Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion

It’s January. The beginning of another semester. It’s cold and your commitment to attend class is being tested.


Winter isn’t coming. It’s HERE. It’s time to buckle down and get stuff done.

I’ve updated a series of posts I published last year on how to do discussion in a Socratic seminar. I’m calling this the “Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion” series. In today’s post, I’m going to list the five keys (I don’t want to keep you waiting!) and then over the next week I’ll dedicate a WHOLE post to EACH key. So stay tuned for my inside tips to crushing it in your seminar discussion.

The Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion

1. Focused Preparation

The key word there is focused. Well, preparation is pretty much a key word, too. But the problem with just telling you to “Have good preparation!” – duh – is that it’s too vague. You want to use your time wisely. So when you buckle down to prep for your seminar session, you want to make the most of your time. After all, you’ve got other classes to study for, too. This Key will be my next post.

2. Full Engagement

You may think you’re paying attention and ready to jump into a discussion. But your behaviors might be tells that something else is occupying your attention. I’m going to discuss the behaviors to avoid and the behaviors to adopt so that not only YOU know you’re engaged, but your INSTRUCTOR and CLASSMATES know you are, too.

3. Dialogue, not Diatribe

Seminar-Table-DiscussionWhen you open your mouth to speak, what’s your goal? What kind of discussion are you actually engaging in? Are you debating? Pontificating? Showing off? Defensive? Frustrated? What kind of discussion leads to the Course goal: understanding amazing ideas and great books and becoming a better thinker? This is one of my favorite topics to teach because it makes such a big difference in how much you learn and take away from the class.

4. Go to the Source

You’re prepared…check. You’re engaged…check. You’re developing those dialogue skills…check. Now what are you going to talk about? Content is king, they say. And your content came from the bookstore or Amazon. So this Key is all about how to make the text the star of your discussion.

5. Repurpose the Discussion

Overheard – 1: “That was a great class!” 2: “Iknowright?” And like a ship silently gliding away on the calm night waters, the content of the discussion is lost forever… When this happens it’s like your team winning a tough game after a lot of practice and preparation, and then quitting rather than going on to play for the championship. But a great discussion should be #winning beyond the bell for that class. In the final post I’ll show you what to do after the class is over and how to take the best material from the discussion and reuse it in the course … or even in other courses.

So these are the Five Keys to successful Socratic Seminar Discussion. Next we’re going to unpack each one in the next five posts. So stay tuned for loads more practical advice on succeeding in your seminar.

Socratic Method in Teaching and Learning

socratesYesterday NPR ran a good story on schools and teachers using the Socratic method in their classes in a variety of subjects. My own kids are fortunate to attend a public school that incorporates Socratic teaching in middle and high school.

The story quotes John Caelstrom making the crucial point about the aim of Socratic teaching: “Let’s not make this all about learning to gain information but to learn how to learn.”

In a good Socratic seminar you do “gain information” about the history, culture, author, and any number of facts, but the point isn’t merely to acquire the kind of information you can regurgitate on a short answer test or multiple-choice exam. It is instead to sharpen your mental acuity so that you can think through difficult problems and important questions, sift evidence, weigh propositions, and evaluate answers and solutions, all on your own. To encourage an awareness of what you don’t know together with an inquisitiveness and mental toolkit to seek out knowledge. As I emphasized in my tutorial, it is to gain new and healthy habits of mind, intellectual dispositions, that empower you to participate and lead in a democratic society.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll be starting a new series about the specific texts that one often finds on “Great Books” or “Great Ideas” courses. These will be very brief posts, very opinionated, and if given due consideration, I hope very helpful to you. Gilgamesh will be coming to your browser very soon.

Close Reading and Annotating (III)

Now that you have my System of annotating for close reading, let’s turn to your assignment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (HPSS), pp 213-4. My tools are a pencil or black pen, and colored pencils corresponding to my annotation system key (I use red, blue and green). I dislike highlighting–I find it very difficult to reread the original text again.

Mirror-ErisedThis excerpt is the end of Chapter 12, “The Mirror of Erised,” in which Dumbledore confronts Harry about using the Mirror, explains what it does, and why he doesn’t want Harry to seek it out any longer. I chose this selection from the text because I’ve actually used it for one of my published articles, “Kierkegaard’s Mirror (of Erised),” which I developed from a talk I gave in October 2011 at a philosophy conference held by Marymount Manhattan College: “Imagining Better: Philosophical Issues in Harry Potter.”

How did your close reading and annotations go? Let’s compare work. I’ll show you my annotated pages in their entirety, then I’ll zoom in on bits to explain how I applied my annotation System. I’ll describe my annotations, synthesizing the text with my paraphrased annotations in more unified, developed thoughts, and pose some non-obvious questions that follow from that. In other words, my commentary after each excerpt is the sort of thing I would write up in my journal or notebook, a step I’ve already demonstrated for two other sections of HPSS in the first post of this encore series).

First, here are the annotated pages 213-4 in their entirety:




Let’s work our way down the page and dig in to those details:


Some contextual remarks are in order. First, the chapter opens up on Christmas Day with Ron and Harry opening their presents. Dumbledore’s reference to Harry’s invisibility is because Harry is wearing a new gift he received anonymously, his father’s Invisibility Cloak. Harry had been wearing the cloak to sneak around Hogwarts Castle when he found the Mirror of Erised. This is Harry’s third visit to the Mirror. Side note: Rowling has put a lot of references to seeing, reflections, and appearances into this chapter; for example, the Mirror of Erised isn’t the first mirror that Harry uses in this chapter. Dumbledore’s cryptic remark that I note in red is to remind me not to take ‘nearsighted’ in its physical sense (because that would make Dumbledore’s statement nonsensical), but figure out in what other sense he means Harry is acting “nearsighted.”

I next noted that Dumbledore gives Harry a hint about the cause of Harry’s nearsightedness: the “the delights of the Mirror of Erised.” Its delights blind him to other things he should see. But what are the delights of the Mirror? I draw arrows to them: for Harry, it is seeing his family; for Ron, it is seeing himself as head boy (the top student position at Hogwarts, one that, after graduation, opens doors in magical society). So two very different images are found delightful by Harry and Ron. You see yourself in the Mirror, but the way the Mirror shows you is different for different viewers.



Dumbledore asks Harry to figure out what the Mirror shows any person who looks in it. I paraphrase this in blue: “What it does in general.” Now this isn’t a particularly useful paraphrase, but there are multiple ways to look at how and why Dumbledore asks Harry for the answer to this, so I simply note it with a blue comment.

