Learning in the Living Room: The Greenberg Seminars

Author: 
Robin I. Mordfin

While many people dream of sitting in a warm living room sipping wine and discussing themes in Southern literature with Martha Nussbaum and Richard Posner, some students at the University of Chicago Law School actually get to do this. Each year, professors open their homes to students to discuss topics that simply do not come up in class, hosting gatherings that give students and faculty the opportunity to know each other better while diving into new ideas. These meetings are known as the Greenberg Seminars.

“I was talking to Dan Greenberg, a Law School alum who attended Reed College, about the benefits of a liberal arts education in a small environment and how it feeds the intellect,” said Saul Levmore, William B. Graham Distinguished Service Professor of Law. “I was looking for ways to get him more involved, and he said something along the lines of ‘Give me something interesting, something that is not just like what is happening at every other law school, and I will fund it.’”

“I arrived at the Law School from an intense liberal arts college experience and found myself doing nothing but reading law all the time. I felt like part of the experience was missing, the discussion of how law affected real life, of how it affected society,” explained Dan Greenberg, ’65. “This was something that accompanied me for a long time, but I wasn’t sure how it could be done, how liberal arts could be injected into the curriculum in a relevant way.”

Taking on Greenberg’s challenge, Levmore thought of reports he had heard of the discussions that would take place at Soia Mentschikoff and Karl Llewellyn’s house years before when a few students and teachers would get together to enjoy ideas. He realized their model could be replicated in a way that could take advantage of the Law School’s unique community.

The Greenberg Seminars are one­credit classes, usually filled by third­year students, and normally taught by two faculty members—sometimes one member of the Law School faculty and one from another part of the University.

“When I meet with graduating 3Ls for their exit interviews, time and again they cite their Greenberg Seminars as one of their favorite and most meaningful experiences during their three years at the Law School,” said Dean of Students Amy Gardner, ’02. “I only wish they’d been in existence when I was a student!”

No tests are administered, no papers are written, but attendance is required. The seminars are held in five sessions throughout the school year at professors’ homes, and each gathering includes food.

“Food is a big attraction for students,” remarked Julie Roin, Seymour Logan Professor of Law. “And it makes for an informal, friendly atmosphere that is conducive to discussion.” Some seminars include snacks, others include themed dinners, still others are a mixture of both. But the point is to create conditions that encourage participation of a sort that is not possible in a classroom.

“Greenbergs are interesting for a numbers of reasons, but one of the most interesting things is to see how smart the students are outside of the legal stuff,” said M. Todd Henderson, Professor of Law and Aaron Director Teaching Scholar.

“But Greenbergs are also a tremendous opportunity to bring professors together in different settings,” Henderson added. “Once I started considering doing a seminar I realized I could get Dick Posner into my living room if I could come up with something that would interest him. So I came up with Utopias and Dystopias in 2006. We read Onyx and Crake and watched Brazil and had a wonderful time. And, of course, Posner always has an interesting point of view. He can throw out a crazy or insightful thought that keeps the conversation going.”

Such entertainment is part of what make the seminars a special part of the Law School experience. Brian Ahn, ’14, is currently enrolled in Henderson’s seminar on Korea, which he is teaching with Thomas Ginsburg, Leo Spitz Professor of International Law.

“The seminar is definitely different from other Law School classes, notably because it is much more informal, but I think the discussions and analysis of different issues of the subject are very similar to how we would attack a law class, it’s just that the topic is not always law related,” Ahn noted. “I’ve been very pleased with my seminar thus far, because being with Ginsburg and Henderson means that something interesting or funny is always happening.”

Greenberg, ’65, and his wife, Susan Steinhauser, began funding the seminars in the autumn of 2004. That year the Law School offered five, among them Homemade Law, which was taught by Levmore and Roin.

“That first year, we came up with the idea when talking to our children about the rules of behavior in different places, like school and other institutions and whether those rules fit in with or are a departure from rules in other contexts. For that one we studied a lot about communes,” Roin explained. “Subsequent themes have developed organically from the prior year’s seminar. Almost inevitably, a discussion will raise a tangentially related issue that intrigues us, and then we go look for articles and books on that topic to see if there is sufficient material to sustain five weeks of conversation.”

Levmore and Roin went on to teach Seductive Theories, which they saw as a natural outgrowth of Homemade Law, and then Theories for the Future. More recently, they have explored cutting­edge concepts including Optimism vs. Pessimism and Inequality Past and Present, in which the participants tried to make sense of literature purporting to explain the actual sources of the recent rise in inequality, including working women, two­income families, and genetic sorting in a world where certain characteristics are prized above others.

“Right now we are teaching the Rise of Women. Interestingly, out of 12 participants, there are only two men,” Roin continued. “First we read the Rise of Women and the Fall of Men, which states that women’s social skills work better in a cooperative environment and that today’s technology has made those skills essential. The next book we read said that women have fewer friends than men, but have deeper relationships with them. However, men rise to the top because with many acquaintances they tend to network better. It’s led to very interesting conversations.”

Among the other initial Greenberg Seminars was Oscar Wilde and the Law, taught by Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, and Judge Posner. Since then the duo has gone on to teach seven additional seminars together, all focused on literature and its relationship to the law, including Gender, Power, and the Novel and Kafka and the Law. Last fall they began teaching Southern Literature and the Law.

“We choose topics in a pretty random manner,” Posner said. “These topics are just things we both really enjoy.”

