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.

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.

Mastering the Human Event: Seminar Discussion (III)

I’ll let Calvin & Hobbes set the mood for this installment in my mini-series on how to perform well in seminar discussions like you will have in the Human Event at ASU’s Barrett Honors College.


That’s right Hobbes, conversations aren’t contests. Or debates. And behaviors that Calvin contemplates do occasionally appear in an otherwise great class. So I’d like to touch on a few of these problems and how you can not only avoid them yourself but intervene to help your classmates who succumb to them. I’ll conclude with a short checklist that you can use to assess your own performance from class to class.

Let’s begin with Calvin’s ill-conceived idea…

Some people just talk too much.

Often they don’t realize it, but sometimes it is clear they don’t mind taking up more than their share of the common time. If you find yourself prone to this behavior, then the best solution is frequent self-assessment after class and adopting some self-control techniques during class. Some ways to do this include:

  • allowing yourself to speak just once during the session without quoting the text; all additional contributions should include something you read directly from the text
  • allowing at least 15 minutes to pass after you’ve spoken once
  • count the number of different classmates who speak after you and don’t interject again until at least a third of them have spoken.

But suppose it’s someone else in class who’s going Calvin on everyone. In that case it is entirely appropriate for you to point out to the discussant that he is not allowing dialogues between other people to develop or is taking up too much of the time. I recommend a private word first, rather than publicly calling him out, but if the behavior persists, then a request that he curb his enthusiasm for awhile so others can speak would be welcome. The same is true for those who tend to speak up with irrelevant digressions or unserious points, taking the attention away from the specific focus of the discussion. Everyone has the duty to pull the discussion back on track.

Some people talk too little. There can be a lot of reasons for this, so don’t jump to conclusions. They may find putting their own comments into the discussion very difficult and thus tend to remain quiet for the entire class, occasionally repeating the process session after session. If you are one of these people you must break your silence. Some techniques for doing this are:

  • prepare answers to the questions listed in my previous post
  • if your Instructor provides you any reading or focus questions, prepare answers to one or more of them
  • raise an issue or problem you’re having about one or more of the questions; put your view on the table immediately, before the conversation gets up a full head of steam
  • notify the Instructor before the class session begins so that you are recognized and given the floor to make your contribution
  • if a classmate says or claims something you do not understand, then ask them to clarify or explain themselves

Once you’ve broken the ice and spoken up, try to stay engaged in the discussion as it develops from your contribution. Remember that the seminar is the best educational opportunity you are going to have to learn to have your voice heard among equals, and this is an important skill for your future academic and vocational success. In this class you are among friends and peers who are interested in attaining the same goals as you are, and your Instructor will work to make sure that it is a safe space in which to express yourself. So make the most of it, even if you have to force yourself the first few times. Those who do not find speaking up a problem have a responsibility for encouraging those that do. If there are people who never speak at all, then everyone in the seminar is failing in some way.

Sometimes yours and a classmate’s personalities simply clash. Or you observe that two or more classmates’ are more than just disagreeing, but actively disliking each other. In either case, talk to your Instructor as soon as possible. Your Instructor is committedbored-students to value and respect everyone’s identities, personal life histories and worldviews. Civility and respect for the dignity of your classmates is non-negotiable. It is perfectly acceptable to disagree vehemently or argue that a speaker’s claim is wrong (NB: not just assert that it is wrong, but argue that it is so). Disagreement only passes into offense or incivility when one’s response resorts to debasing remarks or other speech or actions intended to degrade or intimidate the person. Courtesy is not just a matter of verbal niceties. One’s courtesy also manifests itself in one’s tone of voice, bodily posture, and physical responses while someone else is speaking (e.g., slouching, sitting away from the table, eating, yawning, eye-rolling, conversing with others, and so on). Discourteous or disrespectful speech and/or actions are antithetical to the principles of power sharing among equals and the pursuit of genuine inquiry and knowledge.

Remember that if problems arise, they belong to and reflect on all participants, and it is thus the responsibility of everyone to remain alert to them and to work on mitigating them.

