« Come Back, Sinks! Come Back! | Main | Drug Dogs Bust Brensike's Class »

January 23, 2007

Beyond the Quad: Mini-Seminar Program Enters Its Third Triumphant Term

By Malak Hamwi

Students looking to speak to their professors outside the ivy-covered walls of Hutchins Hall are often unsure how to engage their favorite faculty member.

“At most law schools you’ll hear people say, ‘It would be really great to see faculty outside of school,’” Dean Baum said. “But faculty aren’t going to show up at bar night.”

To address this reality, and encourage more informal student-faculty interaction, the Law School has developed the Mini-Seminar Series, where participating professors host between 3 and 6 discussions per semester in their homes or at non-classroom venues for as many as twelve students.

The program is the brainchild of Dean Caminker, who got the idea after numerous conversations with alumni. Many older Law School grads spoke highly of classes they had taken in professors’ homes during their three years at Michigan. Many years ago, it was more common for professors to hold seminars at their houses given the slower pace of their jobs and household demographics, Dean Caminker said.

Some alumni also lamented that they had not taken a course with a certain professor they admired, since they either did not have the time or were not interested enough in the professor’s area of expertise to take a 3-credit course on the topic. Dean Caminker decided that mini-seminars would afford students the chance to acquaint themselves with faculty members they may not otherwise encounter.

“Students really want to get to know their professors, and this gives them bits of exposure to faculty,” he said, adding that Michigan’s suburban environment, where most professors and students live nearby, is an asset that should be exploited.

The pilot program launched last winter with four mini-seminars. All participating professors were volunteers, receiving only a small stipend to provide refreshments for the students during the scheduled meetings. Thirty-one students enrolled last winter, and their glowing evaluations, coupled with positive faculty feedback, encouraged administrators to try the program for the entire 2006-07 school year.

Dean Caminker sent out another feeler e-mail over the summer, and about 30 faculty members volunteered.

“So many faculty signed up that all couldn’t be accommodated,” Dean Baum said.

Last semester, nearly 80 students signed up for one of the 10 mini-seminars offered. Professors Michael Barr, Daniel Halberstam, Ellen Katz, Doug Kahn, JJ Prescott, Steve Ratner and Joseph Vining all hosted not-for-credit mini-seminars in their homes on myriad topics like how to get a job as a law professor, eugenics, and poverty in America. Although no classes during the pilot semester were for credit, some professors – like Richard Friedman, Don Herzog, Chris Whitman, Becky Eisenberg and Rechel Croskery-Robert – opted to make their seminars worth one credit. All one-credit mini-seminars are mandatory pass/fail and do not fulfill either the seminar or upper-level writing requirements for graduation.

Professors are allowed considerable freedom in choosing their seminar topics, which are not required to strictly pertain to legal matters. Last semester, for instance, tax professor Douglas Kahn and assistant professor J.J. Prescott hosted a seminar on classic and modern plays, where students read aloud from “The Wild Duck” and “The Merchant of Venice.”

This semester, some students will finish the second half of their mini-seminar (half of last semester’s offerings straddled the fall and winter semesters) while other will sign up for one of the five new picks – including Professor Omri Ben-Shahar’s “Private Law in the Information Age,” Eve Brensike’s “Anatomy of a Criminal Case,” and Richard Friedman’s “Rules of Play.”

Given the popularity of the series, only 2Ls and 3Ls are invited to register for the mini-seminars and are limited to one seminar per year. Although the program is still somewhat of an experiment, administrators are optimistic that the series will become part of the regular curriculum and a selling point for prospective students.

“It’s off to a great start,” Dean Baum said.

The deadline for requesting a mini-seminar this term is today at 5:00 pm. Interested students should send an e-mail to Amy Bishop (albishop@umich.edu) with “Mini-Seminar” typed in the subject line. The message must include: the student’s full name, uniqname, Emplid number (listed on your U of M ID card), the mini-seminar number (400M11, 400M12, etc.), mini-seminar title, professor’s (or professors’) full name(s), and the order of requests 1 through up to 5, 1 being the highest.