CLASS: A hub of intellectual exchange for socio-legal scholars

The Comparative Law and Society Studies Center’s (CLASS) graduate certificate program is a community of graduate scholars who share a passion for an interdisciplinary understanding of law in contemporary society.

“The idea behind the CLASS graduate certificate program was to create a network of faculty, classes and intellectual resources for UW graduates students interested in socio-legal studies,” said Professor Rachel Cichowski, the director of CLASS.  Cichowski is also faculty in the political science department and the LSJ program.

CLASS offers an interdisciplinary program for students throughout the university, including the College of Arts and Sciences, the Information School and the Law School, to earn a graduate certificate in socio-legal studies as they pursue their disciplinary doctorate.

“What’s exciting about this program is it creates a central space at UW for graduate students who are interested in socio-legal research and who might not otherwise have faculty or students in their disciplinary departments with these common interests. It thus, becomes a crucial place for exchanging ideas as well as providing graduate training and mentorship in law and society at UW,” Cichowski said.

Today, the CLASS certificate program has over 30 graduate fellows, who are interested in socio-legal studies and in gaining an interdisciplinary understanding of how law works in society in addition to their disciplinary PhD studies.

As the new director of CLASS, Cichowski said that some of her plans are to continue to build professional development opportunities that reach out to the needs of all students from first year students to those at the dissertation stage. The program is also expanding the number of departments whose students join the program.

“Many of these students in the past were coming from political science, yet increasingly our enrollment is expanding with students from geography, anthropology, sociology, the Law School and recently a student from the Information School,” Cichowski said. “It’s unique because it really is drawing graduate students together from across the university.”

Cichowski also spoke of the way in which the certificate program plays a role in graduate recruitment.

“Increasingly, we are finding students are choosing to pursue their disciplinary PhD at UW, even with excellent offers from competing universities, because they want to be part of this unique comparative and international interdisciplinary socio-legal program,” Cichowski said.

Cichowski explained that the CLASS certificate program could be thought of as the graduate training arm of the LSJ program and that the graduate fellows are very much connected with the overall philosophy and goals guiding LSJ.

The fellows take classes taught by LSJ faculty and LSJ faculty serve on their doctoral committees. Many of the fellows also work as graduate student instructors for LSJ courses as well as teaching and research assistants.

“CLASS is really borne out of the LSJ tradition. It is a graduate-focused program that has as its underpinnings the law and society approach and its central research questions,” said Milli Lake, a fourth year doctoral student in the political science department. “LSJ and CLASS have at their heart the ‘law and society’ or ‘socio-legal’ tradition of scholarship meaning that they both examine the ways in which law and society interact.”

Lake became involved with CLASS when she came to the University of Washington in 2008. She said that one of the best parts of CLASS was the opportunity to present her work in workshares and at conferences where she is able to share her work-in-progress with other fellows and interdisciplinary CLASS faculty.

As a CLASS fellow, she participated in the Law and Society Association (LSA) annual conference, where she had the opportunity to meet other law and society scholars outside of UW who focus on related issues and talk about her research.

Her research focuses on human rights, transitional justice, rule of law and state building in weak, developing and post-conflict states, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa.

“CLASS has been tremendously influential for my work and personal and professional development,” Lake said.

CLASS also offers graduate student travel grants giving students the opportunity to attend and present research at the LSA conferences.

Speaking on her experience at the conference, Lake said, “I have received some of my most productive and helpful feedback at the LSA graduate student workshares.”

CLASS offers regular professional development workshops that vary from tips for grant writing, how to get published, and how to get the most from research conferences. There are also workshops, which allow the graduate fellows from different departments the opportunity to meet and discuss their research projects.

“The workshops connect the fellows with each other.  They are a way to connect with other students and to learn how to develop professionally,” Cichowski said. “The focus is making sure our graduate students get the training they need to be successful on the job market in socio-legal studies.”

Lake said that since many graduate students often mingle with people within their own department, social workshops are really beneficial for gaining different perspectives on her research. She also noted the importance of participating in CLASS workshares discussing faculty research.

“It’s really helpful to read early drafts of faculty’s work because it gives you a sense of the different stages of publishing,” Lake said. “But what’s even more helpful is to hear other faculty’s comments and to know that everyone’s work is subjected to criticism and that there’s no such thing as the perfect article.”

April Fernandes, a fifth year doctoral sociology student applying to be a CLASS fellow, said that she really enjoys the CLASS workshops.

She attended the grant workshop in October said that it was great to get insight on how to write a grant application from both professors who were experienced in reviewing grants and LSJ students who had previously been awarded grants.

“You hear a lot of really great questions from people and it helps to dispel a lot of myths.  It was helpful to understand the process and to get actual practical application of how to put together an application for the grant in a productive and effective way as opposed to a shot in the dark,” she said.

Fernandes said that one of the things that attracted her to CLASS was the interdisciplinary nature of the program.

“CLASS for me is a really good way to see things from different perspectives and to see that there are other opportunities besides the sociology track,” Fernandes said. “I think these workshops are super useful because they are a different focus than my department.  CLASS broadens the audiences you talk to with your work.”

Besides attending workshops, the graduate fellows are required to take a series of courses taught by LSJ faculty, including a core Law and Society course.

“The courses are important not only for providing a solid foundation in the law and society tradition, but essential for keeping the fellows connected and thinking across their disciplines,” Cichowski said.

Michele Statz, a fourth year doctoral student studying socio-cultural anthropology said that she values the connections she has made through CLASS to a larger research community.

“As a graduate student, I’ve been able to attend different conferences and retreats largely because I was notified of them by CLASS faculty,” Statz said. “Each of these events has been a great opportunity to connect and network with relevant scholars, and I would never have known of them if it weren’t for a connection to CLASS.”

Statz also said that she really likes knowing that she has a built-in network of professors and graduate students that she can turn to as she moves forward with her research project.

“I’ve learned a lot from my CLASS colleagues–often about issues and questions that I might never have considered but prove compelling and very relevant,” Statz said.

Fernandes also believes that one of the best parts of CLASS is working with the LSJ/CLASS faculty because she is able to get different perspectives on her work.

“I love taking classes by the faculty because they are looking at problems in different ways. They’ll look at it from a political science, economic and a legal standpoint and it becomes so multifaceted,” Fernandes said. “The LSJ/CLASS faculty is so varied so you get all these different perspectives on your work.”

Lake said that CLASS is unique because it brings people who are interested in socio-legal issues together.

“I think as fellows, we are all engaged with complex questions related to law and society like the way in which law interacts and shapes people’s daily lives” Lake said. “We’re working on different topics like prison systems, gender rights or European Union integration, but we’re united by that overarching question.”

Lake said that she really enjoys being part of the CLASS community and meeting other fellows at workshops and workshares because of their common bond.

“I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to work with such diverse, intelligent and thoughtful scholars,” Lake said. “This kind of thing is quite lacking, and it’s great to hear what other people are working on because these are people we are likely to be in academic conversations for the rest of our careers.”

This article was composed by Charlotte Anthony.