Harry can’t figure it out, so Dumbledore gives the explanation. I put a bracket around this because it is critical information. I probably should have put a big star by it for that reason. I also scribble a note in green, which is my most important color for thinking about textual material that seems important to explore further, either in class discussion, in an essay, or both. So green comments are going to make it into my journal. The note says: “An implicit definition of happiness can be extracted here.” According to Dumbledore, the happiest man could use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror. So Harry and Ron cannot be the happiest people on earth because they don’t see themselves exactly as they are. Suppose Harry and Ron are, nevertheless, happy, (it is Christmas after all, and Harry received some nice gifts, certainly more than he expected) but only relatively happy in comparison to the happiest man. So one’s degree of happiness affects how one sees oneself in the Mirror. What, then, is different about the degree of happiness between Harry and the happiest man? Is it something that the happiest man possesses that Harry lacks, or is it something he lacks but that Harry has? What accounts for the difference? If I can identify this, then I can formulate an important claim: “According to the Mirror of Erised’s principle of operation, happiness is ____________________________.” In addition to the analysis I’ve done in this paragraph, I’ll compose an initial answer to this claim and record it in my journal.


In this excerpt, we get the answer from Dumbledore to the question “What does the Mirror show us all?” I circled some of the key words: ‘deepest’ and ‘most desperate’ are superlatives, which modify the noun ‘desire’. This desire is said to reside in “our hearts.” Dumbledore then connects this definition to what Harry and Ron saw when they gazed in the Mirror. For Harry, as I note in blue, he most desperately desires something he experiences as a profound loss: the presence of his family with him. For Ron, as I note on the other margin in blue, he most desperately desires status and recognition because his experience has been absent of these (as he sees it)–second youngest child in a large family, not particularly gifted academically or otherwise, and seemingly destined to be second fiddle to the winners, the powerful, the heroes, including his friend Harry Potter. There seems to be an intrinsic relationship between “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts” and our wounds. That is a curious and important relationship.

Another issue in this excerpt is what is meant by the heart. This must be something different than the mind or the emotions, for there are plenty of desires, even strong ones, that I am consciously aware of or whose pull or effects I feel. The heart seems to be that part of myself that is not easily accessed, much less controlled, by conscious reasoning or even self-will. There’s an interesting spatial description–“deepest”–rather than one connoting power like “weak” or “strong.” Indeed, Harry doesn’t seem consciously driven by his deepest desire; it operates in a more subtle way, though no less powerful than conscious, felt desires. The heart seems to be a name for my truest self, the core of who I really am, and it seems to be something very difficult, if not impossible, to see for myself under my own power. And the effects of the Mirror seem to indicate that even when I am confronted with the desire that most decisively shapes me, it does not register with my conscious self.


In this excerpt we get a very important change of direction signaled by Dumbledore’s “However….” He moves from a straightforward description of the Mirror to its moral implications. First, he says that the Mirror “will give us neither knowledge or truth.” I circled the key words ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’. Dumbledore’s claim seems obviously false. Doesn’t the Mirror show us at least one truthful thing, namely, the “deepest, most desperate desire of [one’s] heart?” Moreover, having seen an image of this desire in the Mirror, wouldn’t one then know what that desire is? Dumbledore’s further explanation helps resolve this apparent problem.

If you’re not the happiest man on earth, then you become “entranced” or even “driven mad” by what you see in the Mirror. So the Mirror does tell the truth because it accurately shows you the deepest desire of your heart, but in seeing that deepest desire on display, you become “entranced” or “driven mad,” both irrational states of mind. Seeing your true self impedes a rational, disinterested point of view on yourself. You can’t handle the truth about yourself. You become absorbed by the image rather than understand the implications of that image of yourself. You compensate this loss of self-lucidity with a self-deception or self-absorption; therefore, the truth that it shows you about yourself is not a truth you can appropriate on your own. The happiest man on earth is the polar opposite of a narcissist.

The danger of the Mirror, then, is its combined effects of delighting and entrancing the viewer. Until Dumbledore intervenes, Harry’s deepest desire and the pleasure he experiences indulging in its contemplation, overrules his good sense, his awareness of his surroundings, his empathy for Ron and others, and so on. This gives us enough information to infer a definition of happiness, albeit a negative one: “Happiness in not obtained by seeking to fulfill one’s desires.” Insofar as one derives happiness from pleasure or desire-satisfaction, one will “waste away” in front of the Mirror. This seems as good a time as any to ask a couple of questions beyond the world of the text: (1) Does this definition of happiness run with or against the grain of dominant views about happiness? [I need to further specify when and where these dominant views exist.] (2) Are there comparable objects to the Mirror of Erised in our world?


The chapter ends on p. 214. I note that Dumbledore instructs Harry in the moral lesson that the Mirror of Erised teaches. He equates spending time gazing into the Mirror to “dreaming.” He warns Harry that living in a dream state is not living at all, that indulging in the delights of the Mirror cause one to “forget to live.” I note two questions at the end of the chapter that summarize some of the issues that stood out to me in this reading selection:

  • How is enjoying the delights of the Mirror of Erised = “dwelling on dreams?”
  • What does Dumbledore think/assume that “really living” is? It must be more than mere survival or life extension, because one cannot forget to “do” that.

Final Note

I hope that this example shows you how close reading and annotations go hand-in-hand. I use the empty spaces on the printed page to record my reactions, thoughts, and questions. I imagine myself in a dialogue with the author. If she were reading this to me, I’d want to discuss some of the topics with her that I’ve noted. My annotations include analysis, assessment, hypotheses, and non-obvious questions related to the complete meaning of the selected text, and perhaps the whole book. My commentary in this post includes the sort of additional thoughts, ideas, and critical questions that I would record and develop further in my journal or notebook.

This process is one way to obtain interesting, important material for seminar discussions and text-based argumentative essays. I hope you find it helpful. As always, I look forward to any questions or comments you have.

Close Reading and Annotating (II)

I decided to break up my annotation post into two so that I could provide my annotation system for you in its own post. In the following post I’ll show you how my annotation system looks and works for a close reading of our excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.annotation-system-II


Close Reading and Annotating (I)

I have a brief series of posts planned as an encore to my Honors Seminar tutorial. The first is on the subject of close reading and annotating. I covered the definition and explanation of this topic in tutorial entries 5, 6, and 12. I chose this topic for the encore because it is central to cat-readingeverything else you do in the Human Event or text-based Honors seminar.

