how to prepare for a seminar

 

The teaching method that I use in all of my seminars is this.

A seminar is not a lecture. Its primary purpose is not to get information out of the teacher, but to enable the students to find out whether their ideas about and understanding of a particular topic work.

Therefore a seminar is a discussion group, in which most of the discussion is done by the students. Your job is to prepare for the seminar and come with things to say; my job is to (1) set you preparation tasks that will enable you to find interesting things to say; (2) comment on and interact with what you have to say--ask the questions that make you think, and elicit and test your contributions; (3) point to how you might take the topic further.

I don't agree with the school of thought that says that the teacher should only ask questions. The teacher's job is also to exemplify the discourse of the subject, to show you how it's done; but this is only in response to what the students provide. The main contribution should come from you.

This is difficult for students if there are say 13 of them and they come to the seminar with individual contributions, and have to negotiate a space to speak, and find the individual courage to do so. Accordingly, I ask all of my students to meet in small groups beforehand, and I give each small group a specific task. Your job is to talk through your contribution to the seminar, and be able as a group and as a minimum to talk for ten minutes or so on the task set. This is essential. It is the minimum prerequisite for the seminar to happen. You must do this. If there is any chance at all that you don't, then you must email me beforehand and tell me what the problem is.

The seminar needn't be, and usually isn't, restricted to those ten minute slots: on a good day, general discussion breaks out, the seminar 'takes off', a good time is had by all, and education takes place. My job is to help that happen, and to organise coherence when it does.

If it doesn't, and if I am not getting responses from students, if the groups are underprepared, then I will resist the temptation to turn it into a lecture; I will put you back in your small groups and give you a specific task to do; and go for a refreshing walk. When I come back I will expect you to talk from the discussion you have just had.

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