Last Monday, I gave a brief presentation on Promoting Peer-to-Peer Teaching at the Royal Historical Society-sponsored History: New to Teaching workshop, hosted by the Institute of Historical Research. The session covered a range of topics, from power-dynamics to online collaboration, but the one that appeared to resonate most strongly was the psychology of seating.
Lasting between one and two hours, the undergraduate seminar has many purposes. At its most basic, it can help students clarify their lecture and reading materials, allowing them to ask follow-up questions or bounce ideas off their tutor regarding their interpretations of historical events and concepts. Moving up Bloom’s Taxonomy, seminars also allow students to demonstrate their understanding through prepared presentations or develop their analytical skills through discussions with their peers. Properly engaged, seminars can evolve into full-blown historigraphical debates, where students sharpen their arguments and hone their use of evidence in the heat of battle. The relatively small size of seminar groups also allows hands-on research, either in the creation of historiographical objects, such as museum or digital exhibits, or in the modelling of research methodologies. In all cases, seminars provide one of the most important sites of disciplinary socialisation, encouraging students to identify themselves as historians and their peers as colleagues.
The process of socialisation is, however, fraught with challenges, most notably classroom power dynamics. These may stem from subconscious responses to gender, race, class, and age, or the manner in which the tutor and students project and perceive each other’s authority. They can also stem from the simple physical arrangement of the seminar room, its chairs and tables, lecterns and levels.
In some cases, these are fixed. A semi-circular hall with bolted, tiered seating swooping towards the lecturer’s pit and PowerPoint console. Others are seemingly mutable, but either a superabundance or paucity of furniture prevents an ideal arrangement. In all cases, tightly packed time-tables discourage guerilla restructuring of these spaces to suit the needs of individual sessions.
Yet, accepting that some students will be unable to assist you, even a small cadre of volunteer movers can transform your learning space in moments, and the cultivating of a shared vocabulary allows for two even three changes in a single session. Indeed, considering humanity’s ever-shrinking twenty-minute attention span, a one-hour seminar should consist of no fewer than two distinct stages.
Each arrangement has its own strengths, weaknesses and psychology. Perhaps the most familiar arrangements are theatre and classroom seating. The former, with its rows of evenly spaced seats directly facing a single speaker, has two key characteristics. The first is the clear power imbalance between the speaker and the audience. Attention is forced forward, with few if any opportunities for lateral interactions. Moreover, the lack of writing spaces, tables or desks, demands that attention remain focused on the speaker rather than be split between the information being transmitted and that being integrated through note-taking or reflective writing. Second, the seating arrangement encourages stationary viewing and listening; it is a fundamentally audio-visual experience rather than a oral or kinaesthetic one. These are not necessarily negative traits, depending on the context. Classroom seating, by allowing or even expecting note-taking or individualised workspaces, naturally splits the attention of the audience and the flow of the lecture, particularly of a visual narrative, may be irrevocably lost.
Seminars, particularly graduate seminars, usually strive for more egalitarian seating arrangements. The boardroom, with students and tutors spaced around a single, rectangular table (or table-like structure) allows for a roughly even distribution of eye contact across the entire group as well as generally promoting a more formal, measured discussion between peers. The table allows for note-taking, or consultation, as well as the examination of primary or material sources. The placement of the tutor in this arrangement is crucial; the narrow heads of the table inevitably refocus attention to the ‘boss’, while those in the corners can, often purposefully, avoid eye contact and, by extension, contributing to the group discussion. Tribal side-ism can also develop, even in the most multi-polar debates. The more expansive U-shaped or hollow-square configurations may prevent corner camouflage, but also raise the volume of debate, if only to be heard across the wider distance.
More informal arrangements, such as the chair circle (or, as is more usually the case in academia, the amorphous oblong circle-like shape) can promote egalitarian discussion and, like King Arthur, the tutor will usually be able to look each student in the eye as they speak, shifting attention away from themselves. If possible, purposefully leaving a few unoccupied seats around the circle allows the tutor to unobtrusively shift from place to place, keeping themselves opposite whichever student is currently speaking, particularly if they will be speaking for any length of time. Likewise, cabaret and ballroom seating around individual, usually circular, tables, allow students to engage in simultaneous group work. The former allows for quick transitions between lecturer-centred discussions and modular activities, the instructor flitting from group to group, while the latter reinforces the compartmentalisation of the cohort, allowing for discrete, insular activities, free from lecture-style interruptions.
In particularly large spaces, setting up discrete areas in different arrangements — for example, a boardroom table and a chair circle — can encourage students to abandon their belongs in one space or the other, shifting and resetting their attention. In situations where radically altering the furniture during a session is impracticable, the use of the U-shape, with wide spacing on all sides, allows relatively hassle-free movement between large group discussions around the outside of the U, discrete group discussions, with half the students moving along the inner edge to face their peers, and lecture-led methodology modelling, making use of the projector or whiteboard at the front.
In the end, every seating arrangement has its own psychology, implicit or otherwise, that must be considered in order to organise an effective seminar. Moreover, the mindful transitioning between hierarchical and egalitarian arrangements, and the careful positioning of the tutor in places of power and passivity, can develop a cohort of thoughtful and confident historians.
Finally, never forget, a clear path for all students to the nearest exit is an absolute must.
**Image Courtesy of Allen Lai