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Why Professor Seglin’s Column Writing Class Goes to Bid Every Year

I am a visiting professor at Dr. B.R Ambedkar University Delhi. I had given up hope that I would find a professor at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) whom I wanted to emulate in my own career. Then I took a class with Professor Jeffrey Seglin. DPI 830B: Column and Op Ed Writing changed my perspective on what a lecturer could be.

Seglin caps the number of seats at just 18. A whopping 108 students registered for the course. More than 80 of them showed up in Starr Auditorium with others dialing in on Zoom on the first day. The selection rate of the class was 16 percent. That means it’s more difficult to get into Seglin’s class than into HKS. The class goes to bid every year. This semester and last his class went to a lottery, meaning that more people bid all their points for his class than the number of seats available. 

Unlike most students, I had no clue about the popularity of the course. I just wanted a writing course and this course seemed to fit the bill. We found out who got into Professor Seglin’s class at the end of his shopping day session. Students began checking results with excitement and nervousness. As we loitered around the lecture hall, we began to receive emails about our selection results. Preeti, a mid-career MPA student, looked sad as she learned she did not get into the course. Sitting next to me she said, “I really wanted to get into this course. If you get in make the most of it.” Another classmate, Kevin, also couldn’t get in. He was disappointed as well, along with around 100 students who didn’t make it into class. I checked my results. I got in. I got a golden ticket. But in the moment, I said, “I don’t know much about the course or the professor.” The other students started looking at me with a look of disdain. Their glares said I was undeserving, I didn’t even know about the course, its value, or its reputation. 

Destiny got me into the class because it happened to be the best class I’ve attended at HKS. In a school full of legends and masters of politics, leadership, and government, Seglin stands out. From the pedagogy to his interaction with students, and the atmosphere he creates for self-expression. His pedagogy style stands out — a hands-on approach that addresses the topic of writing holistically. The class encourages us to write and review columns in the class. Real-time feedback and real-time problems are addressed in real-time by him. 

Learning is best when in a small group. In this class, you assess an article with your peers. “This class has been so much fun,” said Eleno, one of the lucky 18 in the class. “Beyond discussing writing columns, we discuss how to present ideas, find the right arguments, and how to help others understand our message. These skills have value in themselves, and not just to improve writing.”

What stands out for me about Professor Seglin is his humbleness and openness to new ideas. It is impossible for a student to feel defeated. It doesn’t matter what the idea happens to be. He is self-effacing, making brilliant jokes at his own expense. A stalwart in his field, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and encourages students in the class to have a more open and engaging discussion. He makes the learning so organic that it is impossible to miss nuances during sharing. It has been the safest space I have experienced in my life for anyone to learn and share.

There are downsides to attending his class. As students of Professor Seglin you have to get used to replies to your emails within 10 minutes after sending them. Usually, your outstanding peers give you imposter syndrome, but here the professor gives you one. Now attending other classes and writing to peers and professors, you start feeling uneasy if you don’t hear from them in an hour or so. While I’m very appreciative of this trait, it is not one that I will emulate when I am back in the classroom, I’m sure.

At HKS you usually book office hours for a 15-minute window. Seglin asks his students to walk in. I did once, just knocked on his door and he welcomed me in. No appointment was needed. There was no cap on the time. I could share my innermost thoughts with him and he became more than a teacher, he became a mentor for me.

I am not just taking back lessons on writing to India. I am also taking back lessons on how to teach, how to engage, and how to be empathetically present for your students. I hope someday I can be 10 percent of what Seglin is. It would be an achievement to institutionalize and take his methods.