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Monday, May 4, 2009

Structuring a Tax Policy Workshop Series -- Indiana-Bloomington's Experience

Last Spring, I ran a series of posts on Structuring a Tax Policy Workshop Series -- spawned by Leandra Lederman's decision to start a tax workshop series at Indiana-Bloomington -- with contributions from those schools with such a series (Boston CollegeColumbiaConnecticutLoyola-L.A., MichiganNYUNorthwesternPennToronto, and UCLA), as well as Neil Buchanan's thoughts on the "Best Practices" emerging from these contributions (and Roberta Mann's "Collector's Edition" -- a Word document with all of the entries in the series).

Below the fold, Leandra offers her thoughts on the first year of Indiana-Bloomington's Tax Policy Colloquium Series.

Approximately a year ago, at Paul’s request, I kicked off a discussion regarding structuring a tax policy workshop series. Indiana-Bloomington’s Tax Policy Colloquium, which is structured as a class, started this spring. I ran the Colloquium this year, and Ajay Mehrotra will do so next spring. The end of the semester seemed like an appropriate time to look back on what worked well and what might be changed in future years.

I found it incredibly rewarding to run the Colloquium. The faculty presenters really engaged with the students and seemed to value the feedback they received. The students seemed to regard it as a special class, and their ability to get to the heart of faculty works in progress and ask probing questions exceeded my expectations.

Two aspects of the Colloquium seemed particularly helpful. The first one is the use of background reading. Many of the topics were new to the students, although all 13 of them had not only completed Income Tax (the prerequisite) but were also enrolled in my Corporate Tax class, and many of them had also taken other tax courses. The first paper in the series used a lot of terminology related to executive compensation, so I asked its author, David Walker, if he had any suggestions for readings that might help bring the students up to speed. His suggestions were so helpful that I asked each of the other presenters to suggest readings. I didn’t always assign all of what they suggested, and I sometimes supplemented their suggestions with a primary source, but the suggestions were invaluable.

Second, having a presenter only in alternate weeks so that the students and I could discuss the paper and background reading as a class was very effective. My goal with those sessions was to try to make sure everyone in the class understood the thesis of the paper and its principal arguments, so that they would be empowered to bring their own perspectives to their required reaction papers.

During the talks, I kept a question queue. That worked well, but, in the future, I plan to adopt a student suggestion of allowing participants to jump the queue if they signal that they have a question related to a topic under discussion. I required students to ask questions in 4 out of the 6 presentations, in order to encourage them to participate but not to require them to speak when they had nothing to say. Giving student questions priority for the first 20-30 minutes of the question period worked very well; the concern Dave Rifkin expressed in his post last year about students’ comfort level and ability didn’t seem to be manifested. I think the preparatory session and background reading were very helpful in that regard.

I assigned the students a 3 to 5-page reaction paper in response to each of the six works in progress, plus one final paper, the default option for which was a rewrite of an earlier paper. The class meets our non-seminar advanced writing requirement, so I gave the students timely written feedback on each paper, directed both at substance and at helping them improve their writing. The paper length seemed fine, though occasional reaction papers were short where a student had little to say, and some were longer. A few students mentioned that they would have liked to have been invited to propose editorial suggestions directly on the works in progress, in addition to writing reaction papers that focused on substantive critiques. When I teach the course again, I’m inclined to experiment with giving them that option.

Ted Seto kindly shared his course materials and syllabus with me, which were very helpful. Some of his reaction papers are due after the speaker’s presentation. I experimented with that by allowing each student to defer one paper. The post-presentation reaction papers were not noticeably different, but the students liked the opportunity to defer one paper, from a time-management perspective. I also experimented with having reaction papers due before or after our background class discussion. The students preferred the latter because the class discussion gave them the reassurance that they were on track before they had to finalize their papers. They still seemed equally prepared for class, perhaps in part because they were required to submit 2-3 discussion questions in advance of class. The students’ papers also reflected distinct perspectives, rather than converging, as I had thought they might.

The main area in which I was somewhat disappointed was faculty attendance. Although quite a number of faculty expressed interest in the Colloquium, there turned out to be a group of about 4 frequent attendees, with only an occasional additional attendee. In part, I think that was because there were often other talks the same day, given other workshop series and a busy faculty appointments year. Another reason may be that I communicated the expectation that all attendees have read the paper. I later concluded that that was unnecessary given that the core group of faculty attendees and the students in the class had all done so. My distribution list also generally included only people interested in tax or workshops of this type, including select tax alumni of the law school. Although I did reach out to specific faculty elsewhere in the University who I thought might be interested in particular papers (because of historical or empirical analysis, for example), I didn’t ask them to forward the e-mail to others in their departments. Next time, I plan to try to identify in advance faculty in other schools on campus who might be willing to circulate an announcement about a specific talk and encourage interested faculty and students to attend. On the plus side, one of our alumni who practices tax in a firm in Indianapolis came down for almost all of the presentations. It was very helpful to have his perspective on the topics, many of which he had experience with in practice.

I conducted a survey in the final class session, and the results suggest that the students really enjoyed the class and thought they benefited from it. A number of them remarked that they valued the opportunity to comment on works in progress and that they thought that reading papers in various stages of development helped them improve their own writing.

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