URI professor’s courses combine literature and the law

Media Contact: Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

Emerging field of study shows how they work in tandem

KINGSTON, R.I. — December 1, 2003 — Although you probably never thought about it, literature and the law have a great deal in common. “They work in tamden as narratives to perpetuate cultural ideas and norms,” says Valerie Karno, assistant professor of English at the University of Rhode Island who, interestingly enough also holds a law degree and advises URI students interested in pursuing legal careers. “Together,” she adds, “literature and law function to structure our world.”

Karno is one of a handful of academics in the nation who teach courses that combine the two disciplines. In one course aptly titled, “Literature and Law,” Karno asks students not just to view “law in literature” or “literature in law” but rather to view both as cultural products influencing each other.

In another course, “Narratives in Justice,” she asks students to explore how stories contribute to society’s understanding of what constitutes reason and madness, and ponder whether justice is a universal or culturally specific notion.

Throughout the centuries, authors from William Shakespeare to Charles Dickens to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Harper Lee to Toni Morrison have been concerned about justice.

Karno suggests that literature creates and reflects our sense of rights and entitlements even more than we realize. Whether we read, hear, tell, or view stories, they shape our own sense of self as well as guide us in interpreting other people’s lives as well.

Literary and legal narratives shape the norms by which we live. Karno suggests that the influence of laws on our lives begins at birth and even before, forming us through marriage and immigration laws. Whether you can live within U.S. borders, and be married to a partner of your choice, is subject to legal regulation.

“Most institutions are regulated,” Karno notes. “It’s important for students to realize how legal structures are operating under certain assumptions so that we better understand how norms are created and can become more active citizens with the knowledge.”

Karno’s classes combine historic and contemporary literary and legal narratives to achieve this goal. For example, students read The Squatter and the Don written in 1885 by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, alongside looking at legal decisions about citizenship and land rights during that era. Then, students can see and question the ways Americans have valued and used written evidence over oral testimony while deciding who can be a citizen and own property. Using the fictionalized account of Ruiz de Burton’s own life to highlight the ways Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and Anglo-Americans have battled over land rights and assimilation in this country, Karno’s class expands the field of law and literature by studying multi-ethnic texts. She wants her students to think about how different racial groups in the U.S. have interacted with each other through related narratives, which reflect cultural norms.

Karno sees the study of literature as excellent preparation for a law career. “An undergraduate degree in English helps students tone their analytical skills and helps them read and write with great precision,” she says.