The primary text I will use as an example is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, the UK (and more sensible) title). Given the cultural currency that this book has, I’ll need to discipline myself to avoid relying on other brilliant commentaryNB: I have given myself a major advantage in selecting HPSS as my example. The autograph was written in modern English. It was published very recently on the timeline of human history: 1997. We know a lot about the author. It sold in the millions worldwide within just a few years of its publication. These facts may seem obvious, but they are important contextual realities. You often cannot so easily interject a text into contemporary problems and sensibilities as I have done with HPSS. Most of your texts will be much older, have an oral history preceding the written one, originated in a different language, possibly even a “dead” language, have been transmitted through a series of translations and editorial redactions, and any number of other historical, cultural and social differences that cannot be ignored if we approach the texts by suspending our presumptions about the world of the text and the privilege we afford to our own theoretical lens. It will take a lot of work on the reader’s part to enter into the world of the text (especially its system of values), analyze that world according to its own rational framework, and evaluate it by careful triangulation with different frameworks and value systems, including our own.

Nevertheless, let us suppose that I am assigned this text to read and prepare to discuss in one class session, which is typically 75 min long. The book is 309 pages long, so I budget five days to read it through to get the big picture of the story and then reread it closely (analytically). The edition assigned is ISBN 0-590-35340-3, Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 1997. The author’s name is Rowling, which rhymes with ‘rolling’ and ‘bowling’. Parenthetically, though it shows a profound lack of preparation to pronounce an author’s name or words in the title incorrectly, this is minimal due diligence; you should look up and research all words or phrases that you don’t know or understand as part of your ordinary daily class preparation.

In my first read-through, I’ll want to reconstruct the basic storyline, and as I do so, flag chapters, sections, or paragraphs that I find especially interesting or important to explore and scrutinize more thoroughly on my second read-through. A colleague of mine once described these as “things that make you go ‘Wow!’ or ‘Hmm’. Other important things to note are sections that confuse me or aren’t clear.

Now when I read Sorcerer’s Stone, I am struck by the magical elements in the story: a hand-held device that turns off and on streetlights; letters that arrive without a mail carrier, a giant man who starts a fire with his pink umbrella; Diagon Alley, Platform 93/4 and the Hogwarts Express; moving photographs and portraits that speak; food at a feast that appears out of nowhere; candles that float; ghosts; a talking Hat that reads the character and psychology of its wearer; moving staircases; Quidditch; dragons, unicorns, centaurs, and other magical beasts; and so on. I also note the basic narrative arc: the impetus of the story is an event that happened years before the first scenes in the book–the death of Harry Potter’s parents. Harry miraculously survived the attack on his family, and grows up to find himself famous in a hidden society that is all around him. This community turns out to be magical folk, and they carefully segregate themselves from us ordinary folk, whom they call “Muggles.” Harry has been chosen to attend the boarding school for magical children, much to the dismay of his Muggle aunt and uncle. He is introduced to the magical world behind the ordinary world by his guide Hagrid. He travels to Hogwarts on a train with other students, and meets other children who become his best friends. While at Hogwarts they learn of a plot to commit a theft of a valuable and potentially dangerous object, and the remainder of the story involves solving this mystery–who, what, why, and when–and thwarting the would-be thieves.

The difficulty of preparing for a discussion on this book is that I have too much material to work with. We have 75 minutes, and we could spend the whole time simply reconstructing the plot and the characters, with commentary that reaches no deeper than “Cool!” or “This is dumb.” So I cannot get very far if I remain “above” the text, trying to make some general comments about the whole thing. I need some kind of filter to help me pinpoint selections that stand out as important and worth unpacking for their non-superficial meaning and implications. What criterion will help me filter out the chunks on which I should focus?

I start at the beginning by recalling one of the big goals of the course: to develop “the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly.” My Instructor has selected HPSS as one of the primary texts for the course, so this implies that the Instructor is not only brilliant, but thinks that there are core issues of human experience that might be addressed in or gleaned from this text. I also recall that I am expected to encounter “key social and intellectual currents” in the texts of the course. Hmm, yes, okay. Well, I’ll begin to break down Sorcerer’s Stone into some broad topical areas that might align with these goals. So I whip out my journal, open my book to the flagged pages (I like to use colored sticky flags) and start making a list, paraphrasing, and posing questions:

A. Harry is an orphan and constantly mistreated by his aunt and uncle. But within the space of the first five chapters, we learn that he has special powers, he’s a celebrity and fabulously wealthy, and he’s credited with the overthrow of a horrible villain when he was just a baby. He grows up with the experience of being an outcast, a nobody, but then when he turns 11, he learns that he’s actually a very privileged somebody in a parallel, powerful, but hidden society. Questions:

  • The two worlds–magical and Muggle–provide Harry with two social identities. The Muggle, or ordinary human identity, is not the ultimately real one; it’s only partial at best. His magical identity is virtually the polar opposite in terms of ability, social recognition, and class. Does Rowling want us to generalize this picture of Harry and apply it to ourselves? Do I have an apparent or partial identity in society that dominates my sense of self? How would I describe that? Do I have a more complete identity, an ultimately real self, that I may not even know about? What could that be?
  • Who, exactly, is an outcast in the Muggle world of HPSS? In the magical world? What is “normal” for the two societies? If we find something deficient or preferable about one norm or the other, on what grounds can we judge which is better, i.e., persuasively argue that one norm is objectively worse than the other and ought to be rejected?
  • Is there a connection between Vernon and Petunia’s social class and lifestyle and how they treat Harry? What are the values that Rowling is condemning? What are the contrasting values that Rowling is approving?
  • Since the point of view is first person limited omniscient–we read the story almost exclusively as if we were sitting on Harry’s shoulder–it seems that Rowling is inviting us to enter into Harry’s perspective. Is Rowling pandering to us through her characterization of Harry? (Perhaps this question and my first question are related?)

B. The Sorting Hat seems to read one’s personality and character traits, as well as one’s potential to become this or that sort of person in the future, and on the basis of that information “sorts” students into one of the four Houses into which they best fit. Questions:

  • Suppose such a technology were possible. What are the premises behind grouping people like this? Why would adult society think it a good idea to socialize students with a form of moral segregation?
  • How does self-identifying as a member of a House strengthen or weaken one’s autonomy? How is accepting or embracing an identity like “I am a Ravenclaw” or “I am an Honors student” compare to accepting or embracing other ways we might identify: race, class, gender, etc? Should all one’s identities which have a basis in fact be embraced? Or is it sometimes best to qualify, challenge, or even reject one’s identity as this or that? What are the consequences of this embracing or rejecting?
  • Does Rowling suggest that wholehearted enthusiasm for one’s House is wise, or is it better to regard House identity with resignation? Do the answers to these question transpose to how Rowling thinks we should answer the other identity questions?

