Q and A with Colin Miller

Colin Miller came to the School of Law in July 2012 and teaches courses on evidence, criminal law and criminal adjudication. He is the creator of EvidenceProf Blog, which was recently listed as one of the ABA Journal’s Top 100 Blogs. In 2014, he became the new associate dean for faculty development.

You were selected by the students to receive the Outstanding Faculty Award last April, with some describing your class as “fun,” “engaging,” and “witty.” How did you develop your teaching style, and what drives your passion for teaching?

I developed my teaching style by focusing on creating classes I would have liked to take as a law student. As such, I incorporate a good deal of trial footage/film clips into my classes. Each class session, I give students outlines covering all of the testable material we will cover to streamline note taking. In class, I utilize the Problem Method, pursuant to which concepts are primarily learned through short hypotheticals drawn from actual, recent cases. Each semester, I administer an ungraded midterm and allow students to meet with me to discuss their performance and how to improve for the final exam. Through these and other methods, I seek to reduce student stress while making the classroom experience enriching.

In your new position, how do you envision increasing faculty engagement?

First, I’ve continued efforts started by my predecessor, the fabulous Lisa Eichhorn: faculty brown bag lunches, where we discuss everything from exam writing to encouraging class participation and faculty works-in progress presentations, where professors at all stages of the writing/editing process can get feedback. Second, I want to get people around the country to view the law school from a fresh perspective. We’ve hired a number of new faculty members over the past few years and will be moving into our new facility in a couple more. This gives the law school a chance to rebrand itself while building upon the things we have been doing well for years. I hope to promote our faculty through social media and encourage publishing in a variety of platforms beyond traditional law reviews such as blogs, online law review supplements and amicus briefs.

You came to USC Law after five years at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. How you have you enjoyed your transition to living in the South?

I grew up in Virginia Beach, so returning to the southeast feels like a return to my roots. There are so many wonderful things that Columbia has to offer, from the weather to the people to the culture. The faculty at the law school have been extremely welcoming, and I have found the students here to be exceptionally respectful and engaged.

Your blog has found great success. Why did you decide to start it, and what advice would you give those who may be interested in starting their own legal blog?

When stepping into academia, I wanted to keep a toe dipped into what was going on in the legal trenches. EvidenceProf Blog was an attempt to keep current on emerging evidentiary issues while writing about them in a manner that would be accessible to legal experts as well as those interacting with the law for the first time. The advice I would give to those interested in starting a blog is to be willing to share your own perspective. I think that most people like to read blogs to get some value added to regular news stories. I often find that my most popular posts are when I disagree with the opinion of a court or share why some new law or policy will have a positive impact.

You’ve written a series of posts about the podcast “Serial,” which deals with the prosecution of 17 year old Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend in 1999. Why did you start writing about “Serial?”

My colleague Claire Raj introduced me to it, and I was instantly hooked. In addition to being a compelling narrative, it also touched on so many concepts that I discuss in my classes: hearsay, character evidence, expert evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, etc. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve received good feedback from those in the legal community, and have also been contacted by a number of non-lawyers who are getting their first significant exposure to the American criminal justice system. I try to write in a way that is both accessible to the lay person and technical enough to appeal to attorneys.

Have you (and if so, how) used the podcast and Syed’s case in the classes you teach?

I haven’t explicitly used it in class, but I have used some of the concepts discussed in it such as cell tower pings and the admissibility of statements in diaries and letters. I’ve also had a few law professor contact me who were interested in using the case as the basis for hypotheticals and exams.

What led you to a career in law (and then into academia)?

My grandfather served in World War II and was later diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. For years, he engaged in a legal battle with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs to have his MS deemed combat-induced. His persistence over the years inspired me to become a lawyer. As for entering academia, I come from a family of teachers and feel like teaching is in my blood. From back in my teenage days serving as an assistant coach for youth sports teams, I have always loved the process of trying to make the difficult seem easy and seeing the growth in those around me.

When you’re not teaching or writing, how do you like relax and unwind?

Spending time with my wife, tennis, swimming, movies, and fiction writing.