The Seminar Experience

As a setting for inquiry, the seminar is difficult to surpass. Human beings, it seems, are hard-wired to learn by talking together in small groups. We thrive intellectually when we have the chance to generate ideas in the course of conversation, to reassess our customary views, and to participate actively in the generation of knowledge. Moreover, the seminar experience provides a foundation for successful learning elsewhere. By fostering habits of reflection and appreciation for diverse perspectives, the seminar prepares students to excel in their courses generally, in their capstone projects, and in their future careers.

Students value the seminar experience partly because it honors their individuality—their personal responses to texts and issues. Yet its strategy for accomplishing this is to create a community. The seminar is small enough so that everyone can be heard, and the participants commit themselves to listening (carefully, tolerantly) as well as speaking. In this setting, the instructors' delicate task is to serve as guides and exemplars without detracting from the seminar's egalitarian spirit.

Students in a seminar share a distinctive theory of knowledge. They do not suppose that any one authority will settle all questions or furnish them with a definitive account of the world. Instead, they conceive of knowledge as something to be gathered from multiple sources, and then subjected to rigorous scrutiny and comparative analysis. This intellectual work is the defining feature of the seminar experience. The participants seek to build knowledge communally, to develop a framework that will elicit broad agreement, without asserting coercive power over dissenters. “I liked the fact that the teachers were not telling us what to think,” one First Seminar student remarked. “Instead, we were drawing from each other's views.”

Free-flowing conversation is essential to a seminar. The participants' theory of knowledge requires it: Any discussion of a given text will naturally incorporate ideas from other sources. In a SAGES seminar, those sources may include personal experience, outside readings, non-SAGES classes, and visits to University Circle institutions.

This is not to say that seminars are devoid of structure. For instance, successful seminar leaders allow time for students to reflect on the winding paths a conversation has taken. They seek to integrate all that's been said into meaningful (if not always harmonious) patterns. They may even lecture briefly to provide the groundwork for a discussion. Though lecturing cannot be the default mode of seminar communication, our respect for diverse sources of knowledge prevents us from saying that a lecture is always out of place. Indeed, an insightful lecture about the seminar, by Michael Kahn, has found a receptive audience within SAGES:

This guide to the seminar experience owes much to Kahn's demanding yet exhilarating conception; to the work of Case's Learning Research Team, which is engaged in an ongoing evaluation of the SAGES program; and to a conversation with Dr. Mano Singham, a SAGES seminar leader, principal researcher in the Department of Physics, and director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE) at Case.