Mastering the Human Event: Socratic Seminar Behaviors

lectureTo excel in the Human Event or any Socratic seminar course, you must acquire and develop certain behaviors. In today’s post I want to describe some of the key behaviors that will make a good impression on your instructor and equip you with positive habits of thinking, studying, and acting. I will also point out some of the most common misbehaviors you should avoid.

You can think of your seminar (and for that matter, all of your classes) as a job. You show up on time ready to work, do your work, and get paid for your performance. Behaviors your boss is unhappy with are likely to be the same for your Instructor. In short, the class is your job, your Instructor is your boss, and your grade is your paycheck.

1. Prepare. Do your research before the semester begins, and get yourself ready before each and every class session during the course.

2. Review. Periodically review the course syllabus and any other guidelines provided by the instructor. This series is a survival guide, right? Well, the syllabus is your map. What good is a map that you only look at once before the real trip begins? Look at your map frequently so you know where you’ve been, where you’re going, and what the landmarks are.

3. Check Blackboard. Regularly check the course Blackboard site maintained by your instructor for new materials, links, files, etc. Instructors often post additional course documents with detailed discussions, guidelines, tips, and evaluation criteria on the course Blackboard. You should carefully examine and periodically review these. Study questions, assignments, announcements, and other supplemental and pertinent information will often be available on Blackboard. I occasionally drop a link to a website or news story related to a recent or upcoming reading. I monitor who bothers to click through, which, if you do, tells me you’re doing more than just the minimum for the course. Also, Blackboard provides instructors with detailed statistical reports. For every document, assignment, blog post, or file, I can see who has viewed it and when. This is especially enlightening when it comes to your paper assignments. Students who only bother to look at the assignment a week or less before it is due tells me that they are not giving themselves adequate time to produce high quality writing.

4. Read and annotate the assigned texts. I put these together because to read without annotating is almost always a waste of your time. You can’t mine the texts for their wealth if you don’t interact with them by writing while you read. Many of the readings are strange and difficult. You should expect to have to read them twice or more. Read closely: identify key terms, ideas, characters, themes, and so on. Express these in your own words. Annotate in the margins. Journal your thoughts. Block arguments (avoid the 5-paragraph model). Don’t waste your time with Sparknotes and its ilk.Discuss

5. Before the class meets write down some good questions to ask or topics to raise in class. Make sure you prepare enough content to your question or topic to give your classmates something that they can chew on and respond to. “Plato’s Republic is neither platonic nor republican. Discuss!” does nothing to show that you actually read the work in question. Self-evaluate the questions and ideas you’ve prepared to raise in the class discussion by asking yourself: “Does this question/point indicate that I’ve read the whole assignment closely?” If yes, then go for it. Or, put another way, “Could someone who just scanned the Wiki come up with the same question/point?” If yes, then try again.

6. Be on time. If you’re going to be late regularly, then inform your Instructor and work out arrangements with them.

7. Bring your text and any other materials you’ll need for the session to class. Nothing says “I didn’t do the reading” and “I’ve got better things to do” quite like failing to bring your text.

8. Stay engaged during the seminar. Sit upright; don’t slouch. Have your book and notes open in front of you. Make eye contact with people in the room, and especially when you speak, with those whom you are speaking to. Don’t look down at your hands or the floor, especially when your Instructor is speaking. Listen actively. Don’t carry on a side conversation with a neighbor while someone else is speaking. Be receptive to others pointing out any distracting behaviors you may have (clicking pens, eyerolling, foot waggling, finger tapping, etc.).

9. Be civil. Learn to disagree without being hostile or dismissive. Passive-aggressive remarks, frequent interruptions, eyerolling, or other negative body language is disrespectful to your classmates and your Instructor. It’s a social group: the Golden Rule applies well. Oh, and contrary to a lot of online behaviors, stridency is almost always inversely proportional to the merits of what is claimed.

10. Think and speak for yourself. If your position is grounded in a proposition of this form, “I think a because that’s what X says,” then someone else is doing your thinking for you. When you analyze a text, argument, or topic, it doesn’t matter which team you’re on. Don’t be a parrot. You stand or fall by your own reasoning. Put down the intellectual crutches. You can pick them up again after class if you still need them.