These are two examples drawn from specific passages in the text that seem to speak to the issues germane to the Human Event. Any of these would make for a good discussion, with plenty of contestable theses and arguments to develop and evaluate on the basis of textual evidence. As part of my preparation, I should also try to sketch good answers to the questions that I’ve posed in the event that I need to get the discussion going on the topic.

A discussion of these topics and questions goes well beyond a superficial literary analysis that only recapitulates narrative plot points or poses speculative questions that can only be answered, if at all, by pulling in evidence outside the text, by inserting theoretical tools alien to the author’s world and the world of the text, or by sheer guessing. “What if Vernon Dursley was a blue collar worker?” Or, “Dumbledore seems to know everything that goes on at Hogwarts…why would he allow 11-year-old kids to pass through lethal traps set by teachers and confront a unicorn-murdering thief?” Such questions cannot be answered with arguments formulated on the basis of what the text says, and taking that text at face value.

What I’ve shown you in this post is an example of the kind of inquisitiveness you’ll need to prepare meaningful, productive thoughts to share and discuss in class, or to write about in an essay assignment. The fruits of these labors are recorded in a journal. But what in the text prompted these ideas and questions? There’s an important step between close reading and journaled reflections. That important step is good textual annotations. Only by careful scrutiny of specific terms and details in the text could I have generated the paraphrases and questionsMirror-Erised above, ones which could be answered by text-based arguments. So in my next post, I’m going to show you my notes. But it isn’t on the two ideas above. No, there’s another part of the text that I found raised some really big questions about core issues of human experience. It’s in Chapter 12, “The Mirror of Erised.” Below I’ve quoted the passage that I’m going to annotate and share with you, so your assignment is to make your own annotations of the selection, see if you can develop good paraphrases and questions on the basis of your close reading, and then we’ll compare our work.

“So,” said Dumbledore, slipping off the desk to sit on the floor with Harry, “you, like hundreds before you, have discovered the delights of the Mirror of Erised.”
“I didn’t know it was called that, Sir.”
“But I expect you’ve realized by now what it does?”
“It −− well −− it shows me my family −−”
“And it showed your friend Ron himself as head boy.”
“How did you know −−?”
“I don’t need a cloak to become invisible,” said Dumbledore gently.
“Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?”
Harry shook his head.
“Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want…whatever we want…”
“Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.
“The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. Now, why don’t you put that admirable cloak back on and get off to bed?”
Harry stood up.
“Sir −− Professor Dumbledore? Can I ask you something?”
“Obviously, you’ve just done so,” Dumbledore smiled. “You may ask me one more thing, however.”
“What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
“I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.”
Harry stared.
“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
It was only when he was back in bed that it struck Harry that Dumbledore might not have been quite truthful. But then, he thought, as he shoved Scabbers off his pillow, it had been quite a personal question.

HPSS, 213-4.

Mastering the Human Event: Conclusion

Alcoa-TN-Site2We arrive at the The End. Of this introductory tutorial to the first-year Honors Seminar, that is. In this concluding post I will summarize the Main Points I’ve been emphasizing throughout the tutorial as well as include some parting tips and wisdom. You will greatly increase your chances for success if you apply yourself to these things:

1. Prepare. Prepare before the course starts by researching the background of the course, the Instructors, and the syllabuses. Prepare for discussions by completing your close readings at least a day in advance and composing a few nontrivial questions and claims.

2. Annotate your readings. Make sure your notes are meaningful: they should help you navigate the text with key words and ideas highlighted, and they should include your considered, reflective thoughts about the reading, specifically, the fruits of your analysis of the reading as you go along.

3. Keep a notebook or journal to develop and record more extended thoughts and arguments. This will be a creative space for both your discussion preparation and your essay prewriting such as brainstorming and mind mapping.

4. Approach the class discussions like a conversation among equals, not a debate of polemicists. Generate light on the text, not heat. Interrogate the author, yourself, and your fellow discussants. Put your own thoughts into the conversation to be scrutinized and interrogated as well.

5. Read the text out loud in the discussion. Questions and arguments should be about the text, so ground your ideas and claims in specific textual citations. It is also useful for moving the discussion on to another topic.

6. Read the text. Out loud. In front of everybody.

7. Stay engaged in the discussion the whole time. Actively listen, regulate your conversational behaviors, and self-evaluate your performance after every class.

8. Communicate professionally with your Instructor.

9. Internalize the Writing Standards for your argumentative essays. Remember that these are general requirements, so study carefully the specific requirements that your Instructor unfolds from them.

10. When you are given the essay assignment, begin working on it as soon as possible. I recommend that you start the paper three weeks before the due date. Since good writing is achieved by writing a lot, plan on producing five times as much written work on the essay (prewriting, rough drafts, revisions) as the length of the final draft of the paper. In other words, to write a satisfactory argumentative essay of six pages in length, you should expect to write 30 pages total in the complete process.

11. Once you have the essay assignment, commit to write every day. The first few days can be spent in various prewriting work. Once your topic is clear and your thesis gels into a workable argument, write at least one paragraph every day.

12. Have a complete draft done at least one week before the due date. The remainder of your time should be spent reviewing, revising, and rewriting.

13. After your graded essay is returned, ignore the grade. Instead, read your Instructor’s comments carefully. These are the key to improving your performance on the next essay. If you do not understand the errors or weaknesses pointed out by your Instructor, then arrange to meet with them for further explanation. Your Instructor wants you to succeed, and trust me, very much wants to read well-conceived and well-written essays. They will gladly help you focus on the areas you need to work on and give you concrete suggestions.

14. Beware the midterm slump. You are taking plenty of other classes at University. Exams in those classes are often pressure-packed. It is normal for your initial enthusiasm to wane as the semester grinds on. It will be tempting to slack off your engagement in the Human Event as your energies are spent in other directions. You must actively resist this process. Maintain your good preparation and notetaking practices. Remember, the Human Event is about helping you develop stronger habits of mind: muscular intellectual dispositions and “the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly.” Unlike bad habits, which, as everyone knows, are easy to obtain, good habits take time, work, and persistence to develop. Start strong, finish strong.

