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Flash Mobs on Campus: Impromptu Seminars Prompt Learning Outside the Classroom

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A relatively new phenomenon, flash mobs are large groups of people that assemble in a predetermined public location to perform a stunt or unusual act to surprise, entertain and (most likely) confuse onlookers. The events are usually organized through email, social media networks, and online bulletin boards to keep them confidential except among the participants.

In cities across the world, flash mobs have gathered in public places to sing, dance, freeze in place, even pillow fight, but the University of Virginia has taken a slightly different approach. Students and faculty have started coming together outside the classroom for informal “flash seminars” on exciting and eclectic topics.

Flash Seminars Encourage Learning at the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia, located in Charlottesville, was founded by Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s. Woodrow Wilson, Edgar Allen Poe, Georgia O’Keefe, Robert F. Kennedy, Katie Couric and Tina Fey are among the school’s notable alumni, and it’s considered one of the original Public Ivies—a public college that provides an Ivy League-caliber education and experience.

The university prides itself on its extensive selection of course offerings and motivated student body. The brainchild of motivated Virginia senior Laura Nelson, flash seminars are impromptu, informal mini-classes held once or twice a week. The time and place, professor and students are always different. Nelson’s goal? “To find learning outside the classroom,” she told the Washington Post.

Students and Faculty Love the Simplicity of Educational Flash Seminars

Virginia student newspaper the Cavalier Daily reports that Nelson first attracted students to her seminars by listing them in a weekly notice called Engage UVA that she began in 2009. She sent it out every Monday to a group of about 20 friends. One of her classmates, senior Anna Duning, helped build it into a newsletter with a subscriber base of 1,500.

The Washington Post explains that the completely unselfish Nelson doesn’t take sole credit for the idea of flash seminars. She says the thought evolved out of conversations among friends, but she is the one who seized on the idea and mapped it out. Nelson and her friends would seek out their favorite professors, who would choose topics, assign any readings and set enrollment limits. Students would find teaching space.

Nelson thought about approaching university leaders about the flash seminars, but she couldn’t think of anything in her plan that required approval. “It’s so simple, and I think that’s what caught people off guard at first,” she said.

“We want to keep it very impromptu,” she reiterated in the University of Virginia Magazine. “We realized that there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on at U Va —and really every university—that a lot of students don’t have a chance to experience.”

The seminars are currently announced a week or two ahead of time at Flash! Seminars: Interactive Learning Outside the Classroom. Nelson has held students’ interest by keeping the flash seminars small and accepting participants on a first-come, first-served basis, which gives them the ability to personally interact with speakers.

Students love to take part because the flash seminars are a chance to learn from top faculty members who are often from outside their particular course of study. They also get to engage with other college students interested in intellectual discussion. “I like to think that Thomas Jefferson would probably approve,” flash seminar participant Lily Bowles, a third-year Virginia student from Washington, D.C., told the Daily Progress.

Impromptu Seminars Announced Online Cover a Variety of Topics

Past topics include:

  • “More Than Just a Pretty Face: The Business of Beauty”
  • “The Death Penalty and Victor Hugo”
  • “The Lost Art of Listening”
  • “Soldiers and the American Imagination: Reflections on Veterans Day”
  • “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
  • “To Be Modern and Completely Dependent on Money”
  • “Charlottesville: The Best Place to Live in America (or not)”
  • “Race and Gender, But Not Class: How We Think About a Living Wage in America”

Flash Seminars are New to Higher Education

Nelson, who is majoring in political and social thought, was accepted to Yale but opted to attend the University of Virginia, where she is an Echols scholar, an honors program that offers special learning opportunities to undergraduates studying the arts and sciences.

As far as university officials can tell, Nelson’s idea is new to higher education. It even helped her become one of 32 college students in the country chosen for a coveted Rhodes scholarship in 2010. Valued between $50,000 and $175,000, the scholarship will fully fund two or three years of study at the prestigious University of Oxford in England. “She’s a dynamo,” Michael Smith, director of Virginia’s Program in Political and Social Thought, told UVa Today. “She will thrive in the intellectual atmosphere of Oxford. She will be fresh energy in an ancient place.”

Although the University of Virginia is one of the country’s top-ranked public colleges, many students spend more time on resume-boosting extracurricular activities than actually learning. “I found it difficult to find an intellectual community here,” Nelson told the Washington Post.

Flash seminars have certainly helped change that!


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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