In a small U-M classroom last February, a group of 10 students sat around a table one evening discussing Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s classic short story about the emotional descent of a Wall Street lawyer’s clerk.
While one could easily assume it was the discussion section of a 19th century literature class, the gathering comprised 2L and 3L students in a mini-seminar titled What Can Short Stories Teach Us about Life, Law, and Life in (the Shadow of) the Law? Led by Assistant Professor Steven Schaus, the mini-seminar provided students with a break from the usual syllabus of textbooks and journal articles.
“Law school is a very absorbing experience, which is great,” said Schaus. “But I also found [when I was a law student] that I wasn’t always making time for nonassigned reading. The hope for this mini-seminar was to give students an opportunity to connect—or maybe reconnect—with the part of themselves that loves to read short fiction and to do so in a very low-stakes, relaxed format.”
The mini-seminar was just one of several offerings from the Law School this past academic year, which ranged from Art and Advocacy to The Law of Globalization.
“I strive for a diverse set of topics,” said Kristina Daugirdas, professor of law and associate dean for academic programming, who selects the mini-seminars each academic year. “The topics can be serious, but they don’t have to be. Even topics that are only marginally related to law are okay. The primary goals are to have interesting conversations and to nurture a sense of community.”
Connecting through community
The mini-seminars’ small size—usually around 10 students—and informal setting—oftentimes in a professor’s home—help foster that sense of community. And that sense of community lends itself well to the topics.
“It allows space for students to tell stories about their own lives and connect their lives to the material,” said Assistant Professor Emily Prifogle, who taught 2Ls and 3Ls her mini-seminar—Law in Rural America: Cows, Courts, and Country Lawyers—in her home. “They often will say, ‘Where I grew up, it's like this.’ They might be making those connections in their other classes, but here they're able to articulate them because our class is so small.”
The mini-seminars also provide professors with a forum to discuss topics that wouldn’t necessarily lend themselves to a full three- or four-credit course. Assistant Professor Jeffery Zhang’s mini-seminar, The Federal Reserve, provided such a focus for his 2L and 3L students.
“The Law School offers classes on financial regulation, broadly speaking,” said Zhang, who formerly worked for the Federal Reserve. “And those classes touch upon everything in the financial system. What I wanted to do with this mini-seminar was focus on the central bank.”
His students saw a real-time example of the work of the Federal Reserve when Silicon Valley Bank collapsed in March.
“Literally the week before, we were talking about how the Federal Reserve could create emergency lending facilities,” said Zhang.
While it might seem like a real-time bank collapse would have more relevance for future lawyers than short stories written a century or longer ago, 3L Cheyenne Rivera, would beg to differ.
“These works were incredibly relevant,” said Rivera, 3L, who read roughly a dozen short stories and novellas in Schaus’s mini-seminar, all of which touched on themes connected in some way to the law. “We tapped into a side of the law we don't usually explore in law school, and that was stepping away from statutes and precedent and moving toward questions about the law: Why have the law? What is the law interacting with in our lives? Is it right? Is it wrong? So those large questions, which I wish we asked more of in law school, were really important to this mini-seminar.”
Learning from fellow students
Traditionally, 1Ls have been able to take a more limited, not-for-credit mini-seminar. This year, they had the opportunity to take ones similar to those offered to 2Ls and 3Ls.
“This past academic year, we offered a new category of for-credit mini-seminars for 1Ls for the first time,” said Daugirdas. “They are eligible to enroll in mini-seminars during the winter term, once they’ve had some time to acclimate to law school.”
The assignments for most mini-seminars, which are pass/fail and allow students to earn one credit, involve reading and discussion. Prifogle, however, added one simple capstone assignment for her students.
“They created an infographic about any subject of rural law that they wanted,” she said. After they presented their infographics during the last mini-seminar session, Prifogle sent their work to the Rural Reconciliation Project for publication in its online journal. “It was a really broad assignment where the students were able to engage in whatever they were interested in.”
For example, 2L Bobby Brewer examined the challenges that rural communities face in access to public recreation areas. And he appreciated the opportunity to hear presentations from fellow students.
“We all presented for five or 10 minutes, which is its own kind of learning session,” he said. “I came to Michigan with the promise of that sort of collegial atmosphere and more personal relationships. I thought it was a really great example of that type of culture here.”
2L Frank Schulze also saw the benefits of the mini-seminar format for getting to know fellow students as well as his professor.
“I got to know Professor Zhang really well, and I think one of the things that I took away from the mini-seminar was how much more fun it is to be in a course where you know the professor is not only really well versed in the subject but also really enjoys talking about it. It was a joy to listen to personal anecdotes of his time at the agency and for him to translate what's really complicated into basic facts and get more people engaged.”
For his part, Zhang is looking forward to teaching a mini-seminar in the future, whether on the Federal Reserve or another topic.
“The professor gets to teach 10 students who are very interested and engaged. That's quite an environment.”
Following is a list of mini-seminars offered during the 2022-2023 academic year along with the professors who led each seminar.
- Art and Advocacy, Patrick Barry
- Criminal Justice Reform by Comedian Jon Oliver, Imran Syed
- Law-School Admissions in a Post-Affirmative Action World, Sam Erman
- Lawyering While Female, Bridgette Carr and Chavi Nana
- Business Development for Law Firm Associates, Bob Hirshon
- Current Issues in Cannabis Law, Mark Osbeck
- The Enduring Allure of Book Bans, Susan Page
- Lawyering in Washington, DC, Chris Walker
- Tech Trends: A Primer for Lawyers, Tifani Sadek and Kristen Wolff
- Can a River Sue? Rights of Nature, Here and Abroad, Oday Salim
- Designing Your MLaw Life, Bridgette Carr and Vivek Sankaran
- The Law of Reservation Dogs, Matthew Fletcher
- Public Speaking for the Faint of Heart: Classrooms, Courtrooms, and Conference Rooms, Evan Caminker
- Shakespeare and the Law, Deconstructed, Len Niehoff
- You Gotta Listen to This: How to Tell a Great Story, David Moran and Michael Steinberg
- Between Shadow and Light—Domestic Violence and the Law, Julia Lee
- The Federal Reserve, Jeffery Zhang
- Law in Rural America: Cows, Courts, and Country Lawyers, Emily Prifogle
- The Law of Globalization, Julian Arato
- What Can Short Stories Teach Us About Life, Law, and Life in (the Shadow of) the Law? Steven Schaus
Banner image: Assistant Professor Emily Prifogle taught 2Ls and 3Ls her mini-seminar—Law in Rural America: Cows, Courts, and Country Lawyers—in her home.