Preparing Students for Seminars

Next week I want to reflect on some of the assumptions we make about teaching and about those we teach – assumptions which are governed by the institutional context of the university, but which can be highly problematic. For now, however, I thought it would be useful to offer another highly practical post that might help you as you settle into the 2013-2014 academic year.

By now, most of you are back in the classroom and have started lecturing, but seminars (also known as tutorials or conferences) are just getting underway. Despite the fact that students overwhelmingly prefer the seminar component to the lecture portion of the class – because they can interact with texts/artifacts and each other in a more meaningful way – those who are new to the process are often very anxious and don’t know what to expect. Telling them that “they’ll love it” isn’t going to make that stress go away, so I try to offer some tips to help them prepare. This can actually be more difficult than it sounds because the process seems so obvious to those of us who do it day-in and day-out. So what do I tell first-year students or those from other disciplines so that they can prepare for their first seminar?


1. Read everything through once, in advance.
Remember, some students are either in first year or come from disciplines where they are not used to (1) doing close textual analysis and (2) engaging in the kinds of social critiques we teach in the humanities. This means that they can be overwhelmed by what you might consider a very small amount of reading, especially if that reading introduces them to difficult ideas or vocabulary. Things like the difference between sex and gender or the truly foreign nature of the past are not as intuitive to all your students as they are to you, and you need to encourage them to just give it a try.

So tell these students that it’s OK if they don’t understand it the first time through! But the thing is, if they don’t read it in full, at least once, they’ll never understand it. Even if it seems boring, chances are it will get more interesting as it makes more sense. If they read it over earlier in the week, and then give it time for things to settle, they will be surprised by the insights they have latter on. Seminars are where the really interesting discussions take place, so it’s absolutely fundamental that students approach them with an open mind and ready to learn. For this reason, I also tell them that if they do have one of those weeks where they have to let something go, to make sure that it’s the textbook readings for lecture and never the seminar material.


2. Highlight and make notes.
Next on the list: read in as active a way as possible. I tell them to make sure to flag the thesis and supporting arguments when they are reading secondary material, and to highlight/underline the things that seem to be important, even if they don’t know why. This is useful because it will allow them to see how all the separate facts have been strung together, and thus to understand the author’s argument, but also because it should help them reflect on their own writing process. Do their essays look like professional scholarly work? How and why is their own writing different, and how can it be improved?

For primary texts, listening to one’s gut is even more important, particularly in the early stages of the course when students are still getting the lay of the land. When faced with a historical document, a novel, or any other primary source, I therefore ask them to make note of the things that jumped out at them. As part of this process, they should write a 1-sentece description of each primary source in the margins or in their notebook. This process helps students to remember what each document is about when they look back at the material, and it forces them to determine whether or not they’ve understood it. You can’t succinctly summarize something if you don’t understand it!


3. Take another look and ask the basic questions.
Most people are taught in high school that they should ask about the “who, what, where, when, and why” when they encounter a document, but it’s still sometimes a good idea to remind them of this process. I therefore tell my students to re-read the highlighted/underlined bits as they get closer to the seminar and to ask themselves if they can answer the following questions about the primary sources:

  • Who is writing? From what perspective? And for whom?
  • What kind of document is this? Does it stay within the conventions of the genre?
  • Are you convinced of what the author is trying to tell you?
  • What does this document contribute to our knowledge about the particular phenomenon we are studying?
  • What information have we not obtained?
  • Make note of any questions these documents bring to mind. Come to conferences with both your insights, and your remaining questions.

Once they’ve done all of these things, it’s likely that they’re starting to get a much more critical sense of the material in question and any of the more complicated or nuanced questions will come up during the seminar itself.


Ultimately, the student experience is going to depend on how well you facilitate the seminar the “day of,” but you can’t do a good job of that unless you convince them to come prepared. Once there, it’s about asking the right questions, and designing activities that let all your students feel comfortable and engaged. I have more to say about this, but some initial thoughts can be found here if you missed them the first time around: In the meantime, I’d love to know what others tell their students before the first seminar! Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


dos equis cat

[I didn’t have any good images for this week’s post, so here’s a picture of my cat doing the Dos Equis pose]


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