11. And related to the above, don’t BS. Saith Frankfurt, “the essence of BS is not that it is false but that it is phony.” BSing is bluffing. The BSer is misrepresenting himself or herself, and though both lying and BSing are done with the intent to deceive, BSing is not the same kind of misrepresentation as lying. A liar purports to tell the truth about something but misrepresents the way things actually are. The BSer misrepresents himself as knowing more than he actually knows. The BSer is not concerned with the truth. A statement is BS if it is “grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of [BS].” So saith Frankfurt. And well said it is. NB: Your HFF has a finely tuned BS detector. You don’t want to set it off.

12. Take a few moments as soon as you are able after class to jot down some reactions to the discussion. Some of the best insights and ideas are achieved during the class discussion and these can often be revisited in later discussions and used to develop essay topics or arguments.

13. Turn off your cell phone while in class. Exception: you have a documented need or emergency situation. Talk to your Instructor about it so they can be prepared to handle any necessary disruption that occurs.

14. Start your essay three weeks before it is due. Yes, three. Weeks. I’ll post more essay writing tips in future posts.

15. Turn in your own work. Don’t plagiarize. Not sure if you have? Don’t stress, just get informed. Here’s an excellent and thorough guide.

16. Communicate with your HFF.

17. Get your skubalon together. Don’t make excuses. Be professional. If you need some accommodation to perform the class work that is expected of you, be sure to get your disability documented. Your Instructor will work with you.

Make a checklist of these behaviors for yourself and self-monitor your performance. Discuss them with your Instructor.

Next tutorial topic: a mini-series on class participation.

Mastering the Human Event: Socratic Seminar Dynamics


greenhouseIn today’s post I’d like to explore with you the sort of environment to expect and the dynamics of the Socratic seminar.

So what is a seminar?

As with so many characteristics of the modern university, we can look to nineteenth century Germany for the antecedents. It was there that the seminar took on the particular sense of a regular meeting of a small group of students with Herr Doktor to discuss the ideas and knowledge within the professor’s expertise. Today, that translates to the kind of course you take at the highest level of graduate school work.

But ‘seminar’ further derives from the Latin seminarium, which long ago was most often applied to what we would call a plant nursery or breeding area. We also get the English word ‘seminary’ from the same source, which is a type of school where students are trained in theology and the ministerial professions.

I think it is very helpful to keep the meaning of seminarium in mind for your Human Event seminar because that reflects pretty closely what sort of environment it is. It is a place where things–your minds–are cultivated and encouraged to grow and strengthen, eventually reaching a maturity that prepares you to be out of the seminarium and thriving in an unsheltered environment.

To push the analogy even further, consider the constant warm temperature of the seminarium as the safe yet open environment of the seminar classroom wherein you are protected from hostile conditions and free to develop your intellectual powers in optimum growing conditions.

Consider the soil, nutrients and light the seeds and young shoots in the seminarium need to grow to be your texts. They are the food for your mind. They are selected by your instructor because, as your cultivator, they have found a specific mixture of texts to stimulate good growth in their charges.

If you consume and digest the food (read the texts closely, annotate, (photo)synthesize ideas, and prepare to discuss them), you grow and strengthen, and you exhale beneficial things like oxygen to the larger environment that sustained and fed you. Good digestion leads to good respiration. This “output” is your informed, thoughtful, reflective participation in the seminar, and ability to contribute to the common good of the wider community.

Eventually, you bud or sprout new growth of your own. In the conversation of ideas between you, the authors, your instructor, and your classmates, your own ideas take better shape. You put out your very own new branch or leaf, a material growth that we can liken to your written assignments.

I think you get the idea…

A Socratic seminar means that the primary style of interaction between discussants exhibits the Socratic method of elenchus, of interrogation and dialogue that aims to unearth and disclose the basic concepts one deploys in theses and arguments, and examine these for logical consistency. NB: you are cross-examining each others’ theses and arguments that are grounded in the text, not the author of the text. (You will find that some fellow discussants will often stand in as a proxy of the author’s, arguing on behalf of what they think are the merits of the author’s assumptions, theses, or arguments, or the implications thereof.)

