I’ve sketched out the remainder of the posts in my Honors Seminar tutorial for students (and teachers), “Mastering the Human Event.” I’m aiming for a mini-series of four posts on participation and seminar discussion, followed by a mini-series of three posts on argumentative essay writing.
So today we’ll begin with the first entry in the discussion mini-series.
I’ve already explored some issues related to your class participation in earlier posts, such as the necessity to prepare for each discussion by close reading of the texts, the dynamics of discussion being somewhat dependent on your Instructor’s approach to the course, and some behaviors to adopt and avoid during discussions.
I am going to continue to focus on discussion rather than the broader concept of participation because it is speaking out loud in a group of similarly intelligent people that many students find a difficult hurdle to jump. But good discussion does not depend on one’s shyness or extroversion. Many who jump with both feet into a discussion will need to learn how to contribute effectively to the kind of critical work that the seminar is about.
Since my approach to seminars is more exploratory than disciplinarian, my suggestions will be biased in that direction. If your instructor has more of a presence in class discussions, then my tips will still help you, but you should supplement them by attending to the specific expectations of your instructor. Do feel free to give me your questions and feedback on this. I would be happy to open up a forum to exchange ideas beyond the scope of this series. But back to our regularly scheduled program…
The point of a text-based seminar like the Human Event is for you to come to your own understandings about what makes sense and what is true or valuable about the big questions and issues raised in some of the most significant works of human cultures. You do this by thinking and talking with other people about what’s true and what’s not, what values are in play or at stake, and how you can decide, based on evidence and argument, which answers illuminate and which cloud, which are well reasoned and which are not, and so on.
People used to do this all the time. They didn’t need a formal setting like a classroom or inducements like grades to excel at and enjoy it. They worked, they read, they thought, they argued, they broke bread together. Some of those discussions led to world-changing ideas and events, many good, some not.
I think this is actually a helpful model for thinking about what you and your classmates are doing. You are joining in a great conversation that spans millennia. Aristotle argues with Confucius who argues with Augustine who argues with Woolf. You get to participate in that. You get to have those writers and artists present with you in the classroom. You get to interrogate them, hear their answers as rendered by your classmates and Instructor, and respond to them. You are joining in with the millions of self- and formally educated people of the past who have taken up these great ideas for themselves to poke and test and try them out.
In an exploratory seminar dynamic your Instructor expects you to ensure that the conversation occurs and bears fruit. You will not (indeed, cannot) force people to talk on the joys of Plato or the majesty of the Iliad. This is active, learner-centered education, not passive learning via lecture. You hold the power to make the class successful. And you won’t get that opportunity in just about any other undergraduate course you take. Carpe diem.
For this to work, you must come to class with ideas and questions and discuss them with your classmates. You will need to self-moderate your participation and be aware of your classmates’ participation. This includes being aware of everyone talking at once, of your possible dominance or reticence in conversation, of whether all students are getting a chance to speak, and of availing yourselves of that opportunity. When the Instructor or classmate asks an open-ended question about the text, you are expected to give your ideas about what might be the best answer to the question and, with the contributions of everyone in the class, justify those answers. Our shared role is to draw out better answers, i.e., answers supported by careful analysis of the text, point out conflicts or contradictions in things the class is saying, and getting you to develop your own ideas about what the text has to say.
Now, this Socratic style of learning sometimes annoys students, especially those who expect a “professor” (think about the literal meaning of that term) to tell them what to think. Such students might resent the lack of authoritative guidance or direction in the seminar. But if someone is telling you what to think or dispensing pearls of wisdom, then that person is doing the work. If you develop a position for which you are responsible (i.e., that you have to defend with reasons), then you’re doing the work. Most students feel liberated by this approach; they want to think for themselves and test their ideas against others. Here’s the paradox: at the same time you are experiencing liberation from preconceived answers to difficult questions, including and especially your own, you are acquiring knowledge of and roots in traditions of great works of art and literature, and great ideas humans from diverse historical periods and societies have had.
Are We Debating?
So is the class session a debate? No. When a debate occurs, no critical thinking occurs. What’s the first question anyone asks after a debate? “Who won?” Debate is a game, a contest in which interlocutors attempt to defeat each other in a public setting and for the approval of their “team.” This implies exchanges of attacking and defending, of victory and failure. Debates can be of some use when people come away with some idea of what sorts of questions, problems and issues are relevant to explore. What people won’t come away with is any understanding of the frames of reference or grounds for belief in responses to those questions, problems, and issues. The whole transaction is ideological, and the company of ideologues tends to make my kidneys hurt.
If you participate in the seminar by relying on polemical rhetoric, you will not learn anything about the text or topic at hand, because polemics are deployed by those who think they already know what the truth is and isn’t, are closed to questioning, doubting, or revising their convictions behind their fortress of prescribed beliefs, and are merely trying to defend their commitment to their convictions and attack those who disagree or do not share those beliefs.
A successful seminar discussion, however, takes the form of dialogue, not debate. It is conversation between friends, not opponents, who are friends because they are pursuing the same quarry, who are friends of the truth before fans of a teacher, guru, or celebrity. The Human Event is inquiry. It is inquiry by those who genuinely desire to increase their insight and understanding. The love of truth and knowledge is a better motivation for your discussions than the love of verbal battle or ideological self-congratulation.
If, after completing the reading assignment for a session, your contributions in your notes, journal or class discussion consist of defending and promoting preconceived notions about which you have no real doubt, then you are not only wasting your time but everyone else’s who have made the good faith effort to encounter the text, grapple with its meaning, significance, and systems of value, and bring the results of this difficult work into a conversation their colleagues. Your classmates, even those who hold radically different convictions and values than your own, are not your adversaries but your co-inquirers. The posture of debate leads to disengagement with the substance of the text and the evidence therein. The posture of conversation leads to engagement with the text and each other.
We are working towards knowledge that none of us claims to possess absolutely or exhaustively. If you approach the seminar with a posture of privation and cultivate the desire to seek and obtain what you lack, rather than dispense and decree what you think you already possess, you will approach the texts and class sessions from the most constructive perspective. This is true for your engagement with the texts, too. As I suggested earlier in thinking about your preparation as carrying on a great conversation, treat the author as if he or she was a participant in the seminar. Interrogate them, listen to their answers, analyze and evaluate their ideas. You are not in a debate with the authors of the texts; argue about the text, not with the text. Transfer this approach and attitude to the class discussions, to your journals, and to your essays, and your time spent will be productive and rewarding.
Keep in mind as you prepare for discussions that each class should be approached as a working session in which you and your classmates will grapple with a text collaboratively in order to achieve a depth, expanse, and richness of understanding and broadness of perspective that you would not have acquired on your own. Disagreements should be aired, assumptions examined, and inferences challenged, but with the larger aim of arriving at a better understanding of the implications of the ideas you are discussing.
The main purpose of a seminar discussion is to deepen, expand, and enrich one’s understanding of specific points and issues raised in a text. But another key purpose of a seminar is to promote the skills of conversation, a complex set of habits and attitudes which, in large part, shape your social, emotional and intellectual abilities to deal with others. Critical reasoning skills through discussion and good writing are highly transferable skills across disciplines and vocations. Excel at these and you will stand out in academic and work environments.
In Part II of this discussion mini-series, I’ll give you some concrete behaviors and skills to work on to excel at seminar discussions. Stay tuned.