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.

How to Read a Difficult Text

Over the past year, I’ve written several posts that explore how to read difficult texts. In this post, I have pulled together some of the key points in those posts to help you here at the beginning of your studies this semester.

Journal-Blank-Page-676pxMost of the reading we do during the day is desultory. Most of what we consume on the Internet, or during times we want to unwind, reading at the beach…these are usually done without any serious effort put into understanding what we’re reading. But some reading that we do needs to done with a more critical eye because we need to work to understand what the author says, or there’s something important that we need to grasp, or we just need to think about what the author is saying. Because so much of the reading you need to do in your hardest college courses, especially in the humanities and liberal arts, requires serious effort to “get it,” I encourage you to develop skills in close reading. As a philosopher, this is the kind of reading I have to do all the time in my line of work. What is close reading and why do you need to read your assigned texts this particular way?

Close Reading

By the time you enter college, you have probably developed reading habits from email, texting, chatting, and web-based content that cripple your ability to read books and texts that require sustained, careful, reflective reading to be understood. That’s why it’s not enough for your teacher to tell you to “read the book.” You need to know the kind of reading that you’ll need to do–close, or studious, reading–and how to develop techniques or new habits to do this kind of reading well. Here’s the logic:

  • You are assigned books or selections from books of lasting value to “digest,” so you need to study what you read.
  • And if you are going to study what you have read, you need to annotate the text or take notes.
  • And if you annotate or take notes, you should organize and assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary.

Here’s another way to put it:

  • The point of close reading is to be able to critically evaluate what you read.
  • Critical evaluation of what you read must be done by careful analysis of the material until you understand the author’s claims or point.
  • Once you understand, then you are prepared to weigh its merits and demerits more objectively.
  • Objectivity requires you to suspend, or put out of play temporarily, your own private point of view and beliefs, as far as possible.
  • This won’t occur from desultory reading, or when your encounter with an author is on the terms of your own unquestioned, subjective authority, but only by your active engagement with the material and response to the author as a fellow rational being and critical thinker.
  • The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it: annotations in the text and journaled commentary.

You will need the right tools to do close reading well. A comfortable chair and desk. Accessories such as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks. Water, tea, a cup of coffee. Atmospherics and location that will encourage your focus on studious reading, be it a particular playlist or silence, indoors or outdoors, in a library, a study room, a park, your dorm room.

Use a good dictionary to look up any words that are unfamiliar. Look up characters, places, or events that are unfamiliar in an encyclopedia (here Wikipedia may be a helpful resource, but use it cautiously). Find a system of annotations that works for you. Marginal notes are essential. Transpose and arrange your marginalia into more developed thought and commentary. I recommend having a journal for this purpose.

Your learning style might lend itself to making categories and lists, or nonlinear notetaking like maps or trees. If you are taking notes in preparation for a quiz or exam, you will save yourself a lot of trouble if you take the time at the time you read the work to impose a linear, sequential arrangement to your ideas. So apply some systematic method, such as SQ3R or the Cornell system, to organize and structure your notes.

What is Analysis?

So far, I’ve referred to this notion of analysis a lot. So what does analysis have to do with close reading? Everything!

Analysis requires that you first understand the author, to see or hear what the author has to say in his or her own terms. This requires you to enter into a system, that is, accept the worldview and presuppositions of the author as given. Next, your critical analysis begins by looking 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. If you haven’t first understood (listened to) the author within the world in which he or she has written, your response will usually be little more than ideologically motivated fault-finding or anachronistic interpretations. For example, if you simply dismiss Plato’s metaphysics 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? The works of Plato have survived many centuries of uninformed hostility; they’ll outlast another biased reading! You’ll have to push yourself outside your comfort zone to tackle difficult texts.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives helpful definitions of “analysis” and its cognates. Two of the entries are germane to what you’ll need to do in close reading:

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.”

To analyze a text you examine the specific details you find in the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters of the text, as well as the context. Analysis has a clear direction: it proceeds from the complex to the simple. A relevant and substantive selection 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, how they relate to each other, and in their proper context. This comprehensive approach to textual analysis occurs in your thinking about the text. You need to be able to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant details in the text, and then focus on the relevant ones. Paraphrase your relevant findings from this effort and transpose them into your written notes and commentary.