That fall, Geoffrey Stone, Edward Levi Distinguished Service Professor, and Eric Posner, Kirkland & Ellis Distinguished Service Professor of Law, taught a more conventional class, Constitutional Law after 9/11.

“That was just a natural at that point—all the issues of 9/11 were still constantly being talked about and were very fresh. We followed it with Emergencies and Constitutionalism, and we really took long looks at the consequences of terrorism,” explained Stone. “We read a lot of books, and I found it to be really interesting because I had the opportunity to hear from a diverse group of students who were relaxed and able to share their ideas.

“To be honest, I taught my first Greenbergs because I am a good citizen. I have been dean, I have been provost, and I believe in institutional responsibility,” Stone added. “But I still do it because there is a lot of self­gratification involved and they can be enormously fun.”

In 2011, Stone brought in a fellow teacher from across the Midway, Jane Dailey, Associate Professor of American History, to help him teach Religion and the State. In 2012 they taught The Life and Times of the Warren Court.

“Constitutional Law used to be taught by historic era and you got to look at the character of each court. Now it is taught by subject and you look at cases over time. You sort of get a comic book vision of the way courts behaved,” Stone noted. “So we wanted to show them something different. We put together cases on a lot of subjects—religion, free speech, equal protection, criminal law—and looked at the Warren Court’s opinion along with the contextual history so that the students could completely understand where the court stood.”

David Pi, ’13, who attended the Warren Court seminar, found that Stone and Dailey’s intentions were completely met.

“I thought studying law by the court and not by the topic was very useful. By learning about the court and the personalities of its members, we could discuss the common considerations the court made between vastly different areas of the law. A frequent exercise in class was to predict how the court would have handled a modern­day problem in the law based on its ‘personality’ that shone through its opinions in the 1950s and 1960s.” Pi explained. “I think it is rare to have such open, free­flowing discussions outside the context of a Greenberg.”

Stone is hardly the only Law School faculty member to have cotaught a Greenberg with faculty from across the Midway. In one of the first Greenbergs offered, Bernard Harcourt taught Degenerate Law with Andrew Abbott from the sociology department. Henderson, who has taught with a wide variety of Law School faculty, has taught a Greenberg on Punishment with Jens Ludwig from the Harris School of Public Policy. And Posner and Nuss­baum’s popular Law and Literature Greenbergs have often included a third teacher from another department, such as Richard Strier from the English department.

Meanwhile, Stone’s original teaching partner, Eric Posner, has gone on to teach a variety of seminars with international themes including The Rise of Europe and the Global Financial Crisis and US Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring and the Death of Bin Laden. He selects topics in which he has an interest but might not read about without the commitment of doing a Greenberg.

“The main thing is to have an interesting discussion with students, who bring to bear their different perspectives. I have made sure to include foreign students, who always bring a distinctive way of thinking,” explained Professor Posner. “One of my favorite teaching experiences took place during the New Books on Foreign Relations seminar, when I invited University Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer to talk about his controversial book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. The students in that seminar were superb, many of them quite knowledgeable about the Middle East, while Mearsheimer is an experienced and excellent teacher as well as a distinguished scholar. The students debated Mearsheimer in exactly the right critical but respectful spirit, and he was superb as well.”

Daniel Abebe, Professor of Law and Walter Mander Teaching Scholar, who taught the Arab Spring seminar with Posner and Aziz Huq, also looks at Greenbergs as an opportunity to explore topics that would not normally be discussed in a classroom. In 2012 he and Huq, Assistant Professor and Herbert and Marjorie Fried Teaching Scholar, taught Race and Place in Chicago. The seminar looked at the racial makeup of neighborhoods around the city and the way that racial segregation continues to be a characteristic of the city.

“Neither Aziz nor I are experts in housing patterns, that is not what we do. But we are very interested in the topic, and this is what Greenbergs are all about: They give us the opportunity to read books on something we don’t usually teach and discuss it with a lot of really bright minds.”

And while exploring the new is motivation for many Greenberg leaders, exploring something already enjoyed with new people is also something that interests Law School faculty. Professor Jonathan Masur, Deputy Dean of the Law School, decided to teach a class on The Wire, the critically acclaimed crime HBO drama, with Richard McAdams, Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law, simply because he likes the show.

“We called the seminar Crime and Politics in Charm City: A Portrait of the Urban Drug War, so that the fact that we were studying The Wire would be obscured—we didn’t want to have a bunch of students who just wanted to watch TV come to our houses. The first time we taught this in 2010, all but one of the students had watched the entire series, so they figured out what the seminar was about from the title,” Masur noted.

“You have to understand that Professor McAdams and I are huge fans of the show—we think it is as good as any literature written in the past 10 years that we have read,” he added. “It puts on display a great deal of fascinating details about crime, the structure of the institutions constructed to address that crime, and even the structure of urban societies, and it stimulates terrific discussions about all of those subjects. It raises interesting questions about issues that students are not usually exposed to in an academic setting.”

The duo has taught the seminar three times since 2010, but Masur has also explored other topics through the seminars, including Wine and the Law, which he taught with Thomas Ginsburg. Ginsburg makes his own wine, ages it, and bottles it on a little piece of land in Northern California. Masur helped him out with the process a few years back, and the two got into a long discussion of all the legal challenges that arise for those who want to sell their own wine. So they figured, why not do a Greenberg?

“We did have a couple of students who were seriously interested in wine, and one was a sommelier, but most just thought it sounded like fun, and it was. That is what makes Greenbergs great,” Masur said. “You really get to know a group of students while talking about things you enjoy.”

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