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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Structuring a Tax Policy Workshop Series -- Texas Tech

Bryan Camp (Texas Tech) offers his perspective as the convenor of a non-tax workshop series at Texas Tech, as part of our series on how to best structure a tax policy workshop series:

I LOVE colloquia! We did them at my undergrad (Haverford), and I did several in my grad work in history. I run one here at Texas Tech every other year, ostensibly on the topic of slave law, but more abstractly on consideration of a lawyer's proper role in an immoral legal system. From this experience I offer several ideas:

  1. Focus on basics. Often, the best learning and the best advancement in learning comes through re-examination of first principles. This is where students are very helpful because they bring to THEIR learning of first principles a whole different set of preconceptions that those of us who have been around bring to the table. Basic questions are opportunities to test and retest assumptions. I do not think you can select articles that are "too" basic to generate a good start.
  2. Give all participants a shared vocabulary. As a corollary to (1) I like to choose readings for the first 3-4 weeks that give the group access to common vocabulary so that we can quickly start to move to more efficient communication patterns.
  3. Don't always choose the "best" articles. I actually like to use articles that may have some serious deficiency, because that really generates good discussion. You can structure a good discussion around the deficiency (debating whether it really is a deficiency and, if so, what the consequences are for the article's thesis or future work).
  4. Require all participants to turn in at least three thoughtful questions about the readings and use those questions to structure the discussion. This helps moderate discussion because you have basically a list of stuff each person is ready to talk about. This also really works well when you designate students as the discussion leaders. It helps them find focus and structure and keep the class from becoming just a beery bull session. It also allows discussion leaders to keep the "gunners" in line: they can always switch to a question from someone else.
  5. Designate one or two participants to write a 10 page paper (no longer!) critiquing one of the readings for the week and designate another participant (or two) to be the designated "defenders" of the critiqued work. This takes some advance planning because the papers need to be distributed the week before the discussion takes place. The idea is that the class will read the designated works for the week and at the same time read one or two of their colleague's thoughts/critiques on the matter.

Those are some ideas that I think really help make a colloquium work well. Yep, I just LOVE colloquia!

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