Constitutional Law (MOOC)

The first public printing of the U.S. Constitution

The first public printing of the U.S. Constitution

(Addendum: This course has been converted to Coursera’s new platform. It’s been divided into two parts; other content may have changed and the experience will be quite different from that described here.)

Ever hear a voice that’s really familiar, but you just can’t place it? That happened to me last March. I was in the hall (not within eyeshot of the TV) dusting and sweeping to the sounds of the Melissa Harris-Perry show one Sunday morning, when I heard this familiar but unidentifiable voice.Turns out it was Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale Law School – and the instructor of the Constitutional Law course I’d started back in January. No wonder his voice sounded familiar; I’d been listening to it for a couple of hours a week.

I’d decided to take the course quite a while ago. With the Constitution starring in so many rants, I thought it’d be a good idea to get a better grasp of the details. That’s exactly what happened; it was a thoroughly successful course.

The first six of twelve weeks was based on Amar’s book, The Constitution: A Biography, and covered the text of the Constitution itself. It’s a surprisingly short document – about 7,800 words, roughly equivalent to a full-sized short story – considering that it’s the foundation of American government. Each article, each section, each amendment, has a story: proponents, opponents, and reasons the text turned out the way it did. History is so much more interesting when you see it in action, rather than when you parse it out into names and dates.

The second half of the course was spent on material covered by another of Amar’s books, America’s Unwritten Constitution (uh oh, a strict-constructionist kitten just died). His take on the “unwritten constitution” is a bit more structured than you might think. It includes documents in the American consciousness (the Federalist Papers, the Northwest Ordinance, the Gettysburg address, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) which, though written centuries apart, form a self-referential network and reflect core American values. But it also includes the precedents that the Constitution grew from, such as certain tenets in English common law, and the day-to-day customs of Americans – “life as lived,” as Amar puts it. It’s an interesting approach, and he provides good evidence for this point of view, as well as examples of how this has affected interpretation of a document written in an age when people, and news, travelled only as fast as the swiftest horse they could find.

The instruction material was primarily videotaped lectures, with weekly “bonus material” in various forms, often some kind of Q&A with Yale law students (which I didn’t use as much as I could have). Yes, this was one of those “professor tapes the lectures and tosses the keys to grad students who really run the class” things. Sometimes it works, and here, it worked. I found it both educational and enjoyable, as I have two other “I’m a high-powered professor and I don’t have time to read message boards or coddle anyone” courses. I’m not sure why; maybe my own interest in the content, or my highly subjective likes and dislikes; maybe high-powered professors are high-powered for a reason; maybe just their depth of knowledge of the topics, and their undisguisable love of the subject, is enough.

Each lecture started, as does each chapter of his book, with a picture, some of which are featured here. Sometimes the connection was obvious (Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” political cartoon from 1754) and sometimes not (come on, how many Supreme Court justices from days gone by do you recognize?). I found this a wonderful approach; my guesses about the significance of the pictures was in the back of my mind through the lectures, then Prof. Amar explained his choice at the end. Who would’ve guessed so much could be gleaned from what seemed like routine painting?

The three multiple-choice quizzes closely followed the material presented in the lectures; no surprises there. What I most enjoyed was writing the three assigned essays. We were offered three options for each; some clearly were looking for regurgitations of lecture material (which isn’t always a bad thing, especially if you have to research it to make sure you’ve got it right), and some allowed more independent thought (“Suppose you had to defend the right to wear a hat—how would you do it? What kind of arguments would you make?” or, “‘All that we need in the Constitution is right there in the text.’ Attack or defend this statement with at least three distinct arguments, using specific examples to illustrate your points”). I myself used an essay to disagree with Prof. Amar’s disapproval of the Exclusionary Rule. In peer assessment (it’s the only feasible way to grade thousands of essays in a free class, and a clear rubric is provided) I got called out for “tongue-in-cheek”-iness – guilty as charged, but hey, if you’re gonna tell a Yale Law professor who’s been cited in Supreme Court decisions, that he’s wrong, when your legal education consists of twenty years’ experience watching Law & Order, you can’t take yourself too seriously. I learned a lot about the Exclusionary Rule, though. I still disagree with him; I’m probably missing some subtlety.

This was where the message boards would’ve come in handy. Every thread – every post – contained references to multiple legal cases, decisions, precedents. There seemed to be an inordinate number of law experts taking the course; either that, or highly skilled fakers, which may be overlapping sets. I found it overwhelming, so I didn’t use the boards much. But that’s the nice thing about MOOCs – it’s all still there, if I want to go back and take another look at it.

Speaking of message boards… in any course where politics (or literature, or religion, or pretty much anything people hold near and dear yet is open to opinion) is involved, you’re going to get some passionate people expressing themselves. Always interesting.

And in any course where peer assessment is required… well, you know. The availability of a “signature track” seemed to exacerbate this hysteria about peer assessment. I hate signature track. To be honest, I’m still not sure exactly what it is – “Signature Track allows you to securely link your coursework to your identity using webcam photos and typing pattern recognition” sounds downright scary to me – or what kind of benefit it provides (“And it doesn’t even necessarily mean that you didn’t cheat. All it does is make people marginally more likely to believe you when you tell them you got an A-minus”), but from what I can see, it conveys a sense of entitlement upon those who have forked over the $60 (or $30 or $100). They’re indignant that a professor or grad student hasn’t graded their essay, and there’s no way to convince them that for that to happen, you have to get into Yale Law – and find a way to pay a lot more than $60. As I see it, signature track just perpetuates the two-tier system ingrained in education, health care, law, politics. Still, I understand that Coursera must make money, or die.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep taking as many courses as I can. If they’re all as good as this one, I’ll be very happy.

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