15. Critical thinking is a hard-won intellectual disposition that, when matured, refuses to be complacent. Doubt is the engine of inquiry, as Vallicella rightly says, and the true thinker is distinguished from the poser, bs artist, and ideologue in this (at least): a cleansing, virile doubt about that which one disbelieves as much as what one believes. You can’t rely on your Instructor to do this for you; they will too easily become your antagonist or protagonist, your enemy or your hero. Either role will encourage you to be complacent in your thinking because it is natural for students to align their thinking either orthogonally to or in parallel with their Instructor’s. Developing the intellectual and moral dispositions you need to be a complex, critical thinker is something you will have to take on yourself. Insert athletic training analogy here.

Congratulations on completing this tutorial. I look forward to exploring more of the challenges and rewards of an Honors education with you in upcoming posts. Some topics to look forward to are:

  • An encore post to this tutorial. I want to do a little demo on how to read a primary text, annotate it, prepare to discuss it, and develop a conceptual framework for it that might be used in an essay. Which text? Do you really have to ask?
  • A “Three Keys” series on the core texts used in the Human Event and other core text curricula.
  • An in-depth writing tutorial
  • I would also like to branch out into podcasts and videos if my readers find that a more interactive media experience would be helpful. So do leave a comment one of the posts in this tutorial, drop me a note using the Contact form, or email me.

Thanks for reading!Hogwarts-Library

Mastering the Human Event: Essay Writing (III)

The introductory seminar tutorial is nearly complete! In this final post in the essay writing mini-series, we will examine the third and fourth requirements in the Barrett Writing Standards.

Essay or Gift from a Stalker

In the first post, we discussed the all-important thesis statement. In the second post, we covered the organization of an argumentative essay. In this post, we will discuss two topics: evidence and style. Let’s start with evidence:

  1. Evidence from and analysis of the primary text(s) form the backbone of the paper’s defense of a thesis.
  • Textual evidence constitutes the foundation of the paper’s argument. The paper cites the sources of evidence.
  • No outside sources are permitted.
  • Analysis offers plausible explications of the texts that show how the meaning of the cited evidence helps develop the argument.

The description of the evidence requirement reveals its connection to the previous requirement: your essay is expected to be a defense of your thesis; that thesis is defended throughout the body of the essay by a progressive series of arguments; this defense is built on a specific foundation (or “backbone”): evidence and analysis of the text(s). As this logic shows, the success of your entire paper, from thesis to conclusion, hinges on how effective you are at marshalling evidence and reasoning on the basis of that evidence. Your grasp of the actual text in question is therefore essential to your performance on this assignment. Do you see how the essay writing is built on the earlier foundation consisting of close reading, meaningful annotations, and thoughtful, engaged discussion of the texts?

Your essays must be grounded in something beyond your own opinion. The validity of your arguments depends upon authority, which is demonstrated through textual evidence cited and your analysis of this textual source material. Authority is not conferred by your high-school GPA, standardized test scores, IQ, or the praise of your 11th grade English teacher. Authority also doesn’t spring from majority opinion or an authority figure to whom you defer; if your arguments are text-based, logical, and coherent, an unbiased HFF couldn’t care less if they agree with your conclusions. If your HFF doesn’t explain how to use texts to help you make your arguments, you should ask them for ways to help you avoid such runaway “opinionating.”

Analysis requires that you enter into a system (that is, accept the worldview and presuppositions of the text as given) and then look to the internal logic of that system and to the logical implications of the ideas and arguments contained within it. In other words, once you understand the author’s perspective and argument, look for logical consequences, consistencies, inconsistencies, etc. For example, if you simply dismiss Plato’s idealistic methodology in the Republic and other dialogues, what are you really saying beyond “I don’t care for philosophical idealism” or “Plato annoys me?” What’s the argument contained in such statements?

Analyze, v. (General): “To differentiate or ascertain the elements of (something complex) in order to determine its structure or nature, and hence to explain or understand it; to examine closely and methodically for the purpose of interpretation; to subject to critical or computational analysis.” (Specialized—Literary): “To examine a text critically to bring out its meaning; to give a critical description of a work especially with regard to its style, structure, or composition.”

Analysis, n. (Specialized—Philosophical): “The investigation of complex ideas, concepts, etc., so as to determine their constituent elements and their structure.”

The body of your essay consists of your analysis of the quotations from the text(s) as well as the issues, questions or problems raised by the text(s) being examined. To analyze the text you examine the specific details you find in the quotations and context. Analysis has a clear direction: it proceeds from the complex to the simple. Your text(s) in their entirety are the most complex units involved in your essay. The specific passage quoted and cited in your paragraph is the next unit of complexity. A relevant and substantive quotation does not speak for itself. You must “break it down” by differentiating its elements (words, phrases, sentences, ideas, concepts, and so on) and examining these elements methodically and in their proper context. Note well: this comprehensive approach to textual analysis occurs in your thinking about the text; only the relevant findings of this effort, often paraphrased, are transposed into your written essay. Hence, a thorough analysis of the quotation is not always necessary for a paragraph, though it is a good idea to do this as part of your close reading and notes leading up to writing an essay draft. You need to be able to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant details in the text, and then focus on the relevant ones. How do you do this? How do you know whether the elements of the quotation that you’ve described and explicated are getting you anywhere toward an interesting, important or significant point?

This is the job of your conceptual framework, of your conceptual approach to the text and the problem or question you are trying to answer. Your analysis of the text is, more specifically, a conceptual analysis of the text. Your goal in a text-based argumentative essay is to use conceptual analysis to focus your ideas on something of significance, relevance and insight about one or more of the texts, and thereby analyze the text(s) in some interesting and thought-provoking way. Developing a conceptual framework goes hand-in-hand with the subject of my previous post on blocking your arguments. But it is not an easy task to understand or execute, so in a future post I’ll explain how to develop a robust and interesting conceptual framework.

Practically speaking, you fulfill the evidence requirement by:

  • reproducing relevant quotations from the text(s). Punctuate them correctly and integrate them properly. Instructors have different expectations about the appropriate number of quotations that they consider adequate textual support. Don’t obsess about such quantities, however. You may bulls-eye the ideal number of quotes suggested by your Instructor, but if your analysis of the quotes is ineffective or incompetent, having the “right” number will do you no good whatsoever.
  • no sources outside the primary text(s). Avoid appealing to texts or authors that are not a part of the course, whether implicitly or explicitly. No crutches. Leave them outside the course and pick them up later if you must. The inspiring quote from a business or political leader may move you to tears, but such “quotables” will come across as superficial or forced.
  • correct citation of the quotations. Most Instructors prefer inline quotations; some want footnotes; some want a Works Cited page. Your Instructor will specify these matters and indicate which citation style they prefer.
  • interesting, relevant, and plausible discussion of the cited texts. Your Instructor can’t read your mind; you need to explain how and why the evidence you’ve cited supports your argument. I call it unpacking the quotations and forging their connection to your argument.

