Establishing a Student-Led Seminar: Suggestions & Challenges

Written by McGill Faculty of Law Alumni Abigail Radis and Suzanne Jackson. A longer version of this piece first appeared in the The National Association of Women and the Law’s 2011 manual ‘The Gender and the Law Manual: An Introductory Handbook for Law Students.’

Dear Future Student-Initiated Seminar Organizers,

During the fall 2010 semester, a group of students at the McGill Faculty of Law organized and ran a seminar on Sexual Assault Law. We identified a gap in our law faculty’s curriculum and developed a student-run course by following models of comparable seminars at other law faculties.

This letter aims to inform and inspire. It seeks to provide advice to students at fellow law faculties who are interested in setting up a student-initiated seminar focused on sexual assault law, on related issues pertaining to gender and the law, or simply on any topic of interest not being addressed in your course offerings. Whoever you may be and in whatever year or faculty, we hope that these reflections will be of some assistance in the creation and success of your course and also, that you will encourage others to implement comparable projects.

Why did we decide to organize a course on Sexual Assault Law?

During our first year of law school, a number of us attended an inspirational lecture by activist and teacher, Jane Doe. She encouraged us to establish a course on sexual assault law at our faculty in order to address the systemic issues surrounding the prevalence of crimes of this nature.

As first year law students, we grappled with the questions that she posed to the audience: What are you going to do about the prevalence of sexual assault in society? How will you work and engage with a woman who asks you to represent her in a sexual assault case? Those of us who reflected on these questions after her lecture admitted that that we did not yet have a response to her questions.

Knowing that a course on sexual assault law was not offered at our law faculty, and knowing that none of the courses offered at the faculty engaged with the topic in any depth, a group of student organizers decided to develop our own course. It would be a pass-fail, 3-credit student-led seminar that would allow us to examine sexual assault law from a critical third-wave feminist, critical race, and anti-oppressive perspective. While an extremely supportive professor acted as our faculty supervisor, the course was entirely student-led. Our supervisor neither attended our weekly classes, nor closely monitored the development and weekly structure of our course.


“The significant gaps in law school curricula and the prevailing and pervasively dismissive and sexist responses to issues such as sexual assault within society need to be properly addressed by lawyers when they begin their education in order to truly change society’s inequitable realities.”


 

Advice on the Creation of Your Student-Initiated Seminar:

Organizing our course required a significant amount of administrative and substantive academic planning and work. Throughout this process, we learned a number of lessons – the most salient of which are listed here:

1. If at all possible, speak with students who have developed comparable courses in order to share and learn from their experiences. Speaking with students and professors who have conducted student-initiated and professor-led seminars will give you guidance on the best way to present your course to faculty administration, on effective navigation of the course approval process, and on what you can do to ensure the successful development of your course. For instance in our case, we used a course taught by an inspiring team of professors at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law as our model. Their support for the development of our course was crucial to its success.

2. Begin planning your course as early as possible. At our school, student-initiated seminars are rarely approved, which is often due to either an insufficient course structure, or low student enrollment. However, if you begin the process at an early stage, you can also begin engaging in a dialogue with the administration that will enable you to most effectively develop your syllabus. It is also essential to prepare yourselves for a significant workload stemming from the development of the course, both prior to and during the semester.

3. We spent a significant amount of time during the summer before the course and throughout the semester developing the structure of each class. We included a variety of in-class discussion questions and issues to consider throughout the duration of the course. Additionally, we created summaries of the assigned readings. As these readings were often quite extensive, we requested that student presenters address only selected components of their assigned portions. I highly recommend adopting this course structure students found it to be an engaging method that helped them focus on the crucial ideas behind the theme of the course. Moreover, I highly recommend that the organizers establish firm deadlines for completing these structural components of the course in order to ensure that the students and the presenters receive the necessary materials within an appropriate time frame.

4. We encourage identifying a group of students with a similar vision to share the organizational responsibilities. An equitable division of tasks amongst organizers should be established at the start of the course in order to make certain that tasks are effectively accomplished and fairly distributed. Face-to-face organization meetings should be held on a regular basis to resolve issues, in order to avoid the confusion caused by long email chains. In our case, coordinating of six different schedules was difficult; however, regular meetings can create a plan around which organizers can budget their time.

5. Due to the likely sensitive nature of your course subject, safe-space exercises should be conducted at the start of the semester in order to define and come to agreement on shared understandings of how an open and respectful discussion should operate. We also strongly encourage student-initiated seminars to hold regular and pre-set healing circles, or other appropriate restorative justice models, throughout the semester. While we learned a great deal from participating in our course, and while students’ experiences in the course were largely positive, issues inevitably arose within the classroom. Without the model of the healing circle, we were unable to provide an effective forum for addressing these issues, which made it difficult for us to re-establish the safe space.

6. Also potentially of great worth is the expertise of and facilitation by an effective and experienced professor, particularly within the initial few meetings of the class. We highly recommend establishing the following course structure: weekly student presentations and student-led discussions, supplemented by guest lectures from professors, practitioners and community activists. By sharing the responsibility of teaching the course evenly among the organizers, we strongly believe that the learning experience becomes significantly richer. Although the course was graded on a pass/fail basis, we were continually impressed by how prepared and engaged students were in the course, evident by the significant amount of work that they invested in their presentations. We would also recommend holding guest lectures on your topic both within your course and within the campus community in order to significantly expand and diversify the learning experience of the students and the campus community. To conclude, we strongly encourage you to develop a student-initiated seminar on an under-acknowledged topic, such as sexual assault law. Within law faculties, we are rarely given the opportunity to engage in a thoughtful, critical, and anti-oppressive examination of the law. The significant gaps in law school curricula and the prevailing and pervasively dismissive and sexist responses to issues such as sexual assault within society need to be properly addressed by lawyers when they begin their education in order to truly change society’s inequitable realities. Student initiated seminars can help, by offering a crucial support framework for student empowerment.  We believe that these experiences should be cultivated whenever possible.

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