On a cold Friday in early December, 15 students settled into Monroe Hall 120. They were there for sheer interest, meeting for a flash seminar—a one-time, pop-up class organized by students and taught this week by Ron Michener, a UVA associate professor of economics. One community member, a retired lawyer, also arrived, notebook and pen in hand. Michener spoke for 45 minutes about the guesswork involved in election polling while students snacked on Bodo’s bagels and cream cheese.
The idea for the topic came in the wake of the 2016 presidential election; once Michener was on board to teach it, it was announced in a weekly email called Engage@UVA that goes to 10,000 students, faculty and Charlottesville community members. Seminars are announced just days in advance, and locations are revealed only when students confirm attendance, giving the events an air of mystery.
After Michener traced the electoral polling process through history, touching on outside events that affect election results, such as the Florida butterfly ballot of 2000, he opened the space to questions and a lively discussion followed. Afterward, students lingered, asking Michener additional questions and thanking him for his insights.
“We get a lot of positive reviews—when I collect thank-you notes for the speakers, I see that students really enjoyed it,” flash seminar co-president Lexi Schubert (Col ’17) says. “It says something about always being curious. … It’s learning outside of the classroom, something more applicable to life.”
This is exactly why the seminars were created. In 2011, a group of UVA undergraduates decided they wanted to broaden the scope of their learning. The students “talked about how much unrealized potential there was for creative learning at UVA,” says Laura Nelson (Col ’11), who co-founded Engage@UVA. They came up with the idea of inviting professors to teach one-off classes on provocative topics.
“There was a shared sense of possibility and excitement about creating something together,” says Nelson, who went on to be a Rhodes scholar. The first flash seminar, “Liberal Arts in the Era of Late Capitalism,” held in Pavilion VI, was taught by anthropology professor Richard Handler in September of that year.
The flash seminars organization is entirely student-run, funded initially by a grant from the Jefferson Trust. Last year, Schubert and co-president Connor Graham (Col ’18) decided to be recognized officially as a contracted independent organization and thus have the ability to apply for funding via Student Council.
A nine-member flash seminar team decides the topics, with suggestions from UVA faculty. Topics are diverse; recent seminars have focused on religious liberty, Brexit and the role tomatoes play in our diets. High-profile instructors have included President Teresa Sullivan, Dean of Students Allen Groves and Professor Larry Sabato.
“The audience is so diverse, there’re no grades, it’s not a crime to talk, and [students] are interested in the topic,” says assistant economics professor Zachary Bethune, who has led two flash seminars. “All those viewpoints and questions that we get interact really well together.”
The early flash seminars were capped at 20 students to encourage conversation between students and the lecturing professor, Schubert says. But student interest—and thus the size of the seminars—grew. In 2016, several seminars had more than 100 attendees, including one on the economics of craft beer led by Professor Ken Elzinga.
The group plans a series of seminars this spring that focus on Donald Trump’s presidency. Schubert says there are numerous topics the seminars could explore, such as the future of the Electoral College, international perspectives on Trump or the consequences of his immigration policies. “There’s no set limit,” she says.