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Thinking Big for Spring Term

When the Washington and Lee faculty was reimagining the University’s Spring Term, one of the planning principles was to think big. And James Mahon, associate professor of philosophy and head of the department, took that admonition to heart.

The course that Mahon has been teaching, Philosophy 370, is titled “Roe v. Wade and the Abortion Question.” Mahon and 16 students have been examining the ethical arguments for and against abortion and the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court that concern abortion. In most respects, that would seem to be a fairly straightforward course.

But this spring, Mahon has implemented at least a couple of innovations.

One of the primary texts for the course, “A Defense of Abortion,” was written by David Boonin, associate professor and chair of the department of philosophy at the University of Colorado. After they went through the book in great detail, the students quizzed Boonin during a Skype teleconference. “Professor Boonin answered their questions at length, and I simply moderated,” said Mahon.

In the next part of the course, the class examined Supreme Court rulings that are relevant to the debates and listened to audio recordings of oral arguments. But Mahon wanted to bring home the importance of the Supreme Court’s role in the national debate over abortion.

“The best way to do this was to take the class to D.C. to sit in on a meeting of the Supreme Court, which we did,” Mahon said. The class bused to Washington on Monday, where they stood in line for tickets and got to see seven of the Justices, including several who ruled on cases that they had been examining. The session was not a meeting of the Court for oral arguments, but they did hear Justices Breyer and Kennedy deliver rulings on the detaining of sex offenders past their sentences (U.S. v. Comstock), the sentencing of juveniles not guilty of homicide to life without parole (Graham v. Florida), and the “right of custody” in the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (Abbott v. Abbott).

“Sitting in the hushed marble and wood courtroom, and listening to the Justices speak from the bench, was an unforgettable experience,” said Mahon. “I believe the students have a much better sense of the seriousness of the Court and the enormous importance of its rulings for the nation. I was also impressed at the fact that any member of the public may sit in on a meeting of the Court, for free. All they have to do is get there early to queue to get a ticket, and be prepared to go through various security checks. I think it speaks well of the Court that anyone may observe it in action.”

Added Mahon: “Quite honestly, I would not have been able to pull off this trip to the Supreme Court outside of a Spring Term class. I would not have been thinking big, which is exactly what the Spring Term encourages us to do.”