I’m now in my fifth year of teaching anthropology and sociology to foundation year students who have gone on to successfully study a range of social science degrees. Because Durham is quite a small city I often see former students and ask how they are getting on. Over the last few years students have started to mention seminars and how challenging they can be.
Seminars are a key teaching tool across the social sciences and at the time we did very little to prepare our students for them (although I’m not sure ‘A’ level students are particularly prepared either). Nonetheless these comments got me thinking about seminars and how we can better prepare our students for them, but also about seminars as a teaching tool in general.
I would like to explore seminar teaching in a more systematic way, in particular how it is experienced by a range of students, including international and mature students. My recent experiences with Yik Yak have uncovered numerous (anonymous) negative seminar experiences along the lines of being underprepared and hoping to get away with it, or relying on one person to talk for most of the seminar.
I would also like to audit how it is viewed by my colleagues across the university. For example what is the level of expected preparation? One former student recently told me she is expected to read six articles for a seminar, and that one of them was delivered to her college pigeon hole the day before, which was a big hassle as she didn’t live in Durham.
Who is taking the seminars and how much guidance are they given for each session? When I was seminar teaching as a PhD student I was given very little guidance on what to actually do with my hour, and over the years developed different ways of structuring the sessions.
For both students and teachers there is likely to be disciplinary and maybe institutional differences in the expectations and experiences of a ‘good’ seminar. I have had a quick look through some literature to see what people have said about the seminar and I’ve not found anything (yet!) about the experience of either delivering or participating in them. Paul Ashwin has explored staff and student perceptions of the Oxford tutorial and shown how each holds at least 4 very different ideas of exactly what a tutorial is.
In order to better prepare our social science students my colleagues and I re-designed and expanded our introductory sociology course to include a second term of seminars based on a wide range of social science readings, which we have just finished teaching for the second year.
I think the seminars have been going really well, with some really interesting discussions about a wide range of topics. Obviously the students know each other quite well by this point, and we can keep our groups fairly small.
However not all of the groups are going equally well, and not everybody is benefitting from the group discussions, so my colleagues and I have started thinking about how we improve the seminar experience, and make sure that all the students are benefitting from it.
For me a good seminar is a lively and inclusive discussion based on a deep reading of a text, contextualising and linking it with other readings and work that the students have looked at. One thing I’m keen to explore is how to use technology to encourage these deeper, collaborative readings. The inspiration for this came from a website I encountered called Rap Genius which allows fans to discuss rap lyrics, annotating key words and phrases with thoughts, links, images or videos. The site has expanded now to include a much wider range of sources (e.g. poetry).
I think it would be great to explore these tools and how they might help a wide range of students better prepare for seminars, by encouraging an engaged, deeper shared reading. I think I would prefer for these tools to be fenced off by seminar group (rather than open to the public) so that students can feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and connections with one another. I also think that it will be important to seed or highlight the texts with questions and links, but this is essentially how I prepare for seminars anyway.
I’m hoping that using technology like this might help make seminars more inclusive, and could help the students direct the discussions more by allowing them to dictate the areas of the text to focus on and the themes and issues to be discussed.