Teaching Constitutional Law Within Political Science Departments: Sacrificing Traditional Breadth to Achieve Political Science Goals

Donna K. Axel • New Jersey City University

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator, August 2008.  

The political science major has shifted its focus from “promoter of substantive knowledge to an emphasis on skills, such as critical thinking, which are associated with a liberal education” (Ishiyama et al. 2006, 659). Pre-law courses housed within political science departments offer an excellent opportunity to promote critical thinking skills. As a mainstay within political science, Constitutional Law (“ConLaw”) courses have been taught not only by political scientists, but by lawyers—with or without the Ph.D.— as well. ConLaw instructors often incorporate teaching methods that have their roots in the traditional law school Socratic, case-dialogue method. Despite criticism about the usefulness of the Socratic, case-dialogue method in law school and at the undergraduate level (Sullivan et al. 2007; Giuliuzza 1991), this method and its underlying implicit “canon” and case-centric-based rationale persist as the governing paradigm for the structure of most ConLaw courses and textbooks. In this essay, I suggest that the traditional case-centric paradigm does not pro-mote undergraduate and political science goals as set forth in the “Wahlke Report” which is the “most recent ‘officially’ promulgated set of proposals regarding the undergraduate political science curriculum…” (Ishiyama et al. 2006, 659).

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

Over the past 10 years, I have been considering ways to teach ConLaw that promote critical thinking, reading, and writing skills and, at the same time, introduce and prepare students for law school. My approach aims to situate ConLaw within the con-text of the Wahlke Report. Two premises of the Wahlke Report are: first, that the goal of an undergraduate liberal arts education is to develop students’ “general intellectual abilities—curiosity, powers of critical analysis, aesthetic appreciation, and creativi-ty—thus equipping them “to master complexity,” “to undertake independent work, and [to attain] critical sophistication…” (Wahlke 1991, 48) and second, that study in political science, as a distinct discipline, “entails sequential learning” (Wahlke 1991, 55) “‘building on blocks of knowledge that lead to more sophisticated understanding and…leaps of the imagination and efforts at synthesis’” (Wahlke 1991, 49). (See Ishiyama et al. 2006). The Wahlke Report cautions against “shallow learning” (Wahlke 1991, 54)1 which results from merely cumulative exposure to substance and recommends that political science courses pro-mote skills, such as critical thinking, written and oral communication skills, and computer skills (Wahlke 1991, 54-55).

When considered in light of the Wahlke Report’s envisioned cohesive curricular structure, ConLaw can be reconfigured to develop students’ critical thinking skills, add to students’ knowl-edge base, and afford them a more sophisticated understanding of both disciplines: law and political science. This proposal suggests abandoning traditional breadth of cases and topics in the hopes of situating ConLaw as part of sequential learning within the discipline of political science, not purely as a free-standing introduction to law school methods, nor as an extensive overview of many of the cases and materials that one covers in Constitutional Law in law school. For lawyers without a Ph.D. in political science, this may be challenging at first; for political scientists, it may be an exciting opportunity to introduce students to their own areas of research and interest. In this essay, I propose some alternatives to traditional Socratic/extensive case-centric-based ConLaw courses that also comport with the Wahlke Report.

Giving up tradition fosters academic freedom for professors and promotes depth

An approach in line with the Wahlke Report promotes depth of substance rather than breadth of constitutional concepts and legal cases. Most undergraduate ConLaw textbooks incorporate numerous cases, but I reject the notion that there is a constitutional law “canon” that must be taught in an undergraduate context (Goldman 648, 2005). Instead, in my course, as a means of fostering depth, initially we examine one case per week to un-cover the socio-economic, historical and political context. The cases are but one part of an examination of the Supreme Court as a powerful institution that impacts our daily lives. The biographies, biases and jurisprudential leanings of individual Justices are significant, as well, since they are the human forces who interpret our Constitution. (See Susan M. Leeson’s unique text-book, Constitutional Law: Cases in Context, and Mark Graber’s online work-in-progress in this area.)