This is where your thoughts encounter the author’s thoughts. Organizing the ideas of the text into relevant and irrelevant categories assumes that you have some framework, some model, some structure for sorting through those distinctions. This is often the most difficult step–being aware of the conceptual tools that you’ve been using to unlock the meaning of the text in your commentary. If you’ve written down what you think about the reading, then you’ve been using some criteria to justify why you take particular terms, ideas, and claims of the author as relevant or not. As you organize your annotations and write out some commentary, these concepts around which you are expressing your thoughts and discussing the text should become clearer. Eventually, you’ll be able to identify those concepts and figure out if they’re related to each other in some sort of organized, structured way. If you’re required to write an essay or long reflection piece on a reading assignment, this conceptual framework is what you will need to have a strong, insightful, original “take” on the text. And it will all have come about by the careful analysis you did through close reading.

Let’s Do It!

Not long ago I wrote a three-part mini-series on doing close reading and annotations–

Part I

Part II

Part III

RP-3411I used an excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that I had used to develop an essay for a philosophy conference and later into a published article. I encourage students to practice alongside my example and use my annotation system. Once you’ve tried it on your own, find an annotation system that works for you. If you’re annotating a text that you are going to write an essay on, then that system might look different than annotations that you are going to use to study for a quiz or test. Make up your own annotation system, adapt mine or another one you find, and use one of the notetaking systems linked above to help you get the most out of the time you spend doing your close reading and understanding difficult texts.

In the comments, I’d like to hear about your annotation system. What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you?




galileo-telescopeI have taught excerpts from a few of Galileo’s works–Starry Messenger, The AssayerDialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences–but the best historical insights and discussions come from a close reading of what can only be called Galileo’s primary theological work, the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.

Critical reading and discussion of Galileo and his works, if done from an historically informed perspective, is one of the most profitable correctives to one’s knowledge of the history of science and religion in the pre-Victorian era. As Tim O’Neill wrote in his review of God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, no version of the “hysterical myths” of a Christian Dark Ages is complete without wheeling out poor Galileo to demonstrate the supposed malicious suppression of scientific knowledge by raving, superstitious cardinals and popes in the Catholic Church. The facts, however, about Galileo, the cardinals, the popes, and the connections between the endeavors of empirical science, its philosophical foundations, and the concerns of religion, as actually played out in early seventeenth-century Europe, are far more complex and interesting than “The Myth.”

In his 2000 book When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners?, physicist and philosopher Ian Barbour describes a four-fold model for classifying ways to relate science and religion: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration. “The Myth” has grown weed-like from late nineteenth century polemicists creating and promulgating the “conflict” thesis, the view that science and religion (Christianity) are inevitably at cultural and intellectual war. Despite the fact that this thesis has been long repudiated in academia by the research of actual and competent historians, it persists in the subcultures of armchair Internet polemicists and history-scorning niches of academia itself.

But historical misinformation about Galileo is not limited to axe-grinders. Ignorance about how the great minds in the medieval period advanced the study of nature and the erection of textbook heroes of the Scientific Revolution like Galileo conspire to spread misinformation about who discovered or theorized what and when. Examples abound. From the Wikipedia article on The Assayer linked above, the opening sentence declares that Galileo in this work “first broach[ed] the idea that the book of nature is to be read with mathematical tools rather than those of scholastic philosophy.” No, Wiki friends, Galileo cannot be given credit for first theorizing the connection between physics and mathematics. This insight goes back at least 300 hundred years prior to Galileo, to the fourteenth century. James Hannam quotes one of the “Merton Scholars,” Thomas Bradwardine, in God’s Philosophers,

[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth (…) whoever then has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom. (God’s Philosophers, 176, quoted in O’Neill)

Compare the relatively sparse Wikipedia entry for Bradwardine and this group of thinkers, the “Merton Scholars” or “Oxford Calculators.”

And with that incredibly lengthy introduction thankfully behind us, let’s turn to our Core Text outline and get to some key points about Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

The Obvious

galileoHeliocentrism. The Letter purports to defend the Copernican model of the universe against the reigning geocentric model. You should be able to reconstruct these two models and understand the empirical evidence for them at the time.

