. It is also empowering for them to see how well they are able to find the holes in a professor’s book-length presentation. I find that, collectively, the students are able to nail the weaknesses of every book (except mine, of course).
[Note to law professors: I have a budget to pay for the authors’ travel expenses. But now that we all have access to Zoom teaching, this seminar format can be replicated anywhere at zero cost. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a dozen or more such book seminars around the country? Try it. I promise you will love it.]
If you click on READ MORE you will see why teaching this class has been enormously rewarding for me. Offer my heartfelt thanks to all these authors for trekking to DC to discuss their books with my students.
- Ilan Wurman, The Second Founding:
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