Workshops Help Scholars, Students Develop Works Exploring Legal History
A series on the workshop culture at the University of Virginia School of Law
Like at many other lunchtime talks in the faculty meeting room at the University of Virginia School of Law, the participants at a recent Legal History Workshop were parsing a scholar's draft paper. This time, though, the scholar presenting his work was a UVA law student, Jon Gryskiewicz, who is also pursuing a master's degree in history.
"Maybe 'steals' is the wrong word. Maybe it's too strong," Gryskiewicz said. "But I think [Justice William O. Douglas] is definitely trying to write the opinion of the court."
Gryskiewicz, who was discussing his paper on the 1968 Supreme Court case Williams v. Rhodes, said getting feedback from some of the top legal history and constitutional law scholars was vital to improving his paper.
"The legal historians, political law experts and professors who lived [in] the era [of Williams v. Rhodes] provided context to my work and helped me round out my arguments," he said. "The faculty's pointed questions also showed me where I can tighten and improve my paper."
Though the program attracts renowned scholars from across the country, student participation is an essential part of the monthly workshop series, which is hosted by the Law School's Program on Legal and Constitutional History and UVA's Corcoran Department of History, said UVA law and history professor Risa Goluboff, who runs the workshop series.
Associate Professor Jessica Lowe, a historian and workshop committee member who joined the Law School this year, recently launched a legal history writers group at UVA. The group allows graduate students in the law and history departments to bounce ideas off faculty — and vice versa — while papers are being conceived and written.
"My aim in founding the new legal history writing group, which will meet once a month in faculty homes, is to provide a complement to the workshops," she said. Any UVA scholar "whose work engages with legal history [will be able to] gather together to share ideas and get feedback on their own works-in-progress." she said.
"We offer our J.D.-master's students the opportunity to present their work just like the faculty do," Goluboff said. "Part of what it means to be a graduate student is to be taken seriously for your ideas."
Virginia has a long-standing reputation for a strong faculty and curriculum in constitutional and legal history, of which the workshops have been a critical part, said UVA law professor G. Edward White, the author of more than a dozen books on related topics.
"Since the Program on Legal and Constitutional History was first formally established in the 1990s, legal history workshops have been one of its central features," he said. "The workshops are designed to expose faculty and students interested in legal and constitutional history to current scholarship in those fields, and also to provide a mechanism where students enrolled in the dual-degree program in legal history can present drafts of their master's theses."
Typically, eight to 10 students are enrolled in the three-year joint J.D.-M.A. degree program at any given time. Each year several of those students, who usually complete their theses during the course of their third year, will present their papers at the workshop.
Gryskiewicz shared workshop time with fellow J.D.-M.A. student Jake Gutwillig, whose paper focuses on the Glass-Steagall Act, a 1933 law regulating banks.
"The Legal History Workshop was an amazing opportunity to receive feedback about my paper," Gutwillig said. "Giving a presentation and answering professors' questions — the reverse of what usually happens — was also a unique public-speaking experience."
The workshops are also popular among faculty members, even when the topics are not their typical area of scholarly expertise, Goluboff said.
"One of the things I think is really wonderful is that many law faculty come who would not ordinarily identify themselves as legal historians," she said. "I think it opens up a conversation with a pretty big swath of our faculty, which is different from many other schools and their legal history workshops."
Two more J.D.-M.A. students are slated to present their work in the spring. Faculty from Virginia Law and peer schools will round out the remaining dates.
Looking to Apply?
This year's deadline to apply to the J.D.-M.A. program is Dec. 15. More
Remaining Legal History Workshops, 2012-13
12 p.m., Faculty Lounge
Dec. 3 Linda Colley, Princeton University: "Empires of Writing: America, Britain and Constitutions, 1776-1848"
Feb. 25 David Rabban, University of Texas: TBA
April 8 Joint J.D.-M.A. Session: Emma Hall: "Making Law Work: Robert F. Kennedy and the American Lawyer as an Agent of Reform" and Matthew Jobe: "A Response to Chicago Railway: Minnesota Farmers' Fight for Lower Railroad Rates in the 1890s"
April 22 Jessica Lowe, UVA Law: TBA