Fall Quarter, 2002

Basically, a seminar is a group of people discussing a common topic.  There are as many ways to conduct seminars as there are Evergreen faculty.  Some faculty exercise strong control, keeping the discussion on a narrow path, perhaps leading to an answer they already know (or think they know).  Others simply watch and let the discussion go wherever it will, perhaps never even saying a word.  If youíve been at Evergreen a while, you may have seen both of these approaches (and perhaps others).

Ultimately though, a good seminar is one which the participants look forward to as a chance  to increase their understanding of the seminar material, regardless of how the discussion is structured.  Often you can tell a good seminar from a bad one by how soon it seems to end:  If it feels as if itís over too soon, it was probably a good one.  If people couldnít wait for the seminar to end, it may not have been.

Good seminars don't just happen; they need preparation.  We can't have a good seminar if everybody just skims the reading a few minutes before class.  We can't have a good seminar if one or two people dominate the discussion, intimidating others or preventing them from speaking.  We canít have a good seminar if people don't get beyond saying "I like this" or "I donít like that."  We can't have a good seminar unless everyone has something at stake in the discussion, and to have something at stake, we have to prepare.

Here are some ways to prepare for seminars.  You donít have to follow them all; you may have tools that work better for you.  But your faculty have found these ideas useful:

Read the material over a period of time, rather than in a marathon push the night before the seminar.  Try to be working on the next reading while you are discussing the current one.  We recognize that reading takes time; more for some people than others.  With a little practice, you can learn to estimate how long it will take you to read something and plan accordingly.   Finishing the reading beforehand should be at the top of your seminar TO-DO list.

Most books (especially non-fiction books) come with a set of tools designed to help people use them.  Before you start in on the body of a book, read the "about the author" blurb if there is one.  Look at the table of contents to see how the book is organized.  If the book has footnotes or endnotes, spend a few minutes studying how the author uses these: Where are they printed?  Do some notes have content you must read in order to understand the book or are they just references you can skip over unless you want to track something down?  If the book has a forward or preface or introduction by the author, read it carefully, because thatís often where s/he will lay out his or her plan or tell you what s/he thinks the book is really about or why it was written.

As you read, try to put yourself in the time and place of the actors in the books or of the authors who wrote them.  Many of our books this quarter will deal with people and societies long dead.  For the most part the people we will learn about were pretty intelligent folks.  Try to imagine what the world must have seemed like to them and how what they did or wrote could have appeared both natural and true to them.

As you read, take notes.  Many students (and most faculty) jot ideas and questions in the margins of books as they read, but if you plan to resell your books, itís OK to use a notebook instead.  One good strategy for note-taking is to read each chapter straight through without taking notes.  Then work  through the chapter again, asking (and answering) the following questions in your notes:

What points is the author trying to make in this chapter; of what is s/he trying to convince us?  For fiction, what story is the author trying to tell, and how?

How does s/he construct that argument; what evidence is being offered?

What didn't I understand; where did I get lost? Why?

What do I think of what the author wrote in this chapter; where do I agree or disagree (and most importantly, why do I agree or disagree)?

After you have finished reading a book, go back and ask these same questions again, but this time about the entire book, using your notes on the chapters as an aid.  Write a paragraph in which you try to explain the book  to someone who hasn't read it.  Make a list of things you didn't understand and another list of things you violently disagree with, along with specific reasons.  Ask yourself why this book matters; why did we read it?!?!!

Just before the seminar, review your notes and look over the book again.  Write down at least one question you would really like to have answered about the book or about something discussed in the book.  Be prepared to ask this question at an appropriate point in the seminar.

Your faculty believe that some sort of serious preparation along the lines of the above is necessary for good seminars, but not sufficient.  Even if participants are well-prepared, a seminar can fail because of bad group dynamics.  It's just as important to pay attention to the process of seminars as to their content.  Again, here are a few suggestions for conducting seminars, ones your faculty have found useful in the past:

Make the seminar matter to you.  If you have a topic you want to discuss or a question you want to have answered, say something.  The seminar can't answer your questions if you don't ask them.  Remember that questions that stem from ignorance are never stupid.

Be sensitive to what matters to others.  If somebody asks a question, make it your business to help answer it.  Don't let the seminar go on to another topic until the person who asked the question is satisfied that it's been answered (or that it canít be answered).  Respect other studentsí questions and ideas as you do your own.

Learn to listen.  Learn to speak.  A good seminar requires participants to have both kinds of skills.  If you are a person who talks a lot, practice listening.  Back off and leave room for others to speak.  If you are a person who listens a lot, practice speaking more.  The time that seminar participants spend speaking will never, of course, be precisely equal, even across many seminars.  Sometimes you may have nothing to say; sometimes you may have everything to say.  But you should learn to make both listening and speaking work for you as ways to help you understand the book or topic being discussed.

Be careful about bringing personal experiences and emotional reactions into the seminar.  Individual experiences or emotional reactions can illuminate the topic being discussed in a truly brilliant way.  But more often, they are just distracting.  One of the hardest tasks for many students in seminar is to get beyond "liking" or "disliking" the book.  If we make it the principal work of the seminar to increase our understanding of what the author has said rather than to decide whether itís "good", our deepening understanding of the book will eventually lead us to clear reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the author.

One final note:  Seminar is a group activity.  That means that earning credit is dependent on effectively supporting it.  At a minimum this means coming to virtually every seminar on time, having read the material and being ready to discuss it.  From time to time the faculty may ask students to demonstrate that they are prepared before seminar begins.