Now Eadwine01onto the final requirement, which concerns your writing style.

  1. Papers adhere to fundamental style elements.
  • The paper uses proper grammar and word choice including gender neutral and inclusive language.
  • The author proofreads the paper to avoid errors, wordiness, unnecessarily complex phrasings, and excessive use of passive voice.

Get a style handbook. Use the numerous, high quality online resources out there to help you with your diction. One of the most enjoyable parts of essay writing is finding your own voice. Put some work into that! We live in an age where writing consists mainly of ephemera, constantly expelled, joining unnoticed the noisy stream of mass distraction. Much, if not most of it, is dreck, skubalon. People who can write well and substantively stand out and find new opportunities open for them.

There is little to explain about this requirement. Only note that it appears last in the Standards. Students often get their priorities backwards in writing their first essay. This is understandable, because it is much easier to work on and fix the mechanics of one’s writing than the logic of one’s arguments. But style, at least insofar as it doesn’t interfere with a reader following your reasoning, is the least important requirement in the assignment. So don’t obsess over how many pages you should have, margins, line spacing, font, font size, where to put your name, and any number of things that can be managed by your competence with word processing software. There is no formula, no mechanical procedure, for writing a satisfactory argumentative essay.

Sometimes an illustration is the best explanation, so I will conclude this post and the essay writing mini-series with these “Instructions to Writers,” from the Texas Newsletter for Medical Technology 5(9), 1978, and reprinted in Games 4(13): 16, March/April 1980. Enjoy!

Instructions to Writers

  1. Subject and verb always has to agree.
  2. Being bad grammar, the writer will not use dangling participles.
  3. Parallel construction with coordinate conjunctions is not only an aid to clarity but also is the mark of a good writer.
  4. Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.
  5. Do not use a foreign term when there is an adequate English quid pro quo.
  6. If you must use a foreign term, it is de rigor to use it correctly.
  7. It behooves the writer to avoid archaic expressions.
  8. Do not use hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it effectively.
  9. Avoid clichés like the plague.
  10. Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be thrown out the window.
  11. In scholarly writing, don’t use contractions.
  12. A truly good writer is always especially careful to practically eliminate the all-too-frequent use of adverbs.
  13. Use a comma before nonrestrictive clauses which are a common source of difficulty.
  14. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
  15. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
  16. Consult the dictionary frequently to avoid misspelling.

Stay tuned for the last post in the tutorial.

Mastering the Human Event: Essay Writing (II)

In the previous post to tvincent-of-beauvaishis mini-series on an introduction to writing argumentative essays, I introduced the essay Writing Standards and discussed the first requirement, the thesis statement.

In this post, I will discuss the second requirement, which concerns the organization of your thesis into sub-theses, which are developed and defended in the body of your essay. The Standards state:

  1. The body of the paper defends the thesis via a progression of arguments.
  • The opening of the paper provides an overall map of its direction.
  • The body of the paper mirrors the introductory map, and each paragraph builds the case in logical progression.
  • The paper makes an evidence-based case in support of the thesis. Accordingly, the paper also anticipates and addresses potential objections.

As in the previous post, let’s break these requirements down and I’ll explain what they mean and how to use them.

The body of the paper. These are all of the paragraphs between the introductory and concluding paragraphs.

…defends the thesis. But why should your thesis need a defense? It’s what you think. And why should you have to defend what you think or believe? Suppose the text you’re writing about is a poem. Isn’t it all just interpretation? And we’re all entitled to our own interpretations? Sure, someone might disagree with your interpretation and ideas. But so what? You disagree with theirs.

This is almost verbatim what the parent of an Honors student once said to me in a roomful of other parents of Honors students. It was a glorious moment.

What this person, and the students who have been taught likewise, may not realize is that there is a difference between disagreement and logical argumentation. The thesis paper is not a quarrel, it is an argument in this second, rational sense. You need to write an essay on your topic with the understanding that your reader (your Instructor) is not interested in quarreling with you, he or she is interested in examining, critiquing, and improving your powers of reasoning.

The main claim of your thesis should be such that, taken alone, it inspires a response like this: “Oh, really? What evidence do you have to support that position?” As I discussed in the previous post, your thesis should be non-obvious and non-trivial. “Though frequently appearing and interacting with  human characters, the gods in the Iliad do not ultimately affect the course of events depicted in Homer’s epic.” If this is the main claim of my thesis, I need to marshal a defense of that claim, because any other close reader of the Iliad would not take it is as obviously true, and quite probably might think it false. That’s good! I will have to work to show that I have good reasons to support this claim.

…via a progression of arguments. How will you defend your thesis? With arguments. “But wait,” you say, “I thought my thesis statement was an argument!” Yes, Virginia, it is. But each supporting reason in defense of the main claim in your thesis requires its own argument for support. These sub-arguments, or sub-theses, are arranged in a progression such that the chain of your reasoning is made clear.

Monty Python to the rescue. In this sketch, Michael Palin’s character gives an excellent definition of an argument: “a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.” The “connected series of statements” are your reasons and evidence that support your main claim. In asserting these premises, you are establishing your defense of your main claim, and if your logic is sound, your main claim, or conclusion, follows from the evidence. This link between the premises, the “connected series of statements” and the conclusion, the “definite proposition,” is called an inference. You derive your conclusion from the evidence and reasons you marshal.

It is important that your argument have an inferential link. The reader should be led, if not compelled, to grasp that your conclusion logically follows from your evidence. Without an inferential link, you argument tends to merely tell the reader that X is the case rather than show the reader how and why you think that X is the case. Your Instructor may critique your drafts with a comment like, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of my favorite editorial marks.

This is often the most difficult part of the essay composition process. Anybody can string together a series of statements. But it takes careful reasoning to string together a logically connected series of statements. Okay, I’m really hammering the terminology here, and as helpful as it is to understand and be able to use these ideas, let me pull back a bit to reset some context for this requirement.

The logic that applies to your thesis statement is supposed to be the glue that holds your whole essay together. Note well that this standard concerns the body of your essay. Your entire essay is one long argument. Many students focus on the thesis statement as “the” argument of the paper, and neglect developing the supporting arguments connecting each of thesis’ points together. My colleagues have a great illustration of this structure: the Hamburger Paper. Behold! hamburger-paper

In a future set of posts, I’m going to go into a lot more detail about writing argumentative essays, and I’ll unpack this illustration then. For now, I only want to point out three things about the hamburger-structured paper:

(1) If this looks like the ubiquitous 5-paragraph essay you learned in middle school, that’s because it is. As a structural model for argumentative essays, this form is an inevitable disaster. Consider: “Hamburgers are delicious” [thesis]. Your reader says, “Oh, really?” So you “support” your thesis by saying “Yes. There’s the buns, patty, some lettuce, the ketchup, the pickles, the tomatoes, the cheese and the bacon. See? 8 delicious ingredients all put together = delicious. QED.”

