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The Seminar Process

Mention a Socratic seminar to students, and often the response is just like the one portrayed in “Oh God, Teacher Arranged Desks in a Giant Circle” from The Onion. In other words, uncertainty, anxiety, and even panic. But if you enter a seminar prepared, you’ll find your fears allayed and, I hope, your knowledge of the work we’re discussing extended and deepened.

The first thing you need to understand is that a Socratic seminar is not a debate. The point is not to win an argument. Instead, a Socratic seminar aims to deepen understanding through discussion and questioning. A more detailed explanation can be found here: Dialogue vs. Debate. Seminar participation will be graded like a test, and there are three keys that will help you do your best.

Come to the seminar prepared. Students should have their Six Pack Sheet for the work completed as fully as possible, including their ideas on motifs and symbols, references to important scenes/conversations, and character information. Crafting thoughtful questions can also provide you with something to share. Remember that your questions should explore WHAT IS in the work (cause and effect, character motivation, etc.) and not WHAT IF (speculation based on something that occurs). We’re discussing the work as presented, not writing fanfic. The ultimate goal is to discern an appropriate meaning of the work as a whole (MOWAW) that can be supported by textual evidence.

Most seminars will be conducted over two days. On the first day, we will open with a question round. Everyone present will share one of the questions they have prepared on their Six Pack Sheet. We will then select a question to kick off the day’s discussion.

During the discussion, your job is to listen and connect. One person should speak at a time. Comments should be directed to the class as a whole rather than to the teacher, who acts as a facilitator rather than a leader. Comments should ADD something new to the conversation, REFER to the text to clarify or support, or EXTEND what another student has introduced. Please take notes on what you hear using the appropriate field in the Six Pack Sheet. Day 2 of the seminar will begin with a comment round, with everyone sharing something interesting from the first day that they found thought provoking or wish to discuss further. Six Pack Sheets with their seminar notes will be submitted to Canvas at the end of Day 2.

While you are speaking, I will be observing and making notes on your seminar input and behavior. Positive behaviors that will earn you points include the following:
     • offers new idea
     • asks a new or follow-up question
     • refers to the text
     • paraphrases and adds to another’s idea
     • encourages others to speak
Please avoid interrupting others, side conversations, and dominating the conversation—the best seminars allow everyone a chance to speak and respond. Conversely, don’t sit in silence. Have a question or quotation ready to go if you don’t feel confident expressing yourself off the cuff.

To extend the conversation and provide a record for review later, we will also conduct a followup discussion using Canvas. All students will be expected to contribute to the online discussion even if they spoke in class. The online discussion will be open for a few days after the in-class seminar is concluded. Once the online discussion closes, seminar grades will be finalized.

Seminars will be graded based on both your contributions to the discussion (speaking in class and posting to the discussion board) and the quality of those contributions (specific text references rather than general comments). The fewer comments you make and more general your input, the lower the grade, and vice versa. If you wish a high seminar grade, you will need to contribute thoughtfully and precisely both during the class and online. Ultimately, your seminar participation should reveal your understanding of and thinking about the work in question.

If you are absent from class on a seminar day, you will be expected to increase your participation in the online conversation. In addition, you will have a separate written assignment to complete.

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