By abandoning the notion that there are numerous rules, principles, and norms with corresponding cases to be covered at the undergraduate level—which is modeled on the law school’s breadth of topics and methodology—one is freed from the law school model. Secondly, this approach permits greater individual academic freedom for the professor: each professor sacrifices breadth for depth of select ConLaw concepts and related cases—in keeping with Wahlke Report objectives and recommendations—on the basis of each professor’s expertise and research interests, and with due consideration to current Supreme Court cases that dramatically alter and reflect laws and values.

In my interdisciplinary skills-based approach to teaching Con-Law, fewer topics and cases are covered, but I draw from the rich array of teaching techniques (the Socratic, case-dialogue approach is one among many) with a focus on training students in the areas of critical thinking, reading, and writing, as well as an appreciation for the use of technology. This variety of teaching styles serves as a means for students to “gain familiarity with the different assumptions, methods, and analytical approaches used by political scientists and by cognate disciplines (e.g., economics, history, psychology, law, and others)”2 (Wahlke 1991, 51). However, I have an alternative rationale for employing a wide variety of teaching styles: I emphasize to students that they must consider the way they learn.

A more interdisciplinary approach: Incorporating each instructor’s expertise

Below is one interdisciplinary approach to teaching ConLaw (not the only approach) which aims: 1) to fulfill Wahlke Report goals, with due respect for the Ishiyama, et al. publications, and 2) to address current student interests, skills and needs. In my ConLaw courses, I:

  1. Cover no more than one new case per week (until at least the last third of the course), but refer back to cases previously discussed (Wahlke Report, Recommendation 8 regarding skills and 9 regarding sequential learning);
  2. Employ a modified Socratic method once during the semes-ter with a view to teaching about the method; it is not used as the method of teaching the course or scaring students into doing the reading (Wahlke Report, Recommendation 8 regarding skills);
  3. Employ in-depth case briefing with a focus on issue-spotting as a means to teaching legal reasoning and issue-spotting, not merely as a way to ensure that students have read the cases and can summarize them (Wahlke Recommendation 8 regarding skills);
  4. Contextualize each topic, concept, and legal case in terms of feminist principles in which patriarchal aspects of the legal system are considered to uncover sexism, racism, and other discrimination inherent in our legal history and that is passed on via case law and notions of precedent and stare decisis (Wahlke Recommendations 5 and 6 regarding ethnic, racial and cultural diversity);
  5. Require students to present information using technology (e.g., power point) to teach peers about a legal trend and the status of the law in a seminar-style format. (Wahlke Recommendations 8 and possibly 5, 6, and 9);
  6. Internationalize the course curriculum by considering Supreme Court Justices’ opinions (including dissents and con-currences) regarding international law, customary law, and other nations’ views (Wahlke Recommendations 5 and 6);
  7. Incorporate a variety of teaching techniques to help students identify the way they learn (Wahlke Recommendations 5, 6, 8, and 9);
  8. Utilize the internet as a source for ConLaw documents, mul-timedia sources of information (e.g., podcasts) and rely less on a traditional casebook/textbook (Wahlke Recommendation 8 regarding skills);
  9. Incorporate evaluative measures to ascertain student learning (Wahlke 1991; Breuning et al. 2001, 657), but also permit students to rewrite most assignments to ensure their learning.

Conclusion: Traditional undergraduate ConLaw goals do not fulfill Wahlke objectives

I propose a shift in the traditional pedagogical approach to teaching ConLaw because it is incongruous with the undergraduate and political science major objectives as specified by the Walhke Report and others. Despite express statements against ConLaw being “a mini-law course” (Guliuzza, 1991) because the under-graduate ConLaw is the child of the law school course, there is a history of teaching ConLaw as if it were a mini-law course (Graber, 2005, 135) designed to teach the same core concepts and topics in a similar manner. However, when we buy into the law school paradigm that there are a set number of concepts and topics that must be covered and when our pedagogical approach to fulfilling this presumed mandate is based on a Socratic, case-dialogue method (multiple cases that correspond to each con-cept/topic that are elucidated through in-class questioning), we necessarily sacrifice depth for breadth. Teaching under this man-date renders impossible advancing students’ skills on any pro-found level. For example, developing “powers of critical analysis” to equip students “to master complexity,” is not likely when we require students to read many more cases than they can read carefully or that we are capable of teaching in-depth. Therefore, I propose a shift in pedagogical approach to teaching ConLaw.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

