WHATS IN A SEMINAR?
by Jim Harnish, NSCC
The Book Seminar is the primary mode of learning
in a coordinated studies program. The seminar in coordinated studies is
what sets this class apart from other types of classes. So what is a seminar?
How do you prepare for a seminar? What and how do you learn in a seminar?
A seminar brings together an interested group of
learners who have done some preparation, including having read, thought
about and written about a particularly good book. This solitary preparation
should include marking the text for interesting passages, reviewing those
sections, organizing ones thoughts on paper and producing significant
questions that need to be explored.
In the seminar the group is responsible for exploring
the text and probing the ideas people have brought from their individual
reading of the text. It is a time to "mine" the text, to work
it over as a group, to think outloud about it, and to test some ideas
against the group. For example, the following might be overheard in a
seminar: "I dont know if this is valid but it seems that the
author is saying...." Or: "Here on page l5 at the bottom of
the page the author says [read from text]. This seems to be his most important
point. What I think he is saying is..."
A seminar is not an arena for performance to show
youve read the text or a reporting session to read your papers.
Its more than a class discussion and it definitely is not a time
for a lecture from an expert who will tell the group what they should
get from this book. There may be places for those activities but not in
seminar. Seminar is a special time for a unique intellectual activity.
The exchange of ideas is focused on a source (a book, play or film).
A good way to keep focused on the text at hand
is to respond to the following three questions:
1. WHAT IS
THE AUTHOR SAYING? Point to the exact page and paragraph so everyone
can read along.
2. WHAT DOES
THE AUTHOR MEAN? Explain the passage in your own words.
3. WHY IS
THIS POINT IMPORTANT?--Agree or disagree, or compare it to other ideas
Make sure you keep these three questions distinct,
because each question forces the group to discuss the text in different
ways. The first one asks for the facts. The second searches for concepts
behind the exact words, or inferences between the lines. The third seeks
a synthesis your own interpretation, reaction, or insight.
Sometimes the seminar will be focused and free-flowing.
Sometimes it will be searching, questioning, going deeper to understand
ideas from a book, from others or from within yourself. Sometimes the
group will come to some conclusions. Sometimes it will seem like a series
of disconnected activities, like a pop corn popper, with ideas jumping
around the table without clear connections. In either case, the seminar
is a place to discover new ideas, to re-look at old ideas, or to develop
insightful connections among ideas.
The teachers role in a seminar is, at best,
to be a model of an experienced learner; not to be the focus of attention,
or the authority who will tell you what you should learn. Don't let the
faculty member give a lecture in seminar! Everyone must take responsibility
for co-leading and sharing ideas.
Participants must learn to actively listen to each
other and speak openly to the whole group, not just to the leader. The
group must learn to be sensitive to the needs of all. The natural talkers
must be disciplined in order to learn how to listen better. The quiet
people must learn to be more assertive. They must resolve to share their
insights, even if they are not comfortable doing that. Shyness is neither
a virtue nor is it an excuse to withhold your thoughts from the group.
Everyone should speak during each seminar.
Speak in turn and allow others to finish their thoughts. Do not interrupt
one another. Silent periods are OK. Silence gives time to process thoughts,
so try to become comfortable with it. Address an idea or argument by connecting
it to what someone else has said. Summarize the point you are responding
to, then provide your own idea.
Finally if things are not going well, it is our responsibility individually
and collectively to put things right. Keep taking the pulse of the group
and make adjustments so that everyone can have the opportunity to have
a meaningful intellectual experience in seminar. The best question to
ask is not "how am I doing," but rather "how is our seminar
Leaving the seminar with more questions than you
came with, or being somewhat confused and overwhelmed with new ideas,
is a sign your seminar is working. You will come to realize in seminar
that a great book is not something you read once and then feel satisfied
you have learned all you can learn from it. Rather, a great book is one
which stimulates continuing intellectual curiosity, and which demands
from you a re-reading and a continuing discussion of it maybe for
the rest of your life.