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Monday, August 21, 2017

Teaching Seminars

Next semester will be my first experience teaching a seminar. It will be a seminar on "Special Topics in Water Law," with an enrollment under 20 students. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm sure it will require me to adapt how I teach. I'm accustomed to teaching large classes. For this seminar, I could take a deep dive into a particular area or aspect of water law, into complexities that we can't address in my larger water law class. Or I could focus more on skills development, simulations, and case studies, maybe with more field trips and guest speakers. I'm hoping it will help students satisfy their writing requirements, so perhaps I should just focus on making sure each student researches and writes a good paper on a particular water law issue. I'd also like to use the class to discuss and hone some of my own research questions, but I don't know to what extent I should make the class about my own research agenda. I'd appreciate any suggestions or thoughts about organizing and teaching a good seminar.

Posted by Rhett Larson on August 21, 2017 at 09:21 PM | Permalink


I have experimented with having 1-2 seminar students sign up to lead or co-lead discussion each week (usually starting in week 2 or 3). Students often vary quite a bit in how they choose to approach this (some will make handouts or power points, etc.) I figure it is good practice in giving a presentation or leading a meeting and also helps a bit with the "buy in" concern, as students generally want each others sessions to go well. And/or if students are writing papers or researching current issues, you could also have each student present their own research topic, any challenges or tricky issues they have encountered, and take questions/feedback from classmates (either setting aside 1-2 sessions for all the student research presentations, or 10-15 minutes of each class session for 1-2 students).

Posted by: Sara Mayeux | Aug 23, 2017 10:27:25 AM

I have taught seminars for many years and I agree with the statement above, the key to a good seminar is getting students to buy in, and thinking about what you want to accomplish. I have never done lengthy papers as I don't think that is what most lawyers will do (at some schools where students might become Professors it may make more sense) but I would urge you to consider a series of short papers, however structured. I have used reflection papers (up to 3 pages) that work best if turned in before class so you can use to direct class but students much prefer to turn them in after class to reflect on the class rather than the reading. I have also adapted my seminars so that students play a significant role in its direction, both on topics and how the seminar should be structured, and that has generally produced very rewarding classes (though, like any class, not always). Be creative, and try to give them skills they will use in practice (presentations, short papers, that kind of thing), and you need to get everyone to participate otherwise it can be a long couple of hours.

Posted by: MLS | Aug 22, 2017 5:53:49 PM

For what it's worth: it took me a while (and, who knows, maybe it's still taking) to leave behind the temptation to treat seminars like "small lectures followed by structured, semi-Socratic Q & A." It seems to me that the trick is to incentivize and inspire "buy in" to the idea that the agenda for a seminar-meeting is for a genuine (guided, but still genuine) conversation about the assigned materials. For me, requiring short (one-page) reflection papers or even just the submission of one or two discussion questions -- which are circulated before the meeting -- seems to help.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Aug 22, 2017 1:57:27 PM

"Deep dive." I like what you did there.

Posted by: Donald | Aug 22, 2017 11:33:23 AM

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