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A Decade of Law, History and Culture at USC

Friday, April 1, 2011
Law and Memory Conference showcases interdisciplinary work

- By Gilien Silsby

"Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us."
- Oscar Wilde

Some of the nation's leading legal and humanities scholars met at USC recently to explore how law and memory deepen our understanding of the past as well as help us look to the future.



The 10th anniversary conference on Law and Memory, hosted by USC's Center for Law, History and Culture (CLHC), examined the role of law in human life. More than a dozen scholars, including Robert Gordon of Yale Law School, Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard Law and Elaine Scarry of Harvard, analyzed law and memory in the context of war, slavery film, politics, property, child abuse and trauma.

"The law is seeped in human values and cultural values. That's what we decided to focus the discussion on," said Nomi Stolzenberg, who co-directs CLHC with Ariela Gross, USC law and history professor, and Hilary Schor, USC College professor of English, comparative literature, gender studies and law.

"Instead of just having a purely technical discussion or crunching policy analysis, what we really wanted to get at is the 'felt experience' of law," Stolzenberg added.

For example, Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton, 2008), discussed the importance of recapturing family stories of enslaved African-Americans, while USC Law Prof. Mary Dudziak spoke about time, memory and the meaning of 9/11. USC Law Prof. Tom Lyon spoke about the effectiveness of questioning child witnesses on a panel that looked at trials, narrative and memory.

"In a field that is changing as rapidly as law and humanities," Schor said, "how better to mark the present than by measuring our changing relationship to the past — even our own?"

Gordon, a legal historian from Yale, said that cultural study offers a different perspective on law. "It's a way of expressing values as a field of contested assumptions about what is real and desirable," said Gordon, who presented a lecture at the USC conference calling for judges and scholars to abandon originalism as a theory to interpret the United States Constitution. "Lawyers need cultural and historical study to see how powerfully inherited cultural assumptions influence the law. Students of the humanities need legal study to understand how pervasively legal categories and values structure everyday life."

The two-day conference - which was held in February and drew 120 professors and students from across the country -also showcased and celebrated a decade of interdisciplinary scholarship at CLHC.

Since 2001, CLHC, based at the USC Gould School of Law and USC College, has pioneered interdisciplinary studies of law as a historical and cultural institution.

"Our center was among the first to truly encourage and foster scholarship that inspires an understanding of how law, history and culture intersect and relate on a human level," said Stolzenberg. "We've done a lot to create a cultural movement that looks beyond legal theory and sees the big human picture. The impact on legal scholarship has been tremendous."

In fact, institutions around the nation have looked to CLHC when launching similar centers or creating programs. Recently University of Michigan Law School unveiled its Race, Law, History Project, inspired partly by USC's center.

"Our new Race, Law, History Project formally brings together the closely allied fields of law and history and encourages interdisciplinary understandings of race," said Martha Jones, University of Michigan law professor. "Like USC's Center for Law, History, and Culture, we are committed to producing cutting-edge scholarship while also training emerging scholars."

A hallmark of USC's center are the junior fellowships it offers to upper-level law students and graduate students in other disciplines who are studying related fields, including history, literature, philosophy, political science, gender studies, economics and legal theory.

In partnership with Georgetown, Columbia and UCLA law schools, USC organizes the annual Law and Humanities Interdisciplinary Junior Scholar Workshop. Rising scholars in law and humanities receive feedback on their writings from seasoned professors at the workshop, which has become a sought-after experience for many graduate students.

Many of the junior scholars who have participated in the Junior Scholar Workshop have gone on to become professors at top universities - Daniel Hulsebosch is a law professor at New York University; Serena Mayeri is at University of Pennsylvania Law School and Ravit Reichman is an associate professor of English at Brown University.

"I think this is a testament to the program," said Gross. "We have a stellar roster of professors who are committed to junior scholarship."

Each academic year, CLHC also sponsors a host of workshops, lectures and events.

In the past decade it has held a book event withBarry Friedman, New York University law professor and author of "The Will of the People: How Public Opinion has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution," faculty workshops with scholars from around the country, and symposia on the 9/11 attacks and the tenth anniversary of the verdict that exonerated police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King.

The center also sponsors an annual Distinguished Lecture. This year, Janet Halley, a Harvard Law professor, spoke on "What is Family Law? Marriage and Contract in the Rise of Legal Science." Past distinguished lecturers have included Martha Minow, Dean of the Harvard Law School, Ronald Dworkin, noted legal theorist and professor at NYU and the University of London, and Patricia Williams of Columbia School of Law.

"It's very fulfilling because we have had a national impact," said Stolzenberg. "Scholars are realizing that law and humanities are inseparable."