The dynamics of the seminar are largely dependent on the approach of your HFF. Recall that their job is to introduce and teach you about some of the “key social and intellectual currents” of human history. So there will always be /some/ direction and information coming from the HFF to you. The diversity of HFFs means, however, that the distribution of air time for students’ speaking will vary from HFF to HFF, sometimes very significantly. The target that HFFs are advised to shoot for is about 30% HFF, 70% students, but this breakdown is just a consensus suggestion. This is an important reason to do your research before selecting your HFF, or, if you’re already in a Human Event section, do the same research I’ve suggested so that you can better know who your HFF is, what guidelines they give you in their syllabus, and whether their approach is more disciplinarian or exploratory.

Some HFFs will be front-and-center, clearly leading most of the topics of discussion and asking the questions. This dynamic is one in which most of the dialogue “goes through” the instructor, a call-and-response kind of exchange. A subset of HFFs who use this approach also do most of the talking during the class, the sage-on-the-stage. In any event, however, you need to understand the discussion etiqphilo-medievaluette the HFF expects from you and the group. The times when your input is welcome may be regulated closely, perhaps by systematically calling on individual students to read from the text, give a response to a prepared reading or discussion question provided earlier by the HFF, or respond to a specific question or issue posed by the instructor. Or your input may be limited to when the HFF gets tired of talking and waves you in with a general invitation to comment.

Other HFFs have a light hand on the rudder, allowing or even demanding that students learn to take the lead in raising topics, identify text-based problems to solve or questions to answer, and otherwise steer and drive the discussion. Many of these HFFs also expect the conversation to NOT go through them, but rather that students respond to and interact with each other. The HFF may prefer to remain in the background of the discussion most of the time, chiming in occasionally to correct an error (though students should be the first responders when a classmate is inaccurate), moving the discussion along to another issue, or asking an unexpected or uncomfortable question.

The dynamics of any given Human Event section will often be very clearly either HFF-driven or student-driven. But some HFFs take a multiplex approach, mixing up the dynamics from time to time, and you need to be flexible enough to adjust to those dynamics from session to session. Every instructor you have at the university teaches differently and has different expectations about your presence in the class; HFFs are no different, so get used to adjusting your conduct and performance based on the individual instructor, not the course name.

It should be clear from the range of seminar dynamics that are possible that the way you prepare for each class meeting is going to differ depending on what dynamics your HFF creates and expects. Actually, that’s not quite right. The way you prepare may be very consistent across different HFFs, but your conduct in the seminar will be different, sometimes strikingly different, depending on whether your HFF takes an approach that is hands-on, hands-off, or something in-between.

In my next post, I’m going to cover some general conduct do’s and don’ts, and then we’ll dig into the nitty-gritty details of developing your discussion skills.

Mastering the Human Event: Communicating with Professors


In this post I wilowl-postl focus on how to speak with and write to your Human Event seminar instructor (aka HFF).

The following guidelines apply to communicating with professors of all of your classes, so adapt them as you need. The most common way that you will likely interact with your HFF is by email. So let’s cover a few do’s and don’ts about that.

1. Do read the syllabus carefully to understand the HFF’s own rules regarding email procedures. That may tell you all you need to know. Otherwise, read on and adopt the following approach.

2. Do include a clear and specific subject. Don’t leave the subject blank. Make sure that you announce in the subject line what your email is about: a specific writing assignment, a question about a grade you received, a request for additional information about a policy or an assignment, and so on.

3. Do adopt a formal voice in the body of your email. Although HFFs will differ about the level of informality they prefer in communication from and with students, it is best to err on the side of formality. So always begin your email with a standard letter salutation, like “Dear Dr X,” – do not write “Hi Professor!” or “Hi!” or no salutation at all.

4. Do use the appropriate title: “Dr or “Prof” are fine. Why? Because they earned it and it is simply good manners to show due respect for their achievement and status. Don’t use “Ms,” “Mr,” “Mrs,” or “Miss” because (a) these titles do not reflect the professional status of the HFF and (b) academic style avoids gendered language.

5. In the body of your email, get to the point, stick to the point, and end it. Your Human Event instructor is a very busy person. They do a lot more than typical tenured, disciplinary faculty, and they don’t get paid as much as their tenured colleagues. This makes us grumpy. Respect their time and workload by limiting your message to what you need to know. They will appreciate it!

