When Learning at a Distance, We Should Ditch the Seminar and Run Reading Classes

This spring, humanities courses should avoid Zoom seminar sections and busywork discussion posts, and instead let students grapple with great texts independently.

By Ian Caveny

There’s a little-known secret in humanistic studies: The seminar is inessential. In prior generations, when a graduate student took a seminar course with a professor in the humanities, that professor handed them a list of things to read, some targeted directions on the themes and purposes of the course, and would, perhaps, evaluate an essay written by that student. Seminars were not a core element of  such courses—professors might opt to host a regular discussion of the texts where the students could freely discuss the works they were reading, or the students might have gathered on their own, but such discussions were not seen as core curricular institutions. That is to say, regardless of whatever value it holds for teaching and instruction (and it certainly does exist), the seminar is not at the heart of what we do in the humanities. For centuries (in the German model of the university that UChicago was built upon), graduate students and upper-level undergraduates were expected to read, wrestle with, comprehend, question, and investigate assigned works independently, without much thought to attending class. More crucial were regular check-ins with the professors; these were conducted through a short weekly paper to demonstrate progress, or, more typically, during office hours. As we prepare to enter a virtual spring quarter at the University of Chicago, can we resuscitate an older model of university education that better suits the rigor and academic standing of our institution rather than follow the course so many others are choosing by relying on virtual education?

Online courses stink. There’s no easy way around that. Assuming that the administration’s plans for Zoom courses comes to fruition, technical difficulties will abound. I’ve heard word of certain older professors who have already cancelled their spring courses in order to avoid working with Zoom. In my prior education, I took a Zoom-optimized course at a seminary that worked well, but that institution had structured their entire educational model for Zoom and their professors were uniquely trained to handle it as a format of education. Beyond this, there is the tenuousness of schedule and internet access that newly displaced students cannot easily solve. The other typical option, attempting to run seminars online but forgoing conference call platforms like Zoom, is not better. In undergrad, online courses I took with mandatory discussions but no virtual call components sank to the level of pedantry and wastefulness. Assignments designed to make up for lost face-to-face discussion time quickly drifted into the burdensome arena of “busywork,” which has little educational benefit. Such needling nonsense is no better for the instructors: When I taught at a community college using tools like message boards and forums, the prospect of giving students feedback on their writing “exchanges” was overwhelming and tedious. One thing any online course reveals is that meeting in person is really irreplaceable—paltry digital versions will not replicate the neural processes that take place when we discuss ideas face to face. Instead, when forced to learn virtually, we must change the model: Match class structure to the online form instead of simulating the in-person seminars we would have held on campus. To do this, I suggest we revive the old German model and empower students as independent thinkers who can devote themselves to a course of study even without the modern-day accoutrements of the seminar or discussion group. 

As such, rather than fall into these twin pitfalls of technologically mediated discussions and pedantic blog seminars rife with busywork, the proposition I urge professors teaching in the humanities (including the Divinity School, humanistic social sciences, etc.) to consider is simple: Teach reading courses in the old style. Forgo attempts to translate seminars to online learning and instead, just assign a syllabus and assign us papers. To ensure that students stay abreast of the work, consider a short summary paper due weekly or every other week, or perhaps regular, mandatory check-in emails, so students can ask the professors questions that arise during their readings, or some form of office hours (use Zoom for what it does best, rather than what it does poorly). Or maybe just assign one final paper as the culmination of a quarter’s worth of reading. (We graduate students will gladly write you a 20-page research paper if that’s the only thing you ask us to do aside from reading.) But don’t fiddle about trying to figure out Zoom, or message boards, or little niggling assignments. We are, after all, students of the University of Chicago—an essential part of what makes this place known for its intellectual rigor—and we are capable of doing great work for you without needing to worry about making things too complicated.

Ian Caveny is a graduate student in the Divinity School.