A University of Virginia student has a bright idea: 'Flash seminars'

Gary Gallagher, a University of Virginia history professor, leads a
Gary Gallagher, a University of Virginia history professor, leads a "flash seminar" on "How Americans View the Civil War." (Stephanie Gross - For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 10:43 PM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Flash mobs assemble in public spaces to dance, protest or do battle with lightsabers.

And at the University of Virginia, thanks to Laura Nelson, they gather to learn.

Once or twice a week, students at the state's flagship public university collect in some idle classroom or lounge for a "flash seminar," an ad hoc performance of pedagogy.

The time and place, professor and students are always different. But the goal never varies: "to find learning outside the classroom," said Nelson, 22, a senior from Westwood, Mass., who is majoring in political and social thought. "To find other people who really value being a student."

With flash seminars, Nelson has found a solution to a hot-button issue in higher education: the dwindling time American students spend engaged in actual learning outside class. Research shows a steady decline in weekly study time, from about 25 hours in the early 1960s to 15 hours today. One influential study is provocatively titled "Leisure College, USA."

Nelson's idea - new to higher education, as far as university officials can tell - helped her win one of the nation's 32 Rhodes Scholarships last year.

"What I love about it is, it's purely for the love of learning," said Teresa Sullivan, university president.

Nelson turned down Yale to come to Charlottesville as an Echols scholar, part of an honors program that freed her to study pretty much what she wished. Before long, though, she and some like-minded friends grew frustrated with how little time their classmates spent pursuing the life of the mind when not in the lecture hall.

"I found it difficult to find an intellectual community here," Nelson said.

U-Va. is one of the nation's top public universities, a campus of overbooked overachievers, well-rounded students pulling down good grades even as they juggle busy schedules filled with athletics and nonacademic extracurricular activities. It's a routine of resume-building shaped by the elite high schools that provide many of the university's incoming students each year.

"Participating in extracurriculars is an important part of U-Va., but sometimes it's a distraction," said Lily Bowles, a junior from Northwest Washington who helped Nelson launch the seminars.

Nelson was a product of the same culture. She played varsity field hockey in her first year at U-Va. and took leadership positions in various student organizations. But she came to view those activities as a digression. She quit field hockey because it required too much time and started searching for ways to tap the university's rich intellectual capital.

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