Leading the Seminar: A Battlefield Approach
A colleague at the beginning of a university career in another country wrote to me:
What is the purpose and structure of the seminar in your experience? What is the role of the student, and what is the role of the teacher?
As this is one of the most difficult questions I've ever been asked, it took me some time to work out a reply. Of course there is an simple answer: The point is to develop an atmosphere in which all students arrive at the seminar well prepared to discuss the topic and answer and debate your questions. Each one is willing to both listen to others and speak up themselves, so that there is a lively and equal exchange. At the end, everyone has learned from each other and so acquired deeper insights into the subject.
It's simple to write. The difficult thing is to make it happen. When I started to try to explain that, the effort made me think about what Clausewitz wrote on war:
Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult.
This analogy is not accidental. For me, a good metaphor for the problem of the seminar is the problem of the military unit. How do you get soldiers to behave like heroes: to lead the attack, to expose themselves to danger, to give their all to the success of the mission, and not to shirk or run away, even when no one is watching them? It is true that no one joins an army without expecting at some point to have to go into combat. And everyone in the army appreciates the commitment of their comrades to fight together and not run away, and understands that they should match the discipline that others show. Nonetheless, each soldier would prefer not to have to kill or be killed in the next 5 minutes. This is the problem. Left to itself, without leadership, such a unit will lapse into military passivity. Let someone else do the fighting.
In the same way, every student goes to college in order to learn, and that includes preparing for seminars and taking part and speaking up in the seminar. Every student benefits from their peers’ advance preparation and participation, and understands that s/he should also prepare and contribute. Nonetheless, when faced with preparing for the seminar or going to a party, each student can prefer to go to the party. When the tutor asks a question, each student can prefer that someone else should give the answer. The outcome is a silent conspiracy in favour of collective silence, in which a student who speaks up and answers your question is a social deviant. Then, the only person left who can answer your question is you, the tutor.
In the worst case, the silent conspiracy is binding. The students are silent in the face of questions. Because they are silent, you (the tutor) fill the silence by giving a lecture that gives the answers. Students learn quickly. They learn to expect that you will answer your own questions and you will use the seminar to give a lecture. Therefore, they do not prepare. Because they do not prepare, they have nothing to say when you ask questions, and there is silence unless you fill the silence by giving the lecture. When you ask a question, meet with silence, and answer it yourself, the silent conspiracy has won.
To beat the conspiracy and overcome the silence requires leadership. Thus a tutor is a leader in the same way that leadership is required to send a military unit into battle.
Here are various strategies that I have used to lead a class at various times, with my notes on pluses and minuses. None of them is a perfect or complete answer. At various points we find that the analogy between the classroom and the battlefield breaks down. The casualties do not bleed, although they can desert. Also, when I say I have used these strategies, I do not mean that I am a superior practitioner. Far from it.
The absent tutor
Each week, pose a question. Leave the room, saying that you will return in half an hour, and you expect that the students will have agreed on an answer and who will present it. The first time you do this, the students will be shocked. SHOCKED! How can you be doing your job if you are not in the room? Plus: The students have no option but to contribute. They cannot rely on you to fill the silence; they must rely on themselves. This is already an important lesson. It is like training the soldiers to use initiative and fight in a self-reliant way. Minus: If the discussion is incompletely prepared or informed or goes off track, you are not there to correct it. Here the analogy between the scholarly discussion and the military mission hits one of its limits. When you send a military unit into the night to capture a bridge, in the morning they and you will know with certainty whether the mission was achieved. When the mission is to deepen understanding of the causes of the Great Depression, the success of the mission may not be clear until much later, and it is all too tempting for everyone to applaud poor performance. Another minus: If the tutor is absent, you do not learn about individual strengths and weaknesses because you do not see them.
The student presentation
Each week one student must prepare a presentation, followed by questions and answers. Plus: the silence is broken. Minus: only one student prepares anything; the rest are released from any obligation. If the student presentation is of poor quality, it is difficult to retrieve the situation without causing them to lose face. Again, here, students are not like soldiers. The sergeant-major can bawl out an incompetent private. In the seminar room, every student is entitled to retain their dignity.
The group presentation
Each week a sub-group of students must prepare a presentation. Plus: This widens the circle of students who are drawn into preparation, and they must learn to work as a team by dividing the work of preparation among themselves. Minus: Each member of the team may become familiar with only a part of the problem. There is some evidence that sub-groups of students who know each other and collaborate with each other, and so rely on each other to fill gaps in individual learning, will learn less well than if they were forced to learn individually, in a self-reliant way. [Problem: This is something that I saw quite recently. I tried to find the evidence again and link to it, and I failed. Can anyone help?] Again, if the student presentation is of poor quality, it is difficult to retrieve the situation.
Fighting from house to house
In this approach we treat the classroom like a city that must be occupied from house to house. Every building must be seized and inspected and its occupants interrogated and verified. Pose a question directly to one student, chosen randomly. If they can’t answer it, put it to another. Go around the room, student by student, until the question is answered. Offer hints if necessary but do NOT answer the question yourself on any account; if you do, you have lost this game forever. Once you have received an answer, don’t stop, but continue around the room, student by student, checking their understanding: Do you understand? Do you agree? Do you have any uncertainty or different views? (Of course uncertainty and differences are permitted, but they must be brought out and disclosed.) Having been right around the room, pose the next question to some other student. Continue like this throughout the seminar. Plus: This forces every student to speak or admit ignorance, and there is nowhere to hide. In some settings this has been my favourite method. Every student has to arrive as fully prepared as they can be. Again there is no hiding place. It seems like a tough approach, but your students presumably want to learn and nobody told them it would be easy. Minus: It is psychologically demanding; you cannot do this if you want everyone to like you. It may not work in a large class, or if the atmosphere is impersonal or intimidating. It helps tremendously if you learn every student’s name (but you can do this gradually; you just get every student to give their name before answering, and you try to guess their name first). With more than a dozen students it is hard to give attention to each in turn. If students give a wrong answer you must never, never make fun of it or let them feel stupid by criticizing them directly. Instead, you have to help them work out what they got wrong or did not know, by giving a hint or by reminding them of some supporting fact or by asking another question. The important thing is that students must learn that it is worse to be silent than to speak up and make a mistake.
The battlefield is not for the faint hearted. A surprising thing about the battlefield is that, given decent leadership, people who would otherwise seem to be quite ordinary can rise to the occasion and show themselves to be outstandingly brave.