Why a History Seminar is Not Like Twilight.

For those of you who have just started at university, the last few weeks have probably been a bit of a whirlwind, and just when you’ve got to a point when you’re settling in, finding your way around your new town or campus and have figured out where the best place is to get a fulfilling (if not particularly nutritious) snack for your post-night out walk home, we expect you to begin doing some work. As a History student, the bulk of your teaching will be done through seminars and as this type of class will form the backbone of your entire degree, getting your head around both how they are meant to function and how you can best prepare for them is crucial.

As Sara pointed out in our last post on what exactly a seminar is, there are really no hard or fast rules and you will come across a wide variety of different styles of seminar teaching during your degree. Some tutors use group work extensively, some will make use of various technologies, some love student presentations, some may be more old school and run each session as a two hour discussion of the major issues; chances are that within each module you will encounter slightly different formats as the tutor tailors what you do to the subject and tries to make sessions remain fresh. However, whatever the style of the seminar, the substance remains the same – we are looking for a willingness to participate, to share your ideas and interpretations, to listen with respect to other people’s contributions and to discuss points of disagreement with consideration for your classmates’ own points of view. Like most things in life, the more you put into your seminars, the more reward you will gain from them – coming to class to sit there and hope that you will be able to make up for your own lack of preparation through the hard work of others, or the knowledge of your tutor is bad form.  You mustn’t just sit there lapping up the insights of others, you must be willing to contribute some of your own!

Preparing for seminars:

The grounding for good seminar preparation is your reading and how you approach this. Although there will be times when this seems like a massive chore, when stuff you have to read is perhaps a bit on the dull side, or when you are doing things last minute, you must try not to do this passively. If there is a word that you are likely to hear repeatedly from your tutors with regards to lectures, seminars and essays alike, it is engagement. You must engage with what you are reading, the arguments that they are making and the sources that they are using. Preparing for a seminar should not be passively sitting back and ploughing through reading and highlighting bits that seem important. 

Reading should not seem like an endurance task, nor should it be something that you try and speed through as quickly as humanly possible. When you read you should be consistently engaged (yes, that word again) with what you are reading – admittedly something that is easier said than done at times! Don’t just be concerned with noting facts, figures and dates, or catchy little quotations, but think about the substance of the article and the argument that it is making. Constantly ask yourself the following when you are reading:

  • What is the point that the author is trying to make?
  • What evidence are they using?
  • How does this fit with what I’ve read elsewhere or what I already know of the subject?
  • Am I convinced by the argument presented and why is this the case?

To some extent you should approach the secondary reading in the same way you would a primary source – you must ask questions of it, rather than take what is says at face value. We will come back to how to read effectively at a later date, but this a critical approach to your sources – be they primary or secondary – is the most fundamental principle of successful preparation for any academic task, from presentations and essays to getting the most out of lectures.

Thinking about your preparatory reading in this way should impact on the types of notes you take which should move you away from just quotes, paraphrases and summaries, to lists of questions, issues that have been raised by what you’ve read and perhaps even things that you want to follow up at a later date. This type of critical reading should provide you with an excellent basis for when you go into the seminar as you will have thought independently about the material and debates, you should have a view on the subject, and you will have a list of questions or issues that you can raise as the seminar progresses.

Be warned though, this approach is only going to be successful if you give yourself the time to read the material in detail: managing your time in a way that allows you to read carefully and to mull over what you’ve read is really important. Facts might be fresh in the mind if you read things an hour before class but chances are you won’t have had the time to digest what those facts really mean for the issue at hand.

The other key thing to remember is that a seminar, and your preparation for it, should not exist in a vacuum. While there will undoubtedly be topics that you are glad to see the back of, it should not be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. A module is like a jigsaw or a piece of embroidery, and every week should offer you a new piece or a new thread that you can add to how you view whatever the period, topic or event it is that is under study. But at the end, what you should be left with is a whole picture – not the whole picture because we are historians, and that would be impossible – but something that is a coherent whole rather than little fragments of knowledge.  To achieve this, you must think about links and connections between what might seem rather disparate topics, that you will study in what may seem like discrete and separate blocks. Be aware that the way a module is broken down into seminars will almost always be somewhat superficial, that we are turning an aspect of history, with all its inherent complexity, into convenient bite-sized, two hour chunks. It is your job through your preparation and the discussion that you have in your seminars to reforge the links between these issues and themes.

While traditionally this type of reading and thinking has been a solitary pursuit, there is nothing wrong with working in a study group. As with the seminar in general though, you must be willing to do your own share of the graft and bring something to the table, but using Facebook groups, forums or meeting to discuss the reading over a pint can really add something to your own preparation. You may even find that some modules require you to use study groups as part of your preparation for the seminar – make sure that these remain (for the most part) constructive sessions, rather than an opportunity to gossip, by going in to them with the same attitude as you would a seminar. You may feel freer about discussing your ideas or your difficulties with a smaller group, so use the time as a sounding board for what you may wish to raise in the seminar. Do remember though that just because you’ve discussed something in detail privately this does not excuse you from contributing to the ‘official’ seminar proceedings!