Truth. It should go without saying, but these days, one can’t. Mind the distinction between the nature of truths and the knowledge of truths. Galileo argues from the obvious position (and assumes his readers will, too) that the nature of truths is absolute, i.e., nonrelative, while one’s knowledge of any given truth is fallible. (This is not the time to enter into the argument, but the view that the nature of truths is relative–a view I’ve often heard in the classroom asserted as though it were an obvious fact–suffers from the self-refuting implication that there is one truth which is nonrelative, viz., that truth is relative.) One possible source of the disagreement between Galileo and his opponents is the nature and domain of two reports: those from a sacred text and those from sense observation. Does Galileo regard these sources as equally truthful? As equally reliable? If they conflict with each other on some specific matter, how does he think the disagreement should be resolved?

Galileo marshals the Church Fathers and theologians of his own time to support his case. This should matter.

The Not-so-Obvious

A significant portion of the Letter uses the tools of hermeneutics. “What’s that?” Exactly. The four rules for interpreting Scripture formulated by Benito Pereira, S.J., likely informed Galileo’s approach, so you should familiarize yourself with them to gain insights into Galileo’s interpretation of the Bible.

The concept of accommodation is extremely important to understand how Galileo interprets scriptural texts that refer to empirical phenomena and the natural world.

The hermeneutical climax of the Letter is Galileo’s interpretation of a miraculous event described in the 10th chapter of the book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible. You should familiarize yourself with this text independently of Galileo’s quotations.

Galileo’s self-presentation in the opening paragraphs of the Letter should give you some indication why he sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.

“Natural philosophy” is another name for ‘science’ or ‘physics’, but it is not reducible to the empirical sciences. It recognizes, wrestles with, and often explicitly integrates its philosophical foundations in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.

AckbarThe Traps

The Myth. Using Barbour’s four-fold model for describing how science and religion relate to each other, you should try to classify Galileo’s position as developed in the Letter. Does Galileo adopt one of the models consistently, or does he move among more than one of them?

Galileo’s relationship with the Church. For much of his career, Galileo enjoyed the favor and patronage of many leaders and clerics in the Church. He worked out key elements of the argument in the Letter earlier in correspondence with these friends, notably Benedetto Castelli. See Maurice Finocchiario’s The Galileo Affair for key materials to appreciate this background.

The Trial. It is helpful to know exactly what the charges were against Galileo that led to his prosecution by the Inquisition in 1633, and the evidence for those charges. Though the Church operated as an arm of civil authority, it is helpful to distinguish between the civil and religious censures and penalties actually enjoined on Galileo.

The Graded Essay: 5 Steps to Improve Your Next Essay

In this post I will guide you in the process of interpreting the feedback on your essay and how to prioritize and incorporate it into your next, much improved, essay. This topic is a natural extension of the posts I’ve written on how to write your argumentative essays (see my “Mastering the Human Event” tutorial).


You’ve gotten your graded essay back. Your Instructor wrote a lot of comments on it. Your first instinct, because several years of schooling have trained you to practice grade-grubbing, is to look for the letter grade or numerical score, to find out what you “got” on your paper. My first piece of advice is to develop the discipline to disregard the grade, or at least not to imbue it with so much value. The real value of your graded essay is the criticism you’ve received on your writing by an Instructor who knows how to write well and is eager to share her knowledge with you. If you value this feedback for the gold that it is, you can incorporate the criticisms into your next writing assignment and the grade will take care of itself. I’m going to give you 5 steps to help you take the information your Instructor gives you and apply it to all of your future writing.

1.  Find where your Instructor has written a summary narrative comment and read that carefully.

This is often at the end of your paper, or sometimes a separate page is attached to your original paper or file. Here the Instructor will often summarize the most important shortcomings in your essay (as well as praise you for what you did well). In my experience, the top 4 shortcomings in an argumentative essay are:

  1. the thesis statement is not a well-formulated argument;
  2. the evidence adduced in the body of the essay is not expounded or effectively analyzed;
  3. the conceptualization of the argument, the conceptual framework of the essay, is inadequate or uninteresting;
  4. the prose is unsatisfactory to the point where your diction and linguistic errors interfere with your meaning.

NB: Nos. 2 and 3 may be the result of an inadequate reading and grasp of the primary text(s) that you are writing about. No. 4, if it is bad enough, may cause your Instructor to give up before completing your essay; I’ve given up after one page in the worst cases. If you had a chance to rewrite this essay, how would you address these shortcomings? Whatever your Instructor has identified as an important shortcoming in the summary narrative comment on your essay, you need to review the instructional materials for performing that task correctly.

