Submitted on Friday, 8/12/2011, at 6:33 PM

By William Sweet

Austin Sarat

For many, the legal system can be a remote entity, something known mostly through film and literature. But for some, the U.S. justice system is anything but remote. It is the means by which they will die.

Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, has edited two new collections of essays that examine these different faces of the law: Who Deserves to Die? Constructing the Executable Subject (University of Massachusetts Press) and Teaching Law and Literature (Modern Language Association).

These books come to press just as Sarat has been awarded a $171,554 grant to lead his 16th National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminar for teachers, in 2012.

Who Deserves to Die? Constructing the Executable Subject grew out of a conference Sarat organized in 2008 with co-editor Karl Shoemaker, associate professor of history and law at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. For the conference, Sarat and Shoemaker called together a distinguished group of death penalty scholars, including Vanessa Barker, Daniel Markel, Linda Meyer, Ruth A. Miller, Ravit Reichman, Susan R. Schmeiser, Mateo Taussig-Rubbo, Robert Weisberg and Thomas L. Dumm, the William H. Hastie ’25 Professor of Political Science at Amherst.

The premise of the conference and the resulting book is that the legitimacy of capital punishment in the United States rests on how the system decides who deserves death. As the number of death sentences has decreased to about 100 per year (a third of what it was a decade ago), the importance of selecting who gets that death sentence has increased, Sarat said. “The book is designed to help us understand how the United States goes about constructing and figuring out who deserves to die,” he said.

The collection, which he termed “agnostic” as to whether it takes a stand for or against capital punishment, examines a number of practices and rituals that have developed to justify the system of execution. “We want to believe that the person that we execute is a responsible subject, and we want to believe that they are treated in a humane way,” he said. “So, before we execute them, we allow them to choose their last meal. It has some religious connotations from the so-called Last Supper, but it’s also about saying about ourselves, Look at how humanely we treat them.”

“We retain these practices to assure ourselves of our own humanity, even in the moment that we kill,” said Sarat.

Authors of fiction have long grappled with the implications of capital punishment and the prosecution of other crimes. Beginning in the 1970s, Amherst College alum James Boyd White ’60 pioneered the study of “law and literature,” which explores law-in-literature, as well as law-as-literature. The essays in Teaching Law and Literature provide the history of this interdisciplinary field, descriptions of the structure of successful law and literature courses and insights into teaching such legally-flavored texts as Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

This collection is much more practical than his other new book, said Sarat. “While Who Deserves to Die is about a phenomenon in the world that we’re trying to understand, Teaching Law and Literature is about a phenomenon in the universities which we are trying to support, organize and help to develop,” he explained. Rather than following one theme, the book is a collection of resources for teachers, he said. The MLA, which has published a number of such teaching guides, approached Sarat and his co-editors, Cathrine O. Frank and Matthew Anderson, assistant professor and associate professor (respectively) of English and language studies at the University of New England.

While discussions of the death penalty may ultimately affect policy in some future courtroom or legislature, Sarat noted that his teaching of law and literature isn’t geared at changing the legal system. “My pedagogical life has nothing to do with educating lawyers,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m not teaching students about law—I’m using different perspectives on law to teach them how to read carefully, write clearly and use evidence.”

Sarat just recently finished teaching for a very different student population, shifting his focus from Amherst undergraduates to schoolteachers for a five-week summer seminar at Amherst College. The 2011 summer seminar was his 15th, and he will teach his 16th next summer, with support from the NEH grant.

The NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes are open to K–12 teachers and graduate students who intend to pursue careers in K–12 teaching. Sarat’s was one of only eight proposed seminars selected to run during the summer of 2012.

The planned seminar, “Punishment, Politics and Culture,” shares the name, but not the content, of a course he teaches at Amherst. “The seminar is even more interdisciplinary than Amherst’s, which is pretty interdisciplinary,” he said. “It’s driven as much by the audience as by the subject matter.”

This type of audience is one of his favorites. “[The schoolteachers] are smart and engaging people,” he said. “They bring perspectives to the subject matter that are different from what undergraduate or graduate students would bring. My life was changed by teachers, and the opportunity for me to work with teachers is a way of paying that back, using this great place as a setting for people whose teaching settings are not as privileged.”

Teachers can be “so overwhelmed with the day-to-day of committees, grading papers and all the things that we do,” he said. He relishes “the opportunity to spend five weeks doing nothing but reading and thinking and coming together into a seminar with colleagues, arguing and trying to understand.”

“It’s among my favorite things. And I feel fortunate again this year to have been selected,” he said.