Langdell & book production — happy accident?

by Paul Maharg on 15/10/2010

Oliver Goodenough’s comment about books and the Langdellian revolution stuck in my mind. A key issue is whether the technology of book production stimulated the revolution, or whether it was simply co-opted by legal academics as a useful technology and had no impact upon the dissemination of the method. 

As a student I used to wonder whenever I walked past Session Cases in Glasgow University Library – the law reports from Scotland’s Court of Session — why they grew in size.  Starting (in one series) in 1825, the volumes were slim, and gradually increased to the typical burgeoning nineteenth century case report volume.  Naive observation, and lots of reasons why this happened, of course – the rise of commercial law, the range and depth of law, the rise of the legal profession in numbers and in links with commercial interests, the length of judgments and even the rhetorical forms used by judges (might be interesting, for instance, to compare pre-Inglis [President, Ct of Session] with post-Inglis judgments…).  Nevertheless the volume improvement in paper and book production, the driving down of costs, must have had some impact on the production and consumption of law reports.  

 Re Langdell, I tend to think that it’s neither one nor the other but both.  Langdell, the studies make clear, wasn’t inspired by the technological potential of book production; but there was a happy accident of improved technology with a method of teaching that needed a major increase in the volume of disseminated information.  Had Langdell lived a century earlier, the economics and technologies of book production could not have supported the method.  Had he lived a century later, he would probably have bypassed the book and reached for the internet.  

The point poses a key issue for us now — which technologies will we adopt to support our teaching methods?  For instance, OER are often collections of resources that are touted as game-changing in themselves.  They're not: they're just resources.  They need an infrastructure of use, need, purpose and method to be educational resources.  Which is not to say that the presence of resources themselves can't be transformational (though even that is still being researched in detail – http://computinged.wordpress.com/2010/09/23/few-users-study-in-mit-open-courseware/, especially the discussion below the posting).  But the presence of OER, like the presence of volumised book production, or the presence of glosses in manuscript production, can fundamentally change educational approaches — if we recognise how we can leverage the technology.  

 

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