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Friday, May 2, 2008

Structuring a Tax Policy Workshop Series -- Northwestern

Charlotte Crane, host of Northwestern's Advanced Topics in Taxation Workshop Series, continues our series on how to best structure a tax policy workshop series:

We have generally had seven authors in a semester, with a class discussion of the next paper in the alternate weeks. The author sessions are in the late afternoon and are open not only to our law school and university faculty, but to the other tax faculty and interested others in the Chicago area.

So far, we have opted for a broad range of authors with a broad range of topics and methods, rather than trying to have any particular focus. The emphasis of the colloquium, as well as the other invited speakers programs maintained by the Graduate Tax Program, has been on exposing the students to the full variety of scholarly and professional pursuits that can emerge from and feed into tax expertise they are developing.

This year (my first running the tax colloquium), I had our students not only write response papers, but also had them engage with the papers in two other ways. First, they each were required to role-play, and present the paper as if they were the author during the first 30-45 minutes of the class the week before the author present. When the timing of the availability of the paper and the mock presentation allowed it, the response papers were prepared in time that the student presenter had the benefit of them. (The presenter has also sometimes been responsible for writing a draft summary of the comments of their fellow students, to be shared with the presenter before the talk; scheduling constraints has sometimes made this difficult.) Second, one of them was required to take notes during the author’s presentation. (Their instructions were to note in particular those points which did not seem to be in the paper or were emphasized differently in the paper, and to record the exchange during the discussion part of the presentation so that the author would not have to worry about not being able to reconstruct the discussion.) Third, they are required to ask a question during each presentation.

These tasks helped ensure that the students engaged with the papers to the fullest extent possible. Knowing that the mock presenter and their fellow students, as well as the actual author, were likely to see the response papers increased the care with which they were written. (It remains a challenge to convince the students that you would really prefer to have a response paper that develops one sustained argument instead of a series of essentially unrelated reactions; part of the point of the exercise, it seems to me, should be to help them understand the difference.) The students appreciate the “skills training” that these tasks introduced to the course, and the tasks do give them more reason to dig deeper into topics that might not otherwise seem interesting.

Many of the students in the class are in the second semester of our LLM program, which presents something of a challenge for keeping the JDs from being intimidated by the course. (We have a fairly traditional tax policy seminar, also open to both JDs and LLMs offered in the fall, which helps considerably.) For some of the papers, I made available some background readings in the relevant tax policy area, but only the first set of such readings were required. For some of the papers, I find myself lecturing during the class discussion a bit about the background literature — I think that this may have been motivated as much by my sense that they should be fully versed in certain aspects of the tax policy canon as it was by the difficulty of the particular papers.

Our enrollments have been small enough to make this manageable. Some of it would have to be scaled back if enrollments were substantially greater—for instance, by not expecting a question from each student at each author’s presentation.

We have no set expectation for author’s schedule on the day of the presentation, except that the tax faculty (and such others as may be appropriately included) all join the author for dinner.

Northwestern University School of Law has number of colloquia besides the one run by the Graduate Tax Program, so the basic template is fairly well established. We can and do deviate a bit, but the expectations of the wider law school community have generally taken into account in our design.

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