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
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
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
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.