(2) Only, it is not QED. In point of fact, you can put these ingredients in any order, and even add or subtract ingredients, and it makes no difference. All you have by slapping yummy ingredients together is a list, not an argument. So the structure of the body of a hamburger essay is not a logical structure.

(3) The other problem with this model is the independence of the ingredients from each other and from the final product. The paragraphs do little more than wave to the reader–“Hi, see, I’m here.” They typically have weak topic sentences, not robust, non-trivial claims that have to be defended in the body of the paragraph. The paragraphs also tend to be of the same type. The conjunctions “Also” or “And” in transitional or topic sentences often announce that the paragraph is listing yet another item in the hamburger. Finally, hamburger paragraphs don’t develop internally. They don’t go anywhere, meaning they don’t exhibit reasoning in support of a sub-thesis or the overall argument.

Organizing an argument is one of the key skills you will need to learn to succeed in an academic paper, Honors or otherwise. Learn how to block an argument. You must abandon the 5-paragraph model forever; adding two or three more paragraphs (ingredients) to the hamburger isn’t going to cut the mustard.

map. The “opening of the paper,” i.e., the introduction, should announce to the reader the starting point (the topic question or problem), the destination (the thesis), and the route you’re going to take to get from the starting point to the destination. Sometimes we call this “forecasting” the argument of your paper. What it amounts to is that in the introductory paragraph you should state the connected series of premises and the definite proposition, i.e., the conclusion, i.e., the main claim, that they establish, i.e., that follows by inference from the premises. Don’t leave a claim unstated or assumed that is necessary to establish the argument. Be explicit so that the route you’re going to take in the body of the essay is understood before you get underway. No surprises please.

…body of the paper mirrors the introductory map. If you say you’re going to go from Montreal to Albuquerque by way of Eau Claire, Pierre, Denver, and Santa Fe, then when our journey from Montreal (the beginning of the introductory paragraph) is underway, we should pass those waypoints in the order you gave them.

…each paragraph builds the case in logical progression. In my map illustration,  the geographical metaphor represents the logical. Our trip from Montreal to Denver builds as we pass each waypoint. Moreover, as we pass each waypoint, we progress geographically closer to our destination. There may be hundreds of other routes (arguments) from Montreal to Denver (question/problem to answer), but this route, for some reason, makes sense and can be completed as planned. No unnecessary sidetrips, no change of destination, no going in circles, no space-time warps. If we make a stop in Key West, then the body of the essay is off-track from the thesis, and you’re using a different map. You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that we needed to go through Key West (even though I wouldn’t mind the visit, and would probably just wave goodbye as you continue your journey to Albuquerque by yourself.

evidence-based case. The thesis must be supported by evidence, specifically, textual evidence. I will go into more details in the next post.

…anticipates and addresses potential objections. In a future tutorial dedicated strictly to essay writing, I’ll spend at least one whole post and give examples of this requirement. For this tutorial, here’s what you need to know. Remember that your aim in the argumentative paper is to show the reader that your reasoning is correct, that if your supporting points are granted, the thesis logically follows from them. This, by the way, is a far more achievable goal than that your argument is persuasive, for it will only be persuasive insofar as each of your premises is true and your reasoning is sound. A 5- to 7-page paper is not of sufficient scope to establish a convincing case for all of your supporting point. Many, if not all, of your premises might be reasonably challenged. The logical connection between them or between the premises and the conclusion might be challenged. Any of these points might be probed by someone who subjects your argument to analytical scrutiny. You should do this yourself. Identify claims or logical connections that are dubious or open to additional or alternative theses, or for which there are ready counterexamples. And then raise an objection to this point or points in your argument. Or at least compose the defense of your points in such a way that shows the reader you are aware of the vulnerabilities in your argument and the potential objections. Then address the objection, i.e., show why the objection should not stand and why your argument prevails. Sometimes a paper can begin with an objection as an obvious answer to the topic, and then the remainder of the paper is your argument as to why that answer is wrong or isn’t adequate, and why your answer is better. If you can’t figure out an objection to your arguments, then you probably are simply asserting one point after another and not actually reasoning.

In the third post in this mini-series, we’ll look at the third and fourth requirements in the Writing Standards. Stay tuned…the tutorial is nearly over!

Mastering the Human Event: Essay Writing (I)

Our st-john-depicted-as-a-scribenew mini-series in the Honors Seminar tutorial is on one of the most challenging areas of the course: essay writing.

Let’s start with a description of the writing standards composed and adopted by the Honors Faculty themselves. I will limit this tutorial, which is a general introduction to Honors Seminars, to explaining these standards and illustrating how you can use them. I am in the process of designing a second tutorial which will be entirely dedicated to argumentative essay writing. Look for that soon.

So now, the standards:

Writing Standards for Thesis Papers

The elements outlined below form the basis of all Human Event [Honors seminar] argumentative papers (as of 17 Aug 2013), and therefore constitute the fundamental criteria of evaluation.

  1. The paper contains a clear thesis statement.
  • The thesis statement makes a specific, text-based claim, not a vague or broad observation.
  • The paper must stake a substantive position, one that is neither trivial nor obvious.
  • Essays are typically 5-7 pages, and the thesis statement should appear in the first paragraph.
  1. The body of the paper defends the thesis via a progression of arguments.
  • The opening of the paper provides an overall map of its direction.
  • The body of the paper mirrors the introductory map, and each paragraph builds the case in logical progression.
  • The paper makes an evidence-based case in support of the thesis. Accordingly, the paper also anticipates and addresses potential objections.
  1. Evidence from and analysis of the primary text(s) form the backbone of the paper’s defense of a thesis.
  • Textual evidence constitutes the foundation of the paper’s argument. The paper cites the sources of evidence.
  • No outside sources are permitted.
  • Analysis offers plausible explications of the texts that show how the meaning of the cited evidence helps develop the argument.
  1. Papers adhere to fundamental style elements.
  • The paper uses proper grammar and word choice including gender neutral and inclusive language.
  • The author proofreads the paper to avoid errors, wordiness, unnecessarily complex phrasings, and excessive use of passive voice.

