Paul L. Caron

Monday, May 5, 2008

Structuring a Tax Policy Workshop Series -- Best Practices

Neil Buchanan (George Washington) offers some concluding thoughts on our series on how to best structure a tax policy workshop series:

This series of posts describing different law schools' tax policy workshops has been extremely valuable. A number of similarities across schools have emerged; yet it is also interesting to see how many seemingly small decisions must be made in structuring a workshop. Paul Caron has asked me to distill some "best practices" from what we've read here and from my own experiences presenting papers at workshops. This is an especially pertinent inquiry for me, because it is quite possible that we will be starting a tax policy workshop at GW as early as Fall 2009.

Like many readers of TaxProf, I have been an avid participant in the tax policy workshop series around the country. I have presented works-in-progress at Loyola-L.A., Michigan, NYU (twice), and Toronto; and I have attended workshops at Columbia and NYU regularly. When I was in my final semester of the JD program at Michigan in Spring 2002, the tax faculty there (Reuven Avi-Yonah, Jim Hines, and Kyle Logue) inaugurated Michigan's tax policy workshop. Being enrolled in that workshop was such a positive experience for me that it convinced me to focus my future scholarship entirely on tax policy. It is a very positive development that ever more law schools are creating these workshops, both for the benefit of tax scholars and for students who might be inspired to become tax scholars.

The most important point that I would make about tax policy workshops is that they are almost impossible to mess up! The basic formula is simple and reliable: scholar with work in progress + interested students + interested scholars = positive intellectual experience for everyone. The organizers of each workshop must make many decisions about how to structure the workshop, but having participated in and observed as many workshops as I have, I can state with great confidence that the most important aspect of a workshop is that it simply exist. Being involved in a tax policy workshop might not change everyone's life the way it -- quite literally -- changed mine, but I wouldn't bet against it.

There appear to be four basic variations on the structure of a workshop: (1) Invite a scholar each week of the semester to present a paper in a 2-hour session, (2) Spend the first few meetings of a semester introducing students to the tax policy literature, with the remaining weeks of the semester following Model #1, (3) Invite a scholar every other week of the semester to present a paper in a 2-hour session, with the intervening weeks devoted to having students read foundational readings in the area of tax policy in which the subsequent invited scholar's paper is situated, or (4) Meet with students for 2 hours each week to prepare for the scholar's visit, then meet in a workshop format for an additional 2 hours each week. Model #4, of course, turns the workshop into a 4-credit hour class, whereas the other three models are based on 2 credit-hours; so a big part of that decision would depend on the resources that a law school is willing to commit to a workshop as well as the number of students who might enroll in such a credit-heavy course. For what it is worth, I am drawn to Model #3, the every-other-week approach, for reasons that I'll explain below.

The underlying issue here is how to deal with the uneasy fit between the fundamental nature of law school as a place to train practicing lawyers and the increasing desire among law schools to become, for lack of a better term, more scholarly institutions. The work-in-progress model copied by most law school workshops, after all, is the graduate student seminars in Ph.D. programs in the social sciences and the humanities. There, students enrolled in the seminars have at least a full year of theory classes under their belts and are enrolled in specialized field courses in the subject matter of the seminar. The students in a Labor Economics workshop, for example, will have already taken full-year course sequences in (at least) micro- and macroeconomic theory and econometrics. They will also be enrolled in a two-semester advanced Labor Economics sequence. By contrast, JD students enrolled in a tax policy workshop can be reasonably expected to have taken the core 1L sequence and the basic Federal Income Taxation course. Even though each piece of legal scholarship is expected (appropriately, in my opinion) to include much more background than is common in other fields to situate a reader in the literature, the realities of law school mean that our students will come to a workshop with a great deal of enthusiasm and talent but with precious little specialized knowledge about the papers that they will be expected to read and critique. (Given that tax policy scholarship is so wonderfully broad, the students have even less hope of being well-versed in any significant range of the underlying debates.) Bringing students into a debate in this context thus involves a significant commitment on the part of the workshop's convenor(s) to ongoing remediation (or, perhaps more descriptively, "speed learning"). While each set of students is different, and each convenor will have her own preferences, it seems to me that it is best to err toward more teaching of the scholarly background rather than less. This will ultimately benefit the presenters as well as the students, of course.

One of the most difficult aspects of moderating the workshop itself, in my opinion, involves not allowing the session to be dominated by "insider talk" among the established scholars. There's an old joke, the premise of which is that the inmates in a prison know the same jokes to the point where each joke has been assigned a number; and telling a joke has devolved into simply yelling out its number. I often feel that tax policy workshops can go one step beyond that apocryphal prison yard: not only do the older inmates know all the jokes by number, but we sometimes know which joke someone is going to invoke and cut them off before the number is even uttered, saying, "I was thinking of that one, too." It is absolutely essential, I believe, for our workshops to involve full sentences being spoken in non-coded form. I am convinced that this does not risk dumbing the discussion down for the students, because on those occasions when a brave soul has asked for the coded language to be translated, it has almost invariably turned out that many of the professors in the room were on the wrong track. In fact, it is not uncommon for the two code-speakers to have misunderstood each other.

The variations among law schools in how to induce student participation (number and length of papers, requirements to ask questions during the session, etc.) all appear to me to be reasonable variations on a theme. None seems obviously superior, and each requires active efforts by the convenor(s) to make sure that the methods chosen result in the desired results: quality feedback to the visiting scholar, intellectual engagement for the students, and a vibrant discussion for everyone in the seminar room. I did, however, note one very specific innovation that I plan to steal from Northwestern: designating a student in each session to take notes on the session and forward those notes to the visiting scholar.

Finally, I should emphasize that one of the great values of holding tax policy workshops in law schools is that we embrace an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship. Bringing together scholars, convenors, and commentators with different scholarly backgrounds (within law as well as in related fields) is our greatest strength. We do ourselves and our students a great favor by being mindful not to allow our discussions to be dominated by the methodologies or assumptions of any single field of study. It is very heartening to see the interdisciplinary approach to tax policy scholarship flowering across the country. I hope that the trend of encouraging this through tax policy workshops at more and more law schools continues.

For descriptions of the various tax policy workshop series, see:

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