Union in the News for June 14, 2002
Jon Sterngass course on Constitution relies on mock trials
By Online Edition - The Chronicle of Higher Education
Jon Sterngass doesn't consider himself a great teacher. In fact, he uses the word "atrocious" to describe some of his courses. "In most of my classes, I could be replaced by a head of broccoli with little or no change in outcomes," he says.
But that all changed recently, when the assistant professor of history at Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., hit upon a new way of teaching his course "American Constitutional and Legal History." And Mr. Sterngass, a man normally given to self-deprecation, is almost giddy about the results.
Instead of sitting through lectures and discussions, students each week stage a mock trial that re-enacts a Supreme Court case. He chooses the cases, which take up issues including civil rights and free speech, because they are interesting, not necessarily well known.
The class's 18 students are divided into four teams. One represents the plaintiff, another handles the defense, and the others serve as witnesses. Anyone left over is stuck in the jury box. Mr. Sterngass is the sole justice (in one of several liberties he takes with the Supreme Court's makeup and procedures).
While he forgoes a robe and a gavel, he does issue a verdict at the end of each trial. Sometimes it matches the court's original verdict; sometimes it does not.
"I get into a more formal, authoritative persona as the judge," he says. "We have objections, and I declare students out of order. I like to stick it to people a little and keep them off-balance."
While mock trials are nothing new, Mr. Sterngass says building the course around them was a risk. "I wasn't sure it would work, but it definitely has," he says.
The professor credits students' competitive drive with helping to make the course a success. "They can't help themselves. They want to win."