Seminar Discussion Quick Self-Assessment

For this quickie checklist, I will describe some common issues that I’ve observed and discussed with students, so that if you become aware of one or more of them in your own behavior, you can take steps to correct yourself. As the semester goes on, you need to be careful not to fall into a routine, relying only on what makes you feel comfortable. You should from time to time assess what you are doing and, if necessary, make an effort to improve in some areas which you may be neglecting.

To assist you in this self-evaluation here are some important questions to think about:

  1. Are you always sitting in the same place, more or less next to the same people? How is this affecting your seminar behavior? Try changing to a completely different spot every week or two.
  2. Do you normally talk to the same people when you have something to say, or do you make an effort to include everyone (e.g., by looking around the table as you are speaking, by addressing those who have been silent)? Are you routinely talking directly to the Instructor or to one or two other students?
  3. When you speak up do you confine yourself only to commenting on your own points of view or do you respond to the questions and ideas of others, encouraging them to say more or developing an idea that someone else has put on the table? Do you ever try to include others in the conversation by inviting them to speak?
  4. Do you normally jump quickly into a conversation or do you allow a pause to take place first? Remember that discussants who normally jump in quickly, immediately after the previous speaker has finished, have a tendency to exclude from the discussion those who need a longer pause before they will speak up. If you are one of those who like to jump in quickly and you do so frequently, try holding back and, for a while anyway, not entering the conversation except after a significant pause.

The important point in all of this is to remember that everyone in the seminar has a responsibility for making the conversation as useful, inclusive, and intelligent as possible.

In the final post in this discussion mini-series of the Honors Seminar tutorial, I’ll provide you a detailed checklist that you can use to obtain and exercise good discussion skills, as well as more thoroughly monitor your progress in the course.

Mastering the Human Event: Seminar Discussion (II)

In Part I of this mini-series on participating in a seminar discussion, I introduced some ideas and perspectives to help you get in the right frame of mind for this substantial component of your class performance. In this post, I will summarize these issues and move into some practical tips and suggestions for how to become an excellent discussant.


It is essential that you demonstrate to your Instructor your engaged participation in the class. How?

  • You come prepared for the discussion by having read the assignments thoughtfully, and reflected on the important or significant or difficult questions, issues, points, or theses raised in or implied by the texts.
  • You air out these questions and thoughtful comments for your classmates to hear, think about, and respond to.
  • You respond to the contributions of your classmates through asking questions, clarifying a statement, challenging an interpretation, citing evidence, or supplementing with your own contribution.
  • You use and take notes to help you synthesize what you cover in the discussion to be taken up in a future discussion or in one of your essay assignments.

To gain the utmost from the seminar and achieve all of the course objectives, you must be engaged in these working sessions. Your curiosity, concern, and desire to think about and work through sometimes difficult questions and writings will determine whether the conversations flounder or flourish. As described in the previous post, the distinction between debate and inquiry is key. If you are strongly wedded to an ideology or worldview, that is fine but it is likely to hinder your success and enjoyment of the class insofar as your convictions override your love of inquiry, knowledge, and truth. If you read each text and come to each session with the sincere intention of increasing your insight and understanding into our selection of the great ideas of human thought and imagination, and the big questions implied in them (and the “little,” detailed ones, too!), then you will be mentally prepared to get the most out of the class, both academically and personally.

You can tell when the seminar is working by the level of serious engagement by the participants. I define serious engagement as the patient mining of a text for the insights and other intellectual, moral and imaginative value it holds. If students are just talking without focusing on relevant matters or making sense, then the seminar is not succeeding. If you sense that there are too many superficial observations and remarks in the conversation, with contributions that aren’t very thoughtful, or a mere exchange of unsupported opinions, then help the conversation get back on track by bringing focus on a particular word, phrase, or sentence in the text. It is always welcome to direct the class back to a specific place in the text. Textual citations and references are good ways to keep a session focused on the task at hand and will be appreciated by your Instructor. In fact, this is my Number One piece of advice:

Actively use the text when you’re listening and speaking. READ relevant selections out loud to support your point, explore someone else’s point, or move to another topic or question.