The actual seminar:

Ok, so as should be clear, the foundation of any seminar is the preparation that you do as an individual for it – not just what you read, but how you read, and how you think about it. But how do you put this preparation into practice once you’ve stepped into that classroom? The key thing to remember here is that a seminar is like a giant group exercise, one where you are all tackling the same issues or problems or areas of controversy. In this respect, it’s better to be more socialist than rugged individualist in your approach. The same way that others benefit from the insights that you can offer based on your preparation, you benefit from the contribution of others. Whether it is in terms of your general comments, the presentations you do or the handouts you put together, this idea of a collective learning experience should underpin your general approach. Don’t sit there hoarding the knowledge you have gathered and, at the same time, don’t be the person who soaks up other people’s insights and gives nothing in return; view your seminars as a reciprocal relationship where ideas are both offered and received.

Now for some people – and I include myself as a student in this as well – not contributing to seminar discussion is not a case of being unprepared or a selfish learner, but comes down to nerves. Speaking in front of other people is daunting enough but can be even scarier when you feel that what you might say is wrong or could leave you open to criticism. Again, it’s one of those things that is easier said than done, but don’t let that stop you from contributing and getting your point out there. Some general tips:

  • Challenge yourself to say something a couple of times each seminar; remember that we are interested in the quality of your contribution not the quantity.
  •  Relish the small group tasks that you have if you find this a less intimidating forum to express your ideas – your tutor will notice your level of participation in this setting as well as in general discussion.
  •  Be assured that your seminars will be a safe place to express your ideas and to raise questions about things you perhaps don’t understand. A tutor should always strive to make sure that all contributions are heard and responded to with respect and the general rule of there being no such thing as a stupid question usually applies.
  • It is a cold, hard fact that you are very likely to be assessed on your oral contribution throughout your degree – sometimes this is how you participate in seminars, sometimes it might be through more formal presentations. Learning how to conquer your fears of speaking out, to articulate your point clearly and concisely and to do so with some degree of confidence will only help you achieve higher marks in this form of assessment, as well as coming in pretty darn handy for things such as job interviews further down the line. Make the most of the opportunities you have in seminars to do this, so you can gain expertise for when it comes to oral contributions that are assessed.

Apart from actually contributing to a seminar discussion, one of the other things that students can find tricky is making notes. Don’t think of note taking in a seminar in the same way you do lectures. Pay attention and follow the flow of the discussion, noting down points you thought were particularly important or valid, and maybe even jotting down notes on what you would like to raise yourself once the person who is speaking has finished.  If you are discussing a particular source or article, you might find it useful to annotate that rather than make notes on a separate sheet and it can be easier than trying to decipher cryptic comments later!

Rather than taking detailed notes in the seminar, roughly record what you think are key points and then follow them up in your own time. What do you need to flesh out? What do you want to find out more about? How do these notes compare with those you made in your own preparation or took in the lecture? Do they offer a challenge or different POV to those you’ve encountered before?  And so on. As with all the formal teaching you will have, the seminar should be the springboard for your own thinking about a topic, not the end point of it.

Final thoughts:

So, why isn’t a History seminar like Twilight, I hear you ask. Well, because neither Bella nor Edward should be the models you assume in the classroom.

A seminar is not a place for staring off into space, thinking about what you fancy for lunch, and twirling your hair. It’s the best opportunity you will have for sharing ideas, listening to, thinking about, and at times challenging, the opinions of others. For a seminar to work the way it should and to the benefit of all involved, you must be engaged with the material that is being discussed, and show a willingness to participate.

Related to this, don’t be a seminar vampire.  A seminar is not an opportunity to suck your classmates dry of the knowledge they have gained through their own hard work. While it can be a bit of a mind-shift, particularly because assessment can encourage an individualistic concern with your own learning, a seminar can only function properly if you are willing to contribute to the debate, as well as taking things from it.

So if you were going to use any Twilight character as a model for how you behave in seminars, maybe Jacob would be the best bet. Ok, there are some downsides to using werewolves as a framework for seminar participation and I feel that this metaphor is reaching its limit, but bear with me.

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Wolves are pack animals and each member of the pack acts in a way that is for the benefit of the collective. Whether you are having a general discussion, presenting, leading a task, or preparing a handout, whatever maybe asked of you should be done to the very best of your ability and with the learning experience of your classmates in mind. Only by being invested in the seminar process as a whole, will you as an individual be able to reap the benefits of all that knowledge and understanding that you as a group have achieved.

 

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