Clyde Griffiths, the main character of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, may not be someone you would expect to show up in a law school classroom. After all, what do characters in novels have to do with the study of law?
Plenty, insists Robert A. Ferguson, who teaches Dreiser and E.L. Doctorow's Book of Daniel in his course called The Trial in American Life. In his courses, Prof. Ferguson balances each work of fiction with legal materials. For example, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is juxtaposed against work by Derrick Bell on critical race theory.
"One thing you learn as a lawyer - unless it's a story the jury has heard before and believes, you won't win the case," Prof. Ferguson notes. "Storytelling is central. An understanding of point of view and narrative can make you a more conscious wordsmith as a lawyer."
Prof. Ferguson received a J.D. (1968) and Ph.D. (1974) in the history of American civilization at Harvard. He has taught in the English departments at Harvard, the University of Chicago, Stanford, and Princeton, and has taught law at the University of Chicago and Yale. At Columbia, he teaches undergraduate English courses that regularly draw a large enrollment, in addition to his Law School courses.
"The benefit of teaching on both sides of Amsterdam Avenue is that it shows you the limits of staying in one discipline," he says. "I've always been an interdisciplinary teacher."
Recipient of the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Prof. Ferguson is the author of The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820 and Law and Letters in American Culture. He is currently at work on two new books that will further his scholarship of legal and religious forms of discourse in early America.
"As a law professor, I'm trying to accomplish three things. First, to show students how the past influences the present. Only if they know the history of law are they ready to reform the law. I want to train lawyers who think about changing and reforming the law. Second, I want my students to enjoy law. Law can be fun if you understand how it works. Third, I want to show them how the rhetoric of law works. Students are profoundly influenced by the rhetorical devices of the law, but they rarely examine them closely."