It seems fitting that my first blog post pay tribute to a scholar whose undergraduate Supreme Court courses at Columbia inspired my choice of career path. The battle over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court had sparked my interest in constitutional debates and the Court’s role in shaping them, but it was in Prof. Westin’s courses that I knew that this interest would not be fleeting. But don’t worry–this post will not be shrouded in the rosy fog of nostalgia for my undergraduate days, or what my daughter refers to as “ye olden times.”
I don’t recall that Westin was an especially spellbinding orator, but he was an effective communicator who gave me the sense that he was doing something he loved with his life. And I appreciated that his course wasn’t structured to demonstrate how great he was as a researcher when his contractual obligations didn’t compel him to spend time with students.
But thinking about Westin’s courses also makes me think about how judicial politics was and is taught. By the late 1980s, the behavioral revolution had already begun to make its mark on scholarship concerning the Supreme Court, yet I suspect Westin’s courses were typical in their lack of recognition of quantitative study of the Court. The standard approach to teaching the Supreme Court has been to focus on the evolution of legal doctrine, and, more broadly, to treat it as a junior-varsity version of a law school course. Mark Graber has highlighted the disjunction between what political scientists (of all methodological leanings) learn through their research and what they choose to share with their students, and today more political scientists have heeded Graber’s call for pedagogy that integrates our discipline’s contributions. But none of these issues would have occurred to me while I was sitting in a windowless room in the International Affairs Building thinking about constitutional questions.
If you click through to the Times obituary linked above, make sure to read the last paragraph for a delicious bit of irony of a sort that I’m not used to seeing in Times obituaries.