6. Do use an appropriate closing:

Thank you,

Robert the Bruce

Your HFF is more accessible to you than any of your other teachers at university, including most graduate student teaching assistants. Don’t abuse that accessibility by stalking behaviors or being over-familiar with them. Your HFF is incredibly friendly and funny, yes, but they are not in your peer group. If you’re not sure about the appropriate boundaries in how and when to communicate with your HFF, then ask to discuss this with them. They will be more than happy to do so.

Basically, anything you do to communicate with your HFF should show that (a) you are going to adopt a professional posture toward them, (b) you respect their position, and (c) you respect their time. Conducting yourself maturely and as a serious person will go a long way toward establishing a great rapport with your HFF.

Although the majority of this post concerns communication by email, I encourage you to speak with your HFF regularly, too. Some HFFs will require meetings with you to discuss your papers or other assignments. But others will not. Pay attention to their posted office hours and make a point to visit three or four times in the semester, or once a month. There’s always something that is course-related that you could (and probably should) ask about, or arrange ahead of time by email to discuss something in person so that your HFF can be prepared.

Again, don’t abuse their accessibility. HFFs will often be in their offices outside their posted office hours. Avoid unannounced visits at those times. They are probably there because they need to work on other projects, assignments, grading, research, and so on that may have nothing to do with the Human Event. Respect their space and time. That said, many HFFs encourage you to arrange office visits at times outside their posted office hours, but make sure that you do this in advance and in writing. We often have 10 things we’re thinking about at once, and if you only request a visit verbally, like mentioning it after class, your HFF might forget. So put your request in writing. Owl post is appreciated.

And by all means, show up when you say you will! Do not be late. And don’t give late notice for canceling. “Late notice” here is a phrase that means “less than 24 hours.”

Finally, I want to reiterate that your HFF may have already covered some or all of these matters in their syllabus, so read it closely. And feel free to use the guidelines I’ve suggested here as a springboard to have this discussion with your HFF.

Mastering the Human Event: Selecting A Teacher

I said, "Bow!"

I said, “Bow!”

After a seasonal pause in this series for you, the prospective or new Human Event student, I want to give you some advice about how to select your Instructor.

This is a surprisingly easy decision. That is, unless your goals don’t really overlap with the College’s educational goals for you. For example, if your main criterion for selecting your Human Event instructor is “Who is easiest?” or “Who gives the most A’s?”, then you can close this browser tab now because you’re wasting your time here, not to mention the privilege afforded by Honors education.

The reason selecting a teacher for your Human Event course is an easy decision is because the College has already done an incredible amount of work selecting its faculty. The current Barrett faculty are the primary investigators and decision-makers for hiring new faculty in a nation-wide search. They know how to identify strong teachers, student-centered educators, scholars committed to Honors education, winsome and effective colleagues, and all the other characteristics that make Barrett faculty unique and the best teachers in higher education. So you can take this to the bank: any Human Event Instructor you select is a good choice.

But you may also want to know whether or not the instructor’s interests and approach to the course will suit you. That’s a reasonable criterion, too, and I want to spend the rest of the post giving you some guidance about that.

Every Barrett Instructor, aka Honors Faculty Fellow, has a PhD. That means that they have particular expertise in their academic area of study. This is often expressed on a CV as an Area of Specialization, or AOS, which is the subject area in which the faculty member has their scholarship and research focus (if their degree is a theory-based knowledge area). They will also have related areas of expertise that they picked up along the way in their graduate education called Areas of Competence, or AOCs.

1. So the first thing you ought to do is go to the directory of Barrett HFFs, find the link to their CVs, and look at their academic discipline, their AOS and their AOCs. The CV has lots of other good information to help you get to know what the scholar’s interests are: the courses they teach or have taught, their publications and conference papers, presentations, and thesis and graduate work they have directed. Write down a list of HFFs whose education and scholarly activity interest you.

2. Next, you ought to research the approach of the HFF to the Human Event. For this you should look at the Human Event syllabusesboth semesters–that the HFF has posted. Read the Course Description carefully. There is a standardized course description that all Human Event syllabuses will have, so what you should focus on is the description added by the HFF. This will give you an insight into how that particular HFF conceptualizes the course and what they especially care about in teaching it.

