On a “Seminar Discussion” Class
Thomas P. Sullivan
For a “seminar discussion class”, the class will be split into two groups. Each group will take turns sitting in the “inner circle” of chairs to discuss a broad question that the seminar group has derived from the reading for that day (“Is it ever possible to believe in miracles?”, for example). When one group is talking, the other group will sit in the “outer circle”; only the “inner circle” can speak, although, when the groups switch, someone from the new group may reply to something that the other group has said. The overall goal is to gain a better understanding of the question or topic from lively, interactive discussion with informed, prepared peers. In the process, the students will demonstrate skills in critical thinking, philosophical analysis and discussion, speaking, listening, and group interaction.
1. The goal of this class is to discuss an important question thoroughly and thoughtfully, considering a wide array of points of view, using evidence and critical thinking to cover as many of the relevant aspects of the question as possible. Ideally, the professor will not say anything during the class (unless there is a clear need for the professor to intervene, or a question the professor wishes to ask). The point is to demonstrate the students’ ability to discuss these questions at an adult level of considerable sophistication, complexity, and clarity.
2. The class ( or group) chooses an “genuine” or “open” question; that is, a question that is not “leading”, that does not have a clear or obvious answer, and that can be discussed at length from a variety of points of view.
3. Each member of the study groups prepares (in writing) to discuss the question from a tleast three different points of view (for example, “yes”, “no”, and “maybe”). For each separate answer (of the three), each person should prepare three (3) pieces of support or evidence, three (3) objections, and three (3) responses to those objections (there will be some overlap of material here). Twenty-seven total pieces of information.
4. Everyone participates. Leaving someone out of the discussion results in a lower overall grade for the class.
5. Everyone is required to stick to the topic. The class will regulate itself. The discussion should focus on gaining a better understanding of the topic by critically considering a variety of points of view.
6. The use of evidence is crucial. Note that evidence takes a variety of forms: factual evidence, conceptual evidence and argumentation, cases, examples, and more. A good seminar will evaluate and critique different kinds of evidence, as well as the relevance of those kinds of evidence to the claims each speaker makes.
7. Careful listening counts as much as speaking. It is good seminar behavior to ask someone to speak up or repeat a point that you are not sure of. It is also good seminar behavior to demonstrate that you have heard and understood a speaker with whom you are about to disagree (Well, Joan, as I understand you, you are claiming that the grass is greener on the other side. I disagree with that idea because…) .
8. Note-taking is helpful but should not be distracting. It is better (by far) not too use computers during seminar discussions. Print your preparation out beforehand, and write your other notes by hand.
9. Allow others to speak. Do not monopolize the discussion, and allow others to finish before you begin. On the other hand, if someone is monopolizing the discussion, find a graceful way to interrupt and move the discussion on (Yes, John, I think you have clearly made the point that grass is actually more purple on the other side. Does someone else have thoughts on this particular topic?).
10. One important goal of the class is that everyone participates. It is your job to be prepared and ready to participate; it is also your job to see to it that everyone in your group is encouraged to say something that advances the discussion.
11. Disagrement is normal and, in fact, productive. It should, however, be respectful and thoughtful. Be sure to disagree with the idea, and not with the person.
12. Your grade for this event is in three parts: overall class grade, your participation, and preparation. Since some people feel that this is a bit more work than an ordinary “Quiz”, it will count as 60 points (20/20/20).