Teaching Tax – At Home and Abroad

by Jennifer Bird-Pollan

I’ve just finished my sixth year of teaching tax at the University of Kentucky, which is longer than I’ve done any other professional task, but I still feel like I’m a beginner.  I have started to develop strong classroom preferences (students may not use computers in my classes, I prefer lots of participation, and I prefer textbooks that elucidate concepts, rather than trying to hide the ball).  But at the same time I have many more questions about the best way to do this work (what should I cover and leave out, given the time constraints?  how can I encourage students to prepare seriously ahead of time, while still giving robust answers to student questions in class?).  I am eager to hear from others, both my co-bloggers and visitors, what they think about these issues, and I plan to devote future blog posts to some of my thoughts about these questions.  However, having just finished teaching “International Aspects of U.S. Tax Law” at the Vienna University of Economics and Business for the second time, I thought I’d focus here on some of the differences I have observed teaching U.S. income tax law abroad.  

Last year, as the Fulbright Visiting Professor at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, I taught a course on basics of U.S. tax law with a particular focus on international  tax issues.  The incredibly impressive Michael Lang, who has built up a world-renowned Institute for Austrian and International Tax Law, invited me to return to teach the course again this year, and I have recently agreed to teach it again next year as well.

Last year I asked to teach the course in the format I am most accustomed to – once weekly for two hours over the course of the semester.  However, because the WU offers many courses taught by visiting faculty, often practitioners in their fields, courses are more often offered in blocked form, lasting all day for several days in a row.  This is how I taught the course this year.  While teaching for two full days straight can be exhausting, the intensity of the experience can be rewarding as well.  The students and I were able to carry on extended conversations over the course of the class, and we all seemed very invested for the time that we were there.  I hope they learned a lot from the course, but it does seem to me more likely to have material really sink in if you have a week between sessions to process the new information.  Blocked schedules like this probably work better for some kinds of courses than for others.

Because there are many fundamental differences between the U.S. and Austrian tax systems, I have found that teaching Austrian law students about U.S. international tax law requires teaching them first about some fundamental principles of U.S. law more generally.  For instance, this year I started by talking about the U.S. Constitution, and about the fundamental principles of federalism.  We talked about how there is no federal property or contract law, and how all business entities are products of state law.  All of this means, of course, that U.S. federal tax law is dependent on the various laws of the states in important ways, which is a set of circumstances that is relatively unfamiliar to lawyers coming from different legal systems.

On the first day of the course I introduced several basic principles of U.S. tax law to the Austrian students.  I was amused to see that, nearly to a person, the students were most surprised to learn that treasure trove was income.  They insisted that finding money on the street would NOT be income in Austria.  I had already learned that lottery winnings are not taxable as income here, and I think my students are right about treasure trove as well.  Discovering these differences led to a discussion of horizontal equity and other principles of tax policy, which are things I emphasize repeatedly over the course of the term when I teach basic income tax in the U.S.  I’m not sure how often these principles are covered in Austrian tax law courses, but discussions I have had with Austrian tax academics, as well as my co-blogger Shu-Yi Oei’s recent post about comparative tax scholarship, makes me think that such things are not the focus of tax courses in Europe generally.

My Austrian students will take their exam at the end of this week, and part of the challenge of this course has been designing an exam that accurately reflects what we discussed during this set of intensive sessions, while not unfairly asking too much of them.  Of course, perhaps this is the challenge of exam drafting more generally!

I would love to hear in the comments from others who have taught U.S. tax law courses outside of the U.S.  What are the things you make sure to cover?  What do you find to be the particular challenges of such courses?  What are main differences you see between your U.S. students and your non-U.S. students?  Do courses need to be tailored differently in different countries to fit the needs of those particular students?  I am in discussions to offer a similar course next year in Cologne, Germany at the Institute for Tax Law at the university in that city, but my experiences so far have been limited to the German speaking world.

Teaching U.S. tax law outside of the United States has influenced the way I think about teaching when I am back at home, and gives more context to my understanding of our system.  I hope to be able to continue doing it in future years.


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