To 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.
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.
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.