2. Read the key marginal and in-line comments written by the Instructor.

Go back to tgraded-essayhe beginning of your essay and identify the key marginal and in-line comments. These are the comments that correspond to the most important shortcomings identified in Step 1. Your Instructor provides more details in these comments to help you understand what the specific problem(s) is (are).

Example 1. Suppose the Instructor has commented in his or her summary narrative at the end of your paper that your thesis is weak or even nonexistent. So now that you know you have a major shortcoming with your thesis statement, you should jump to your thesis statement on the first page of your essay to read any additional discussion of the problems in the Instructor’s marginal comments. You reread your thesis statement and sure enough, it’s a hamburger thesis – simply a list of claims, disconnected from each other and with no logical inference to a definite proposition. If there was a problem with the thesis statement in my students’ essays, these would receive my longest marginal or inline comments. The details you get from the Instructor in these comments are important because they will tell you not only that you do not have a well-formulated argument, but why specifically it isn’t. Often the Instructor will give you editorial suggestions about how to improve or fix the issue. You can thank them for that later (Step 4).

Example 2. The Instructor has commented in the summary narrative that your paper lacks sufficient evidence. Go to each paragraph in the body of the essay and check each of your quotes to see what your Instructor has said about them. It could be that the quotations aren’t relevant to your argument. Or that your discussion of the quotes lacks adequate analysis or explanation. (Analysis is an element of textual evidence.)

Now compare what the Instructor has written in the marginal comments with the instructional materials that pertain to that issue, just like you did in Step 1. Incorporate any specific editorial suggestions the Instructor included in his or her comments. Now it is time to practice applying those instructional materials so that you can break bad writing habits and replace them with good habits. Review your previous short writing assignments, earlier drafts, and papers. See if you can find problems on those that are similar to the shortcomings your Instructor identified in your current essay.

3. Revise the parts of your essay that have the most serious flaws in reasoning.

You’re not in this for the grade, remember? There’s no way around this step if you are serious about improving your writing skills. To write well you must write more and write smarter. Your Instructor is guiding you in the latter; the former is up to you!

Steps 3 – 5 are the key for you to advance from understanding what you did wrong or poorly on the essay to being able to avoid repeating those errors on future essays. Focus especially on any shortcomings in your thesis, conceptualization, analysis of evidence, and map or structure of the essay. Don’t rewrite the whole essay. Take no more than two hours to revise sections of your graded essay by focusing on the parts that have the most serious problems. Print out a copy of these revisions, which should be no more than a page or two, and…

4. Request a meeting with your Instructor to discuss your paper.

See my guidelines about communicating with your Instructor. Even if this is the last essay you write for the course, the real-time feedback from your Instructor that is available to you is extraordinarily valuable for all of your future writing. Here are five key points about this step:

  1. In your email contact with the Instructor, make it clear that you have specific items from the last essay you’d like to get further feedback on. You don’t have to list them in the email; the point is to let the Instructor know in advance that you have a specific reason and agenda for meeting with him or her, and you’re not coming to grade-grub, argue about his or her comments or evaluation of your work, or otherwise pitch a fit. You’re going because you believe that a brief autopsy on your recently deceased essay will improve your writing.
  2. Go to the meeting prepared. Make sure you’ve done the first three steps I’ve outlined in this post.
  3. Bring your revised material from Step 3 as well as a printed copy of the graded essay. Explain that this is your attempt to understand and incorporate the Instructor’s feedback and ask him or her to evaluate how well you’ve understood the main problem(s) with your essay. Ask for further guidance if your revised work still hasn’t significantly improved your problem areas in the essay. Only if you show your initiative in trying to improve your writing by bringing in brief, revised material for your Instructor to review is it then appropriate to ask for further editorial suggestions if they were not provided by the Instructor in the graded essay.
  4. Keep the meeting concise and on point. Your Instructor should do most of the talking. It’s an autopsy and she is the medical examiner. You’re there to assist, listen, and learn. Certainly ask for further clarification if you don’t understand something your Instructor says. But don’t get bogged down in too much detail like word choice or get defensive about either your original essay or the revised material. Your graded essay is a corpse and you’re looking for the cause of death. You’re there to show you’re serious about improving your thinking and writing, to show that you’ve grasped what the problems in your essay were, and reflected on how you would correct or improve them were the graded essay a first draft.
  5. Take written notes of any new suggestions or information your Instructor gives you. This is more grist for your mill.

