Explaining Seminars

Over the past few posts, I have been pondering the rewards of student discussion and whether or not my current teaching style makes these both clear and attainable. As a researcher, I find that scholarly discussion can be extremely rewarding because it allows for immediate feedback, as well as immediate revision, to produce a more coherent and sophisticated argument. I take this view of scholarly discussion because of piece of advice given to me by one of my favourite undergraduate professors.

When he asked (or shall I say, cornered) me during a seminar for my opinion on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, I found myself at a loss for words. I had read the required reading, and I believed that I had understood its contents, but when push came to shove I could not express my opinion in the seminar environment. I managed something along the lines of “I know it, but I don’t know how to say it.” Dr Lucas, marvellous teacher that he was, did not let me get away with this. He calmly responded “If you can’t express it, then you don’t really understand it.”

I’ve taken that bit of advice to heart over the past ten years, and tried to pass on his words of wisdom. Yet, I remember all too well how most of my classmates reacted to his advice. They were annoyed, frustrated and several dropped the course in the first few weeks. They felt they were being picked on because they had not immediately given the correct answer.

Years later, I have become increasingly interested in how my own students perceive seminar discussion; what sort of language they use, how the present themselves when speaking and how they reflect upon seminars in their end-of-year feedback forms. I have noticed the following speaking strategies:

  1. All the world’s a show – Many students believe seminars are a chance to demonstrate their intelligence to their tutor and their peers. They are very careful about their word choice and timing. If you look closely, you can tell that they are mentally rehearsing what they will say in the minutes before they speak.
  2. Approval! – Many students believe there are definite right and wrong answers, at least in terms of what will be acceptable on future assessment. They listen very carefully to your intonation and try to work out what you want to hear by the way your phrase your questions. They are also the most likely students to fundamentally alter their opinion mid-sentence if you furrow your brow while they are speaking.
  3. The ostrich syndrome – Simply put, these student believe that if they avoid direct eye contact you won’t notice them.
  4. Let’s agree to disagree – These students believe that they should be engaging in conversation with both the tutor and their peers, but in a very brief and furious fashion. If someone makes a point with which they disagree, they will (with varying degrees of civility) counter that point with their own opinion. After one or more volleys back and forth, the two sides will, in the name of civil discourse, agree to disagree, concluding the conversation without either modifying their opinion.
  5. Let you entertain me – A large proportion of my students find my seminars “very enjoyable” and “very interesting”. I would love to take this as a compliment. If they were discussing my lectures, I absolutely would. But the way their feedback is phrased, I can’t help but think that some of my students are referring not to interesting or enjoyable conversation, but rather to enjoyable or interesting information, which they have obtained through passively listening to me and the more dominant students of the group.

None of these discussions strategies are wrong and most people will use all of them at one time or another. But the magnificent Socratic dialogue I yearn for remains elusive. It appears now and again, almost tauntingly, only to disperse again into the ether.

What is crucial, however, is that my students do not all employ the same strategy. If they did, it would imply that I had given the wrong message about the goals of seminar discussion. That they have all approached it in different ways implies that I have given no clear message at all.So, as I finalise my syllabi for the upcoming year, I must sit down and attempt to answer the question:

What is the purpose of a seminar?

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