I’ve already mentioned that my Reading List is mostly printed books and that digital texts have to be printed for annotating and use in class. This, of course, is a matter of pedagogical practice preferred by the HFF, and there is no one right way to use texts in the course. I find printed books and excerpts the best practice. I find it sets a particular material context in the classroom that lends itself to effective person-to-person dialogue, which is a very important course goal for me, and it provides an easy means of checking student preparation to discuss the material. But YMMV.

Next you should look at the Expectations and Grading Breakdown. There are two basic areas that compose your grade: participation and writing. Within these two areas there can be a lot of variety.

Some HFFs break out participation into in-class discussions, attendance, and other forms of showing that you are engaged with the course. Read the HFF’s description of this component carefully. It should be clear to what extent the HFF expects you and your classmates to carry on an informed, competent, and thoughtful in-class discussion on your own, and what the role of the HFF will be in that. If the description of participation is mostly general in expectations or assessment, then email the HFF and ask a specific question that will help you understand what the discussions are supposed to be like.

The writing component is usually a bit more straight-forward. All HFFs require three argumentative essays, though the form these essays take can vary. Some HFFs may have a journal assignment, or short reflection essays, or a quote mining assignment, or in-class writing exercises, or quizzes. Some may break down the first essay into separate assignments or a process of drafting, peer review, and revision. If you’ve identified HFFs that interest you from Step 1, but you want to learn more about their participation or writing assignments, then email them your question. (I will cover communication etiquette in the next post.)

Go back to the Reading List for a moment. Look at each reading assignment and classify it. What kind of text is it? Poem, theater, philosophy, musical piece, visual art, religious text, history, personal narrative, didactic, theoretical treatise, etc. Consider the variety of these types of text. Does the syllabus concentrate on particular types of texts and perspectives, or is it all over the place? Now you should reflect on two things:

1. Recall your goals. Which kind of Reading List is going to challenge you, provoke you, push you to encounter perspectives and ideas you do not share?

2. Compare the HFF’s scholarly expertise with the Course Description and Reading List of their Human Event syllabuses. How much does the HFF’s scholarship and the Human Event Reading List overlap? Here’s my own advice about what to do with this information. As we’ve examined in the earlier posts describing the purpose of the Honors College and the Human Event, there’s a high value implied in pushing outside one’s knowledge comfort zone. Based on their syllabuses, you can evaluate how an HFF values this criterion.

Suppose they have an Economics PhD and specialize in International Market Dynamics (I just made that up, I have no idea if that is a thing or not). And their Reading List, especially in the second semester (HON 272), has quite a few selections of economics literature, and it’s clear that they really want you to have a good introduction to economics and their own areas of interest. There’s not a thing wrong with that, but it is pretty clearly not the sign of a scholar who is comfortable too far outside their area of expertise. And that, by the way, is typical for the modern academy, so don’t read that as a negative judgment except as it applies to the institution of higher education today. To endure the rigors of a graduate education and obtain the specialized knowledge necessary to pass doctoral examinations in one’s disciplinary area is rarely compatible with a scholar who is committed to broad reading and learning, exploring from within areas of human experience they find difficult to understand or appreciate, or of creating courses that will foster the habits of mind needed to critically engage “the key social and intellectual currents in human history.”

On the other hand, if the HFF is, say, an engineer but her Reading List has significant time spent on poetry and drama and novels and art, then you know that’s an HFF who strives to be a generalist and is as open to and interested in knowledge outside her field as in it. If I had to break down HFFs into two groups, these hypothetical examples illustrate some of their characteristics. Group 1 is Disciplinarian (as in focused on their scholarly discipline and related offshoots) while Group 2 is Exploratory. These outlooks affect the content that the HFF selects for their Human Event sections, and to some extent, the type of assignments you will do in the course. There are strengths and weaknesses to both groups, so put some thought into which approach might align better with your goals. Of course, it’s possible to value both approaches, but usually one is clearly favored over the other, especially in the second semester (HON 272).

My advice is that you give little regard for how closely the HFF’s scholarly area overlaps with your own major and focus more on understanding the HFF’s approach to the course so that you can identify one that matches well with your own goals for your Human Event experience.