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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Structuring a Tax Policy Workshop Series -- NYU (Student Perspective)

Dave Rifkin (Attorney-Advisor to Tax Court Judge Juan F. Vasquez; Adjunct Professor, Georgetown), a former student participant in NYU's Colloquium Series on Tax Law and Public Finance, continues our series on how to best structure a tax policy workshop series:

Part I:  When I attended NYU's Graduate Tax Program, I took the Tax Policy Colloquium (then taught by David Shaviro and the late David Bradford). Sometimes I found the papers to be accessible and interesting; other times I felt that I didn't have a sufficient knowledge of, or experience with, tax to comment on them critically. There were some papers that I understood the substance of but could not appreciate why they were important.

Profs. Shaviro and Bradford did an excellent job at getting the class up to speed on the substance of the papers, but sometimes the "why this is important or merits examination" was lost just in an effort to get the class up to speed on the subject of the paper (or perhaps because without any experience in tax and without knowledge of current developments in tax I could not appreciate why the paper was written). As Leandra intends this workshop to be for J.D. students, I think she may have a very tough road ahead of her in getting scholarly works that will be manageable for a J.D. with only basic tax and perhaps an additional tax course or two.

Additionally, I remember the afternoon discussions of the papers -- which also were attended by NYU tax faculty, tax faculty of other New York area law schools, and sometimes local tax professionals (who sometimes had devoted a lifetime to the subject of the paper). Virtually every afternoon discussion contained at least one question and answer that went over not only my head, but those of the other students in the class. I think keeping discourse about the papers to a J.D. level will be more difficult than finding papers that the students will be able to digest.

Also, I remember the fear of asking a question that was "stupid" in front of professors and professionals. I recall only asking one question during the "presentation" portion of the colloquium, and I remember it being on a topic that I researched and wrote and independent study paper on as a J.D. student (so I felt comfortable with the material and that I would not embarrass myself). Having students ask questions first (before faculty and other professionals) may be asking too much of J.D. students. Perhaps questions could be vetted in advance with the students proposing the questions during the classroom component? Basic questions could be answered in the classroom setting and questions that merit discussion could be held off until the presentation of the paper (e.g., "Why don't you save that question and ask it to [the presenter].")

I wish Leandra luck on this endeavor. If I may brave another suggestion: Profs. Shaviro and Bradford required my class to write a short paper (I think it was 1-5 pages) in response to each paper that was presented in the colloquium, but gave us the option to take a "pass" on one paper. I suggest she adopt the same "one pass rule" to allow students the opportunity to avoid having to write on every paper submitted (even if it is simply to allow students to maintain their dignity by not forcing them to write something about which they have nothing to say).

Part II:  It is interesting to read some of the responses you have posted. It has made me reflect upon my earlier email regarding my experience at NYU.

Before attending NYU's Graduate Tax Program, I had taken a significant number of tax classes, including Tax Policy course taught by Prof. Linda Sugin. I came to the Colloquium with 16 J.D. tax credits and 1 semester at NYU's LL.M. program. As I stated previously, even so I found many of the papers presented challenging and even after discussing them in class I had little to add to the discussion that followed.

I am confused, however, by professors finding the pedagogical need for students to participate in the "presentation" portion of the colloquium. I learned so much by listening to others question, reflect, and argue about the paper I had read. As I said, there was usually a question or 2 that was beyond me (and perhaps the rest of the class too), but this was over the course of a 2 hour presentation, discussion, critique, and defense of the paper. Many insightful questions and answers were presented and discussed, and I got much more out of this than if the presenter had had to answer some basic questions asked by the students. Often the discussion developed in ways I could not have anticipated and I would not have have benefited from this had discussion been retarded by devoting a substantial portion of the discussion to answering student's questions.

I believe students can learn as much or more by listening to others discuss a subject as they can by participating in the discussion. I believe that if a student has a question worth asking in a colloquium that it will get asked. That was my experience without having a "student's first" rule in place. I think pedagogically a "student's first" rule might put undue pressure on the students to ask questions ("volunteering" only in the Army sense of the word), could reflect poorly on the professor (e.g., "THOSE were the questions the students had?" or "the students didn't have ANY questions after preparing for 2 weeks?"), and could be a time black hole. The presenter and the audience would better served by a discussion developing naturally, rather than by "forced" questioning by the students, of the paper presented. Hopefully, the students will listen (sans laptop) to the discussion, learn, and if they have a question ask it.

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Part III: (If I may)

I had not read Professor Shaviro's comments before submitting mine. A lot has changed since I took the colloquium at NYU. Stephon Marbury was a rookie, and Jason Kidd was traded from the Mavs to the Suns that season. It seems, however, that the "core" elements of the colloquium (which I discussed above) have remained the same.

I think reducing the number of papers to 5 (instead of a little more than 10) probably gets better written submissions--as students can focus on particular papers rather than having to read a paper and turn around a short paper of your own every week. I don't recall any meals with the presenters or others when I took the course, but I think it is a nice addition.

Posted by: Dave Rifkin | Apr 29, 2008 7:41:24 PM