The Function of Seminar




     Although a great deal of our work in the "Power and Limitations..." is focused outward, we are together as a (more-or-less) full group for seven hours a week and in discussion or seminar for a good portion of that.  This handout is intended to heighten your awareness of our seminaring as a time when we are attempting to try out and apply what we are learning from other dimensions of the program.  My hope is that our seminaring will be at the least a cut or two above what would have been the case without our sustained attention to dialogue, if only because I can in this program look upon each of you as an ally in trying to sustain "conversations of respect".  


     Our greatest learning resource is diversity.  It is lamentable that there is not enough diversity at TESC to reflect the society we as a public institution allegedly serve.  And further lamentable that what diversity there exists at the college is in effect walled off by subtly and not so subtly avoiding the major differences among us.  There is no denying that TESC is a cocooned environment.  Nonetheless, there is still a great deal of diversity at the College and especially in this program: diversities, for example, of age and work and family experience, of disciplinary attraction, of gender, of sexual preference, of religious and cultural and ethnic and racial heritage, of personal and professional goals, of learning styles, etc.


     The learning communities at Evergreen and public life in general are in theory enriched by the contributions of each diverse person.  This theoretical possibility is limited by at least two factors: the reluctance or inability of some to contribute and the unwillingness or inability of some to listen.  The structure of the seminars I lead (and of a large portion of this program) could fruitfully be viewed as pedagogical strategies to address these two limitations. 


     The ability to contribute, to speak in public gatherings, is one of the essential skills of the liberally educated person and is vital to the survival of a pluralistic democracy.  I respect the fact that many students are not comfortable in speaking in large or medium-sized groups, and/or that they prefer to hear others speak before they venture something themselves.  (I was that way myself all the way through graduate school.)  While I will never force any one to speak, will always respect the person's right to "pass", and will do my best to avoid embarrassing anyone, I will also never stop trying to get each student to speak.  (If a student simply can't speak in seminar, I expect there to be a journal/portfolio/email entry of more than one page in response to each seminar meeting.  I will then seek that student's permission to share an entry or two with the entire seminar.)



                         Program Goals


     Listening to students new and old about programs and seminars at TESC, I have become more and more aware how varied is the TESC experience.  In reaction, I have tried to clarify the function and goals of the programs I teach and the seminars I lead.  The most important things to communicate, I believe, about what I am trying to do in a program are the following: 


         1. The most important (though not the sole) goal of the students' overall interaction with the faculty in any program in which I participate is for each student to find or expand an intellectual/artistic passion or fire in his/her belly or heart (what Keats called "the heart's affections."  I hope to assist students in discovering that aspect of whatever it is we are studying which excites them, which entices them to read and think and research and create and converse with fervor and energy.  Nietzsche said it somewhere with far greater succinctness:  "I believe in a pedagogy which quickens."


         2.  That first and most important outcome is joined to another which in at least this program is just as important: to assist them in understanding and learning from persons with very different (even conflicting) passions and viewpoints.  They can enter such dialogue for the selfish purpose of "merely" clarifying their own views or for the more social purpose of building communities of mutual respect.  But they must enter the dialogue.

         The first goal at Evergreen and elsewhere is frequently divorced by students and faculty from this second goal.  This divorce, I believe, reinforces some of the most individualistic, and inhumane) aspects of US and global society.


         3.  The third outcome joins the first two goals: a good program and seminar is one in which the student discovers (in addition to a consuming fire) a small number of friends who will for months and years-to-come be supporters and honest critics.



                     Seminar-specific Goals


     The pedagogically ideal size of a seminar in my judgment (supported by educational research) is seventeen.  Seminars above that size force compromises; but what else is new?  Whatever the size, the most important things to communicate, I believe, about what I am trying to do in a program and especially in "The Power and Limitations..." program are the following:


         1.  The point of a seminar-meeting is not to reach closure or--God forbid--agreement about issues or interpretations or whatever.  The point is rather to elicit a fruitfully diverse range of intelligible (or mutually understood) articulations of reactions/viewpoints which can be discussed briefly and pursued at greater and more satisfying length over lunch or by email or by telephone in the evening.  I frequently encouraged the students to look upon the seminar-meetings as antipasto.  The full meal will be enjoyed later. 


         2.  I make a sharp distinction between a "seminar question" and a "lecture question"; and I do not allow any of the latter in seminar.  A "seminar question" is one (a) which draws upon information or experiences or readings which are in fact (not just in theory or expectation) shared by all the prepared and attending members of the seminar; and (b) will likely be illumined by the diverse perspectives of the members.  A "lecture question" is one that calls for one or two people to transmit information while most others in the seminar remain quiet, even if interested in the question.  There is nothing wrong with such questions, but they should be asked and answered during lecture-time, not seminar-time. 


         3.  It is as unproductive, relative to these goals, for a few students to dominate a seminar as it would be for the instructor to dominate the seminar.  I will not allow a few students to dominate a seminar or to turn lots of students into silent or reactive learners.  I will go to great lengths and employ endless strategies and gimmicks to prevent such domination. Examples: reserving time in discussion for students who have not yet spoken, or placing a limit on the number of times a student can speak in each meeting, or passing around a "talking baton" which one student must yield to another upon request. 


         4.  The most important roles for the instructor in the seminar are:


              (a) to create an atmosphere in which students are expecting to learn from each other and anxious to hear from everyone.  Relatedly, to create an atmosphere in which moving on from student to student is not interpreted as either a comment on the worth of one's own contribution or as superficiality.


              (b) to assist students in understanding the nature and the value of each contribution and how it might relate to their own.


              (3) to avoid getting absorbed in details or overly focused with one or two questions which--however interesting or important--de facto prevent our learning in the limited time available from the diversity within the seminar.     


              (4) to assist the students in developing the intellectual and conversational skills and the confidence necessary to make these things possible.


              (5) over the span of the program to devolve all of these roles to students.