Reading groups help incoming students build connections

Michelle Lim ’23 came to Maryland Carey Law after graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2020. 

The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law takes pride in nurturing a culture that’s welcoming, supportive, and close-knit. 

“The connections our students build with each other, our faculty, and alumni are a hallmark of the experience we offer,” says Dean Donald Tobin, who makes direct interaction with students a high priority 

Maryland Carey Law faculty and staff continually innovate to strengthen the sense of community at the law school, and that effort has never been more important than during the pandemic. “It is critical for us to promote a sense of belonging,” adds Tobin, especially for our incoming class who are starting their law school careers remotely.”  

One way has been through new online reading groups, weekly opportunities throughout the semester for first-year students to have ungraded, small-group discussions with peers and a faculty member around designated topics. With 17 groups to choose from and 10 people or fewer in each, students had special access to professors and each other. Not to mention highly engaging conversations.  

“I really liked that there weren’t too many people in the reading group,” says Michelle Lim ’23, who participated in Prof. Maxwell Stearns’ “Nothing off Limits” virtual gathering. “I think I met people that I probably wouldn’t have run into even if we had been in-person, so it’s been a really good experience.” 

Lim chose to participate in Stearns’ group because she was looking to interact with people who have strong opinions like she does but are open to other perspectives. “I joined because I wanted to talk about things that were uncomfortable,” says the Maryland native, and be around people who were OK with people talking about uncomfortable things. With weekly topics ranging from socialism to evolutionary psychology, she got just what she signed up forand especially appreciated Stearns’ deft leadership.  

“Professor Stearns was really good at facilitating the conversation,” says Lim, so that we would be forced to confront other opinions and other arguments that none of us personally had but were within the sphere.” 

While Stearns devised his reading group to be open-ended, other professors offered more narrowly defined topics around a single text, such as Women, Race, and Gender with Prof. Leigh Goodmark and Constitutional Democracy in Crisis? headed by Prof. Mark Graber. Other groups with weighty topics included Prof. Michael Pinard’s Current Issues in Policing and Prof. Maureen Sweeney’s Immigration and Race. Meanwhile, more lighthearted chats happened in Assoc. Dean Russell McClain’s group, Everybody’s a Critic, in which students discussed current events in the context of filmand Prof. Michael Pappas’ Serious Consideration of Frivolous Issues, which, according to its description, pursued “deep, probing discussions of categorizations of food, the meaning of song lyrics, and other truly pointless inquiries” (while sneaking in methods of legal reasoning and analysis). 

Reading groups offered for the fall 2020 semester were: 

  • The Law and The New Yorker 
  • The Lawyer’s Role in the American System of Adversary Justice 
  • Human Rights at Home and Abroad 
  • Dialogue Across Divides 
  • Change: In the World of Torts and in You 
  • Women, Race, and Class 
  • Constitutional Democracy in Crisis? 
  • Crime and Punishment 
  • Public Health and the Law 
  • Everybody’s a Critic 
  • Voting Rights and the Law of Democracy 
  • Serious Consideration of Frivolous Issues 
  • Current Issues in Policing 
  • The Cybersecurity and Data Privacy Law 
  • Nothing Off Limits 
  • Immigration and Race 
  • International Perspectives on the Law  

Stephen Shannon ’23, a former elementary school music teacher, saw the virtual meetings as an opportunity to learn about a topic outside of his comfort zone. The Cybersecurity and Data Privacy Law group fit the bill.  

I’m not really a computer person, so it sounded like something really foreign but also potentially really interesting,” says Shannon of the group lead by Cybersecurity Program Director Markus RauscheckerAs the weeks passed, Shannon’s interest only grew in discussions that were less technical than he anticipated and more about privacy laws. “It was nice to meet people,” adds the D.C. native, and “to learn just for the sake of learning...I’m glad I did it. 

According to Assoc. Dean for Research and Faculty Development Peter Danchin, feedback from students and faculty has been enthusiastic, with some groups even planning to continue meeting beyond the semester’s end 

“The reading groups have been one aspect of a larger strategy to keep our community thriving during the pandemic,” says Danchin, referring to a host of online activities, including a new faculty webinar series, which have bolstered intellectual and interpersonal connections at Maryland Carey Law while physical distancing is maintained. “We are delighted the reading groups have been a success,” he adds, and are considering re-establishing them in the spring. 

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