Conversations in a seminar are informal, but serious and polite. Your Instructor will tell you if you need to raise your hand or not for permission to be heard. Some Instructors allow you to courteously enter the discussion or withdraw from it at will. With respect to seminar etiquette, keep in mind two cardinal rules: first, all opinions must be heard and explored, however sharply they may clash; second, every opinion must be supported by reasons—an unsupported opinion does not advance the task at hand or help you demonstrate your engagement. Your participation is a barometer that continuously measures and displays the kind of engagement you’ve had with the assigned readings and the topics under consideration. The quantity and quality of your participation is directly proportional to the preceding completeness and intellectual care of your reading of a text and thinking about it.

Guidelines for Good Seminar Participation

Successful participation in seminars is not easy; it is a skill you have to learn. Most students require a good deal of practice to improve at it. The following guidelines should help you to focus your attention on behaviors directly relevant to good seminar participation. I’ll start with the obvious ones.

1. Arrive on time and stay for the length of the seminar. ASU is a big campus, to be sure, and Barrett Honors College is in a far-flung corner of it. Nevertheless, interruptions are irritating, and missing part of the conversation can lead to repetition.

2. Bring the correct text with you in the proper edition. Working with different translations or with editions having different pagination can make providing references difficult and slow down the process. Attend carefully to what is going on, be ready to contribute at all times, and display interest in the proceedings.

3. Do not use the seminar as your snack break or as an opportunity to catch up on some sleep or to write a letter to your relatives.

4. You’ve heard it many times from me alreadyhedgehog-reading: prepare. Read closely and think about the text. Remind yourself that your reading should be close, not desultory. Bring to each class meeting some considered reflections about the topic under discussion. Where do these come from? (a) Your annotations in the text; (b) Your journal of pre-session thoughts, ideas and questions. It is particularly irritating for those who have so prepared themselves to have to listen to someone who has not read and thought about the material but who wishes nevertheless to deliver a series of opinions on it.

5. Another good preparation practice is to meet with one or two people a day or two beforehand to discuss the material.

6. Make meaningful annotations. Make a note of anything—a word, a phrase, a sentence, a stanza, a paragraph, a chapter—you find puzzling or irritating or exciting, something that might form the basis for a question you would want to ask your classmates to respond to, or a comment you would want to contribute to the conversation. You should not expect to come to the seminar with everything in the text “figured out” or your mind absolutely made up about the questions or points. Worries about getting the text wrong or saying something “stupid” are often the most difficult internal impediments that discussants have to overcome in themselves. If this fear is inhibiting you, memorize this and tattoo it on your palms if necessary: good participation does not depend on the brilliance of everything you say. Again, it would be helpful to internalize the distinction between debate and inquiry I discussed in the previous post. Prepare for and enter the discussion under the presumption that we all lack the brilliant “take” on the reading but that we are going to grapple with it together to win genuine insight and understanding into things that matter.

7. Analyze the text. Try to compose good answers to these questions:

  • What kind of text is this and what is its subject matter?
  • What unifies the text: what is main problem being addressed in this work, or, if it is a work of imaginative literature, what are its themes?
  • What are the major parts of the text, how are they connected to each other, and how do they develop the arguments or themes?
  • What are the key terms used by the author and what do they mean in context, or, if it is a work of imaginative literature, what are the key characters and plot points in the story, and what is significant about them?
  • What are the key propositions advanced by the author?
  • What is the argument or arguments? How has the author organized the theses to be proved? What evidence and reasons support them?

8. Evaluate the text. Try to compose good answers to these questions:

  • What, to your mind, is the most interesting or important point raised in or by the text—and why?
  • What, to your mind, after reading the text, is the most interesting unanswered question which you think is important or even essential to understand and evaluate the significance of the text’s main claim(s)—and why?
  • What themes, topics and/or theses which have been raised in previous texts and class discussions does the present text question, criticize, shed additional light upon, offer a different perspective on, etc.?

9. Listen closely. Perhaps the most difficult and important skills in effective seminar participation are paying attention and good listening. You need to attend carefully to what others are saying. And then you need to learn to respond intelligently and helpfully. A seminar is not just a collection of individual points of view declared ex cathedra one after the other. It develops a context and a rhythm, often an unpredictable rhythm, which is established, above all, by the ways in which the participants respond to each other. If someone’s contribution is puzzling, then ask him or her to clarify the point, taking care to note the specific trouble you have with it. If the contribution is interesting or plausible, but it is not clear what textual evidence prompts it or supports it, then ask for this evidence. If you disagree or have an alternative point, then put that on the table, also citing the relevant textual support. Like any interesting conversation, a seminar discussant has to be flexible, adjusting her participation to what is happening moment by moment.

