May 20, 2014

Righting seminars

Structure of discussion-based classes doesn’t allow for a true test of ideas.

“Is Protagoras right,” asks the professor, “when he says that truth is relative?”

“I feel like it can’t be,” says the first student. “Right, because the fact that truth is subjective is itself an objective fact.”

“Building off that,” says another, “if man is the measure of everything, how can Protagoras even want to say that he can know things? There are a lot of assumptions there.”

And so on, until an hour and a half has incoherently slipped away. The students leave the room feeling energized but slightly dissatisfied, and no one knows much more about Protagoras.

I have a confession to make: I don’t like discussion classes very much. In fact, I think they should almost never happen. That’s because putting more than a dozen people in a room makes productive discussion nearly impossible—how can you carry on a real conversation when you have at most two opportunities to speak? A real discussion demands the ability to correct misunderstandings, to refine arguments, to rebut objections to your point: none of which can happen when there are 20 people patiently waiting with their hands up to take the conversation in a new direction.

You say: “Didn’t I come to Chicago for the life of the mind? What does that mean if I can’t test my ideas in class? As it happens, though, a midsize seminar is one of the worst places possible to experiment with an opinion. A sustained examination of an opinion is rare—the lucky students get at most one or two responses before someone interjects with an irrelevant point. A dorm room or a bar is a much more suitable place for a discussion, if only because you can actually talk to people there.

And vague, pointless discussions are the best possible outcome. At least they’re harmless. Worse are the bitter disputes where no one is quite clear on what’s actually being disputed, like a frenzied classroom that rushes into civil war over the effects of British imperialism. And worst of all is when the classroom unites on a single position, leaving the one student who still thinks Herman Melville wasn’t writing about gender to hold her tongue in fear. Mass agreement is a frightening thing.

So am I completely against classroom discussion? No way. But a few things have to be true before I’ll happily sit in a room where everyone’s allowed to talk:

1. There should be as few people as possible. Fewer than five is ideal.

2. Everyone must be fairly well read in the subject, and share enough references that they’re not constantly wandering in random directions.

3. No hand-raising. Since this is a real conversation, if you have something to say, you say it. Similarly, you’re allowed to have an extended, public exchange with another person.

In the seminars I’ve taken that hold to these rules, I’ve felt like I’m having dinner with the gods. But, for lots of obvious reasons, you can’t run every Sosc class like an Oxford tutorial. If this isn’t possible, though, we should keep to the safer path: listening to the professor. She’s spent her life studying the text, and has knowledge (and perhaps some wisdom) to give us. A lecture isn’t the best the academy has to offer, but in the hands of a skilled professor, it has many virtues a mass discussion format doesn’t: organization, subtlety, drama, and coherence.

Practically speaking, then, I propose the following: Most seminars in the humanities should become lectures. They should be kept at their current size, to preserve students’ personal access to their professors. And questions, of course, should still be allowed—it’s important for students to be able to challenge their professor or ask for more clarity. The only thing that should change is the structure of the class.

And after all, whether we’re sitting through meaningless discussions or stuffy lectures, we should remember where the life of the mind really has its home: with a few good friends, over drinks.

Jonathan Nathan is a third-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.