5. On your next essay, build in a reasonable period of time to develop your first draft and analyze the areas of the draft that were shortcomings in your previous essay.

You’ve put some real work into incorporating your Instructor’s feedback, and the last thing you want to do is repeat the same mistakes.

Apply these 5 steps and you’re sure to improve your next essay. And make your Instructor much happier as he contemplates the task of grading your work and that of your classmates again.


Honors Seminar – Second Semester

For most first-year undergraduate Honors students, January 2015 commences the second semester of your first-year interdisciplinary Honors seminar. If you’re new to the site, I’ve written a multi-part tutorial to help you navigate this challenging course. The tutorial is called “Mastering the Human Event.” A permanent page link to it is here. I’m reposting the table of contents to the front page so that you have easy access to review and use its contents.

The “Human Event” is the name of the first-year interdisciplinary “Great Ideas” seminar I taught at Barrett Honors College at ASU for six years. I have produced this series based on my experience teaching this course and prior philosophy courses. I hope all Barrett students–current, prospective, or past–find this tutorial helpful and informative. And I hope all students who take a similar course, whether in high school or college, will find much that they can apply as well.


I am currently building out my series on Core Texts. This is a long-term project and new texts will be uploaded sporadically, but I’m aiming for at least three per week. Other series in the works include one on writing sins and how to avoid them, which focuses on analysis and reasoning rather than linguistic issues, and another on writing an Honors thesis. I want to serve the needs of teacher and student communities, so if you have any ideas for tutorials or posts that you’d like to see, drop me a line at

Thanks for reading, sharing, linking, and discussing!

“Mastering the Human Event” Tutorial

Table of Contents

  1.  Introduction
  2.  Preparation
  3.  Academic Goals
  4.  Why the Human Event? I
  5.  Why the Human Event? II
  6.  Why the Human Event? III
  7.  Selecting Your Instructor
  8.  Communicating With Your Instructor
  9.  Seminar Dynamics
  10.  Behaviors
  11.  Seminar Discussion I
  12.  Seminar Discussion II
  13.  Seminar Discussion III
  14.  Seminar Discussion IV
  15.  Essay Writing I
  16.  Essay Writing II
  17.  Essay Writing III
  18.  Conclusion


Francis Bacon

francis-baconI have used extracts from Bacon’s Novum Organum that focus on his well-known “four idols.” This is an excellent text for introducing the significant cultural change in the West to a period that historians designate as modernity. Important features of modernity are present in the text, but it also straddles the preceding era. Do your background research at carefully curated sites like the Stanford Encyclopedia.

The Obvious

The four idols. Know the differences between them and be able to describe them in your own words.

Why “idols?” What is an idol?

This is a text within a text within a text. The selection is from the Novum Organum, or New Organon, which is Part II and the most complete portion of The Great Instauration. Look up words you don’t know so that you can use and refer to them correctly.

The form of the text is aphoristic. This should matter.

The Not-so-Obvious

The “Baconian method” of induction is present, but must be pieced together from several of the aphorisms.

Bacon is an empiricist, but not a naive one. The human intellect is not a tabula rasa. We see through a glass darkly. So if the student wants to investigate and know Nature “out there” he must account for a human nature that is defective, including and especially his own.

Natural philosophy is another name for ‘science’, but it is not reducible to the empirical sciences. It recognizes and wrestles with its philosophical foundations in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.

AckbarThe Traps

The Baconian method is a scientific method. Beware essentializing Bacon’s inductive method as “the” scientific method.

Then-and-Now thinking. If Bacon’s doctrine of the idols is accurate, it isn’t limited to the errors of his own time. The careful Baconian scientist is not triumphant – “oh those silly benighted rubes in the Dark Ages” – but epistemologically humble. The Baconian scientist is not immune to the errors described by the idols.

Forgetting the context. Read the title page carefully. What’s the subtitle? What is the overall project of Bacon’s work? What’s going on in late 16th and early 17th century England and Europe?

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.