A number of years ago, many Political Science Departments di-vided ConLaw into two courses, in part due to the breadth and depth of material; there are institutions that continue to offer one ConLaw course. But that is not the point. In both cases, the question is to what extent do we, professors and adjuncts of ConLaw, (still) sacrifice depth and critical thinking skills in our attempt to recreate a “mini-law school course” (Graber 2005, 135; Guliuzza, 1991, 703)? Do we better comport with the Walke Report’s political science and undergraduate goals if we abandon traditional breadth, and limit the number of cases and subjects? Most importantly, by abandoning tradition, can we teach students the critical thinking skills essential to political awareness?


  • Wahlke reiterates this caution first set forth by ACC National Advisory Committee Report (1989), p. 2.
  • This is Recommendation 2 of the Wahlke Report which specifically responds to the question, “Which particular mode of analysis is appropriate to this particular question?”

Works Cited

Association of American Colleges. 1985. Integrity in the College Curriculum (Washington, D.C.: AAC.

Breuning, Marijke, Paul Parker, and John Ishiyama. 2001. “The Last Laugh: Skill Building through a Liberal Arts Political Sci-ence Curriculum” PS: Political Science & Politics 34 (December): 657-61.

Gerber, Scott D. 1994. PS:  Political  Science  and  Politics  27 (December): 703-705.

Goldman, Jerry. 2005. “Review Essay: The Canon Of Constitutional Law Revisited” Law and Politics Book Review 15 (August): 648-656.

Graber, Mark A. 2005. “Review Essay: Constitutionalism in Po-litical Science: Imaginative Scholarship, Unimaginative Teach-ing.” 3 Perspectives on Politics 135-48.

Guliuzza III, Frank. 1991. PS:  Political  Science  and  Politics  24 (December): 703-705.

Ishiyama, John. 2005a. “The Structure of an Undergraduate Ma-jor and Student Learning: A Cross-Institutional Study of Politi-cal Science Programs at Thirty-two Colleges and Universities” Social Science Journal 42: 359-66.

Ishiyama, John. 2005b. “Examining the Impact of the Wahlke Re-port: Surveying the Structure of the Political Science Curricula at Liberal Arts and Sciences Colleges and Universities in the Mid-west” PS: Political Science & Politics 38 (January): 71-75.

Ishiyama, John, Marijke Breuning, and Linda Lopez. 2006. “A Century of Continuity and (Little) Change in the Undergraduate Political Science Curriculum” American Political Science Re-view 100 (January): 659-665.

Ishiyama, John and Stephen Hartlaub. 2003. “Sequential or Flexible? The Impact of Differently Structured Political Science Majors on the Development of Student Reasoning” PS: Political Science & Politics 36 (January): 83-86.

Sullivan, William M., Anne Colby, Judith Welch Wegner, Lloyd Bond, and Lee S. Shulman. 2007. Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law. San Francisco: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Wahlke, John C. 1991. “Liberal Learning and the Political Sci-ence Major: A Report to the Profession.” PS: Political Science and Politics 24 (March): 48-60.

Donna K. Axel, Esq. is Assistant Professor and Pre-Law Co-ordinator at New Jersey City University. Ms. Axel received her B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and her J.D. from the City University of New York School of Law (CUNY). While working for non-governmental organizations in the United Nations arena, Ms. Axel monitored the creation of the International Criminal Court—the first world criminal court ever formed—and facilitated the involvement of hundreds of non-governmental organizations into this U.N. process.

The Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List features select articles from the newsletters previous 25 years. You can find future The Political Science Educator‘s future publications on APSA Educate.

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