Wednesday, August 5, 2015
Every May, I intend on setting aside a few hours a week to plan new classes, flex my pedagogy muscles, walk on the wild side of tax-exempt organizations. Inevitably, I wake up one morning to the sound of back to school commercials and realize it is already August. I am sure some of you, like me, find yourselves kicking into high gear with the semester only weeks away.
On my August to-do list is utilizing more multimedia in clinic seminar. Clinicians are constantly exploring new ways to engage students and adapt to different learning styles. I love using small groups or quick write exercises to ease into complicated and sensitive topics. As for simulations, my students are always eager to ham it up as clients or hone their skills as lawyers. My biggest challenge is making the more technical aspects of the law interesting to students. I found that multimedia can be a great tool for teaching these areas.
Each semester I teach an introduction to financial statements class that is essential for students. Many have never looked at a balance sheet, let alone the tax return of a multi-million dollar nonprofit organization. This is a golden opportunity! I can give these students the building blocks to comprehend any financial statement – a key skill for any transactional attorney. Yet every semester, the class failed to dazzle. As one student wrote in her course evaluation “I know we need to learn how to read a financial statement, but the material is really dry.” Touche.
So it was clear, I needed to liven up my financial statements class. The answer: Jon Oliver. Earlier last year Jon Oliver conducted a hilarious expose on the Miss America pageant’s claim to be “the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women.” In fact, analysis of the tax returns revealed that the amount of scholarship money actually awarded was a mere fraction of the amount claimed by the organization. I started class by showing students the Jon Oliver segment. The clip really helped set the tone for the class in an entertaining and engaging manner. First, it reiterated the importance of looking at financial statements to understand the truth behind an organization’s operations. How much is actually spent on programmatic activities? How much is wasted? Second, it raised important questions about nonprofit accountability. A 501c3 organization is subsidized by the taxpayers. Is this why we need to monitor them through public tax returns, restrictions on executive compensation, etc? What types of organizations would my students want to support? We spent the rest of class walking through the tax returns of two different nonprofits, comparing expenditures, executive compensation – reading between the lines to truly understand the way each organization operated.
For the curious, a clip of the segment is available here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/09/22/john_oliver_on_miss_america_last_week_tonight_takes_on_the_pageant_s_scholarship.html
Of course, if you plan on using media clips, you want to make sure you do so in accordance with copyright laws. What if you want to use a YouTube clip? What if you want to assign an episode of This American Life as homework? All of these are important questions that potentially raise copyright concerns. The attached guide outlines some best practices for using multimedia as part of your course. Most universities also have a general copyright use policy that should be reviewed in addition to the attached guide.