How to Lead (and Participate in) a Seminar

For Seminar Leaders:

A seminar is a discussion of a topic or a text with the rest of the class, or with a seminar group within the class. It is more than just an open-ended discussion, though. Usually there is some specific text, or a topic, that forms the basis of the discussion, and the intention is to understand the text or grasp the issues at stake in the topic.

This discussion should have the following parts:

  1. An introduction to the topic or reading (Who wrote the piece? Where does he/she work? Why is the issue relevant?)
  2. If there is a single reading, an overview of the argument of the reading, and the author's main conclusions or positions.
  3. If there are multiple assigned readings, then you will need to try to connect them in addition to giving an overview of the argument and conclusions. If there is art or music also assigned, that too will need to be incorporated, either with the other readings or into the overall topic.
  4. If the seminar concerns a topic or concept (that is, there is no specific assigned reading), you will need to identify the central issues at stake in the topic, and the various positions people might take on the topic. Identifying groups, people, or writings that hold a particular position would also be important.
  5. Some sort of context of the topic or reading will be needed, that is, some way of making the topic relevant to the others in the class
  6. The point of a seminar is not just to describe or summarize the readings or concepts. You will need to give your view on the reading, argument, concepts, or positions. This is not just a matter of telling the group "how you feel" about these things, but rather, what kind of reasonable response you can give.
  7. You need to pose questions or examples that will spark discussion in the class/group. The best seminar groups are ones that have a good discussion about significant ideas, and it is the leader's job to make that happen.
  8. If the seminar is a subgroup of a larger class, and the intention is that the subgroup will present a report to the class, you will have to be prepared to talk about what happened in your discussion.
  9. In many cases (e.g., the Senior Research Seminar), a handout will be needed. You should have something to give the others in the group, and you will also need to upload the material to the wiki (if there is a wiki in the course)

When you are preparing for your seminar, it helps to break it down into shorter time periods. So, for instance, if you have 55 minutes for the discussion, and there are 3 readings, you could spend a little time (maybe 5 minutes) at the beginning talking about any issues that connect the readings, and then go into the readings themselves. Give yourself about 10-15 minutes to discuss each reading, and make sure to include the author background and any other relevant information during that time. It's often a good idea to not just start at the beginning of the reading and plow through it, but instead, start with an overview of the main point, and then go into the argument itself in more detail. That way, people will have an orientation to the parts. You can ask questions as you go, or you can save them until the end, but it is important to give people a chance to talk about the material at some point.

 

For Seminar Members:

The responsibility of the members of the seminar are:

  1. DO THE READING IN ADVANCE - this is absolutely essential for a seminar to work. You cannot rely on the presenter to explain things - there will be no discussion then, just a dry monologue. That's not a seminar.
  2. Listen actively - think about whether you think the presenter is getting the reading right. Is he/she missing some central issue? Has he/she not quite understood the argument? Are there implications of the argument that the presenter is not bringing to the surface?
  3. Bring relevant outside material to the attention of the group, when appropriate.
  4. Fill out the response form, and hand it in at the end. Make some constructive comments. These can include issues about the content, or about the presentation style (too quiet? too fast? disorganized?)

 

The point of doing seminars like this is to explore some issue. That issue may need to be defined by the presenter, and material from outside of the readings may need to be brought into the discussion. The best seminar presentations will clarify the readings for the day, and also show how those readings are relevant to some central issue or question.