Michigan Law School mini-seminars teach major lessons to students

By Sharon Morioka
Michigan Law

In a small U-M classroom last February, a group of 10 students sat around a table 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. 

“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.”

The mini-seminars’ small size—usually around 10 students—and informal setting—oftentimes in a professor’s home—help foster a sense of community that 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  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 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.”