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
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
A good way to keep focused on the text at hand
is to respond to the following three questions:
IS THE AUTHOR SAYING? Point to the exact page and paragraph
so everyone can read along.
DOES THE AUTHOR MEAN? Explain the passage in your own words.
IS THIS POINT IMPORTANT?--Agree or disagree, or compare it to other
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 going?"
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.