President's Teaching Scholars Program



Mimi Wesson
School of Law

LAWS 5503 (Criminal Law) Course Description:

This course will probably be a bit different from other first-year courses. After years of teaching from a traditional textbook, using fairly traditional methods, I concluded that these were not working as well as I wished. In particular, I have found that the customary use of two to five severely edited cases from various jurisdictions as the main material to be discussed in a class gives a misleading impression about what decisional law looks like, and conveys an inadequate sense of how to work with cases. I believe that the exclusive reliance of most casebooks on the Model Penal Code (which provides a useful example, but is nowhere in effect) is unfortunate, for every jurisdiction has its own code, and it forms just as important an object of study as the cases interpreting it. This course will use the Colorado Criminal Code.

This course will have some unusual features. First, there is no casebook for this class. Second, each student will be responsible for doing additional research for at least one class in the semester; students may be assigned a partner for this purpose. Third, there is a requirement that each student complete eight hours of courtroom observation in the course of the semester. Fourth we will have three or four guest speakers in the course of the semester, to talk about matters within their particular expertise.

The following are changes that have been made to this course:

• I compiled my own set of teaching materials for Criminal Law, and placed the course materials entirely online (eliminating the need for the students to purchase an expensive textbook). I’ve added other innovations to this class as well, to promote greater student engagement, and they seem to be working. I think that within a couple of years, I may able to dispense with the need for heavy, expensive, hard-copy textbooks in all of my classes.
• By throwing out the casebook I’ve eliminated the use of the severely edited decisions generally found in these teaching materials, instead requiring the students to both find and read unedited versions of the decisions that we discuss—better replication of what real lawyers do. Since we read only one (lengthy) unedited case per class using this method, we can mine the cases for more material. Also, the students have to learn how to spot the portion of a lengthy decision that really bears on the subject of interest, and learn to scan the remainder without necessarily mastering every detail of it. Again, like real lawyers. I wish I’d thought of this twenty years ago! The use of edited decisions and casebooks is so universal that it’s taken me far too long to question their usefulness. But it’s also a matter of technology and access to data; until recently, it was not practical to throw out the casebook unless I wanted to write one of my own (and I never did).
• I’ve required each student to sign up to be our resource person or expert du jour for one class. Usually they work in teams of two. This encourages collaboration, more intense preparation once in the semester, the satisfaction of becoming a resource for others, and the habit of reliance on one’s peers for information and insight—again, like what the best lawyers do.
• I’ve assigned a court observation task—eight hours of court observation recorded in a journal.
• I have an attendance and participation policy that rewards these activities.
• I’ve attached my syllabus, a representative handout for class discussion (it asks about Kansas because we had read and analyzed a Kansas decision beforehand), and a memo explaining the journal/court observation assignment. All materials are available to the students at a website.