10. Be patient with each other. Avoid interrupting a discussant before they have finished. While some interruptions are appropriate, impatient and premature interruptions can close some discussants down so that they are reluctant to contribute. Be aware when a discussant is pausing or hesitating because they might be trying to gather their thoughts. By the same token, if you speak reactively to what you hear, you may need to work on developing more deliberative conversational behaviors (see point #12 below). All participants should recognize that they have the responsibility for keeping the discussion focused on the matter at hand. Thus you should, when appropriate, challenge the relevance and the direction of certain remarks. Just because you are required to be civil does not mean you cannot be firm in requesting a return to the main point or to a previous point which has been abandoned too quickly.

11. It is entirely appropriate in a seminar to decline to respond if someone asks you a direct question. If you have nothing relevant to say on the point, there is no need to pretend. Simply decline the invitation with a simple “Pass” or equivalent, and let the discussion continue.

12. Regulate your speech. Good seminar participation does not depend upon the frequency of one’s remarks. In fact, the person who is always ready to jump in at the slightest opportunity can often harm a discussion; first, by excluding other voices, and second, by encouraging others to rely on her to pick up the slack moments. Consider what might be called your conversational “trigger finger.” This phrase describes the time one takes to react vocally to a question or to someone else’s point. Some people react very quickly and are ready to vocalize their views almost immediately, often without sufficient reflection or organization of their remarks. Others need some time to reflect on how they are going to respond. If those with a quick conversational trigger finger take over a discussion, then those who are more deliberate in their speaking rarely get a chance to contribute because by the time they are ready to speak the subject often has shifted to something else. So you need to assess how you, in your keenness to respond, may be closing out someone whose reaction time is slower than your own. Failure to rein in an excessive presence in conversations when it has been pointed out to you will harm your course performance.

13. Encourage each other. Remain alert to the group dynamics. For example, some people find it difficult to speak. You could invite them to state their views on something, encourage them to pursue a point they have just introduced, or induce them in some way to join in. Here’s a real-world analogy: the board meeting. Think of the seminar as a meeting of the CEO and her board of executives. These executives are all well-informed and thoughtful people, but some prefer to listen to everyone else and may only speak rarely or briefly. For the CEO to come to the best decision on some question or point, it is best that she have the considered views of all the board members. Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate and desirable for her to say to the executive who hasn’t spoken at all, as you have probably seen in commercials, TV shows and movies, “Jones! What do you say about all this?!” Since this is a democratic setting, each of you is empowered to don the role of CEO as needed. If this seems awkward or contrived, then make arrangements with each other before the class session begins. The best participants in seminars are those who not only provide interesting and relevant comments themselves but also encourage others to join in. Not only is soliciting the views of each other an implicit sign of respect for the opinions of each person in the room, you should note well the transferable skill involved in being on both the giving and receiving ends of such exchanges. You are likely to be in a position one day where conversational leadership or response to such leadership is an expected behavior and a valuable contribution to the effectiveness of a group’s work and the soundness of a group’s decisions.

14. Evaluate your own performance after every session. Take a few moments to externalize what happened. I’ll provide a checklist for this activity in my next post. Pay particular attention to any habits you are falling into. Are you always sitting in the same chair? Do you always speak up early in the session and then withdraw from the conversation? Do you have one particular form of comment which you always use? Do you use empty words or sounds like ‘like’, ‘um’ or ‘uh’ excessively? What was your body language communicating? And so on. Experiment with different styles. For example, if you like to speak up and generally do so quite early, try for a couple of sessions not saying anything too early on, concentrating on listening to where others take the conversation, reserving what you have to say until later. If you are someone who likes to initiate discussions by putting new points on the table, try for a few sessions being reactive, that is, taking your cue from points others have raised. And so on.

In Part III of this mini-series in the tutorial, I will cover some problems you may encounter as well as a self-assessment tool.

Mastering the Human Event: Seminar Discussion (I)

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 chairs arranged in a circular formatiion

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.

cafe-conversationPeople 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? debate-cat

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.

The Goal

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.

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.