If you’re going to write a good essay, you need to know what a thesis is. The bullet points under #1 expand on the qualities of a good thesis. Let’s break those down a bit.

A good thesis statement is–

clear. To be a clear statement, two things are required: well-written prose and intelligible, lucid meaning. The first requirement concerns your diction; the second requirement concerns your logic.

specific. To make a specific claim, you must express your clear statement explicitly and precisely. Don’t hint at what you’re claiming. You don’t want to make your reader guess as to what you’re arguing. State your claim definitely. Do not use language or phrases that are vague, general, ambiguous, or otherwise indistinct.

text-based. Your thesis paper is an argumentative essay. Arguments require evidence and reasons. The grounds upon which you justify your claims are to be found in the specific text or texts that the essay is about. Your thesis must be based in evidence and inferences drawn from the text. Aside: you can communicate that your thesis is text-based from the very beginning of your essay by contextualizing your thesis statement with prior reference to the text(s) at issue.

claim. A claim is a declarative statement that is either true or false. Claims are propositions that you either assert or deny. Arguments consist of two types of claims: premises and a conclusion. “The dialogue Euthyphro was written by Plato” is a claim because it is a statement that is either true or false. Moreover, the claim asserts that the proposition “The dialogue Euthyphro was written by Plato” is true. If you were to make such a claim in ordinary English, you typically omit the explicit assertion or denial and allow the diction of the statement to express this. For example, in ordinary English, the phrase “It is the case that” prefixed to the claim would appear superfluous to the reader: “It is the case that the dialogue Euthyphro was written by Plato.” It is already clear that the sentence without the prefixed phrase is asserting that the proposition is true. Similarly, most denials in ordinary English are expressed with a negative. For example, “The Iliad was not written by Plato.” This is a denial of the proposition “The Iliad was written by Plato.”

vague or broad. These are intended to express the opposites of clear and specific. Avoid them.

observations. To observe something is to note it. Observations are not argumentative claims. They may be statements of fact, and thus either true or false, but are not crucial to establishing an argument. “The Iliad is a poem featuring gods and heroes” is not a substantive claim. Yes, the Iliad is a poem. And its characters include gods and heroes. But this is trivially true. In my previous example, “The dialogue Euthyphro was written by Plato” is similarly little more than an observation (though one might regard it as nontrivial if it were a claim in an argument about the authorship of the Euthyphro). An observation is not something that a competent reader would dispute. NB: observations can be, and usually are, appropriate within an argumentative essay; what this requirement is pointing out is that observations are not appropriate in a thesis statement or argument.

substantive position. Your thesis statement announces the position you are taking by expressing that position in the form of an argument. Your essay develops, establishes and defends that position. This implies that your thesis statement cannot be obviously or trivially true. Therefore, a substantive position requires that your argument be contestable. A thesis statement that concludes “Therefore, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an indecisive figure” is not a substantive position. Who would disagree with it except someone obstinately (unreasonably) contrary? A key characteristic of a substantive position is that it illuminates something interesting or important about the text, but that the desultory reader is likely to miss. NB: ‘interesting’ here means something of concern to one, of intellectual significance, the understanding of which matters to one’s knowledge and understanding. Thus, a substantive position is one that, with the resources of the text(s), sheds new light on a question or problem or topic. This is what you’re ultimately aiming for in your thesis statement. One way to check whether or not your position is substantive is to ask the “So what?” question. Suppose I, the reader, grant for the sake of argument that your position turns out to be true. If I accept your position, so what? What significant implication follows from the truth of your position? What of importance changes about my understanding of the text? In what ways should I be newly impressed by the significance of the question or problem at issue? And so on.

trivial or obvious. These are intended to express the opposite of substantive. Avoid them.

In my next post, I’ll expand on the second requirement of the Writing Standards. In my third post in this mini-series, I’ll cover the remaining two requirements.

Mastering the Human Event: Seminar Discussion (IV)

In this final post in the Seminar Discussion mini-series, I have provided a detailed checklist for you to use in assessing your own performance and progress in Socratic seminar discussions.

I use this checklist as a feedback tool for my students. When I assess each student’s performance every other week or so, I return a copy of the checklist with my marks and comments. Students who keep track of their own performance can compare their self-assessments with the Instructor. This gives you a basis to discuss differences in how you and your Instructor evaluate an item, which gives you a clearer understanding of their expectations.

I encourage you to discuss any items on this checklist with your Instructor to find out what their priorities are for assessing your participation. I have not weighted any of the categories so that you can customize it to your specific class.

Preparation / Close Reading

meaningfully annotated the text
journal was prepared with notes, outlines, questions, arguments, and other reflections you had in response to the reading
reviewed post-discussion notes from prior discussions
if focus or reading questions were provided in advance, contributions refer to one or more responses prepared
if focus or study questions were not provided, used analysis and evaluation questions provided in this tutorial
prepared a kickoff question or point with a supporting quotation from the text
brought the correct text to class AND used it

Class Discussion

arrived on time
looked up textual citations when made by others
cited the text correctly
read at least one selection from the text
took notes during the discussion to record important points, questions, and arguments
attentive and engaged behaviors during the entire conversation
regulated contributions: neither silent nor spoke too frequently
initiated discussion on a topic, question, or passage
posed relevant questions and points and appropriate times
offered plausible explications of specific passages whose meaning was debated
grounded claims in specific details from the text and citations
demonstrated synthesis with other texts by suggesting an integrative frame of reference (a theme, question, problem, or theory) and/or grounds for comparison
referenced specific texts or findings from prior discussions to develop in the context of the current reading
engaged in at least one dialogue with one or more students, with multiple turns of questions, claims and counterclaims
challenged or refuted points made by others
tried to involve others who weren’t contributing as much to the discussion


took notes after the discussion to record unanswered questions to be taken up in a later discussion, ideas for essays, and so on

I find it helpful to distinguish between sins of omission and commission. For example, if someone had engaged a point that you had made earlier, but your mind had wandered while your potential dialogue partner was speaking, and thus you failed to respond, then that’s an omission. You failed to do something that would have improved your performance. If one of your contributions digressed onto something superficial or arcane, then that’s a sin of commission. You actively harmed your performance by distracting the class from its focus on expounding the text and its implications. Be sure that you’re honest with yourself so that you can identify any debits in your performance and correct them in the next session. If in doubt, talk with your Instructor.

Your instructor may suggest or provide additional ways to monitor your participation.

This concludes our discussion mini-series. For the next (and final!) lesson in the Honors Seminar tutorial, we’re going to look at the requirement that students often dread most: writing the essays.