This is Better than a Lecture? Grassroots cures for a “bad” seminar

An hour and forty-five minutes.  An hour and forty-five minutes of asymptotically approaching the heart of Nietzsche’s morality only to hit a digression that leads us back to those first, too-wide orbits.  Is the heart of Nietzsche’s morality the palliative effect of religion?  Could Neitzsche’s “morality” merely be another name for psycho-social forces at work within a culture?  Is Neitzsche’s prose merely meant to excite certain sensations, arouse certain feelings, a tune and tempo such that no logical, rational argument can be located because no “speakable” posits were written?  Nietzsche’s writes about “supermen,” perhaps the center of his morality is the planet Krypton.  No, wait a minute.  Let’s begin again…  And on and on.

With the exception of that last Krypton quip, the above paragraph summarizes much of the conversation from my last precept group class–and it was the best discussion we’d ever had.  This two-hour, seminar-style class is widely considered to be one of the two “signature” features of University of Chicago’s MAPH program and–for the first quarter at least–explores the material already lectured about in the regular “Foundation’s of Interpretive Theory” course through the seminar methodology.  So what’s wrong with my precept group class?  Why do I feel the need to rant? 

The Problem

I abhor those two hours a week.  I live in mortal dread of having to climb back up to the fourth floor of that permanently ten-degrees-too-hot building and bathe in that oppressive atmosphere.  And I’m not alone.  At least the half of our group that showed up to bake a John Hoosier Cake for social hour felt the same.  However, if any progress is to be made, the true problems must be ferreted out and corrective measures put in place.  So why do we hate Precept group class?

1) The sense that our Preceptor–the discussion leader–is pulling our strings.  That is, he has a very particular response or set of responses that he is looking for and the rest of us are trying to guess his reading of a text or the next topic on his outline.

2) Circular or digressive discussions that fails to come to consensus or the point–ideally we’d like  both but we’d be happy with one or the other.

3) Some students sit silently, eyes down, avoiding any contribution while others sit with hand raised for ten or fifteen minutes at a time waiting to be recognized–long past the point where their contribution had any significant effect on the conversation. Still other students perpetually drag the conversation toward their perennial favorite philosophers and hot button issues as though we were all in Children’s church and the answer to every question: “Jesus.”

4) The general sense of frustration, lack of comradery, and sense we are competing with one another for an ill-defined “reward” that is meaningless anyway.

Not all of these problems can be directly fixed by any individual student or all of us together.  The first problem mentioned seems to be almost entirely on the way our preceptor manages the discussion.  It is unlikely that we, as the class, could wrestle control of the conversation away from him without it coming across as–at minimum–insubordination, if not all-out mutiny.  And that concern doesn’t even address the fact that our ultimate success of failure in the class is decided by the preceptor such that if we were able to capture the sacred conch and self-manage our own conversation, he’d consider those discussions digressions from what we “ought” to have gotten from the readings.  One could argue that none of the problems could be addressed and repaired by one or all of us–this seminar class just isn’t gelling as it ought to and that means a failure to connect on the part of both our preceptor and ourselves.  Yet, is there something that we can do to overcome this dread of Friday afternoons?

The Solution

1) Commandeer the conversation through the presentation.  Every precept class begins with a ten to fifteen minute presentation by one or two of the students in order to establish an entry point into the assigned readings we’d covered that week.  These presentations end with a question for the group to discuss.  The more tightly defined the question and the more structured the initial responses, the more likely the group can take control of the conversation while meeting the expectations of our preceptor.

2) Do what our preceptor isn’t doing–police ourselves and struggle toward a consensus.  At the level of my own mental processes I know when I am about to contribute to a conversation already in progress or sidetrack it hopelessly with an interesting–but tangential–comment.  I think that most people do.  Sometimes you go ahead and subvert the conversation because you know–or think you know–that it is headed for an impasse or just steaming off in the wrong direction.  The business of managing a conversation is tricky–which is why this sort of work is best done by a preceptor rather than by the class itself.  However, in our case, the facilitator of our conversation appears to either believe that every contribution is equally valuable–or misses the point as widely–so that the conversation isn’t directed toward some enlightening goal so much as it is corralled within the time constraints.

The only corrective available seems to be to 1) on an individual level self-sensor tangential comments that we just find interesting but don’t necessarily help the overall movement and 2) respond to one another’s comments before the preceptor does so that good comments become the topic of conversation and unproductive comments are quickly sidelined.

3) None of us is Sure and we certainly don’t need to raise our hands.  I think the reason for silent students avoiding eye contact and overly talkative students perpetually framing the conversation through their favorite–and comfortable–philosophy is the one and the same: we are uncertain.  As another member of my precept group put it so well, in our undergrad schools we were the Best or–at minimum–one of the best in our respective disciplines.  Each of us was considered by our professors, our peers, and ourselves to be the “cream” of the University of So & So Philosophy Department.  Here, at the U of C, all the “cream” has been drawn off the undergrad holding tanks and we find ourselves in a precept pail with a dozen other “creamy” students–for the first time uncertain of our status and merit.  Some respond by making themselves tiny and transparent so that they don’t have to take a risk and others minimize their risk by speaking more quickly and more loudly–filtering everything through the familiar and comfortable concepts of a favorite thinker.  For the rest of us, those students waiting beyond the limits of decency to be called on, if we police ourselves and faithfully execute the mandates of our office as students then there is no need for every comment to be re-framed and re-targeted by our preceptor–we can respond to each other and cut out all that unnecessary hand-holding.

4) Outside of class we are already “gelling,”  the challenge is to remember that in class.  I think this one will take care of itself if we can accomplish the other three.  I’m not convinced that we are all equally gifted, equally well-read, or equally right in our arguing–but I am convinced that we all bring something to the table and the group seems to agree.

So, I’m not suggesting that every seminar group or seminar-style class can be made to function well–let alone that it can be more rewarding than a well-taught lecture class–but I think that, like more things in education, you get out what you put in.  I’m hoping that my group and I can continue to mull these problems and my proposed solutions over and arrive at some workable workarounds in the coming weeks so that we don’t have to dread Friday afternoons.


One comment on “This is Better than a Lecture? Grassroots cures for a “bad” seminar

  1. Interestingly, and I’m not certain I’m sure of this, I think the key is in the fourth of your tenets. I’m not sure I would have said this a couple of weeks ago, or even yesterday, but seeing how things are playing out, I think the gelling has led a host of welcome emergent properties. There are social threads that are starting to knit us together in groups of two or three or more, and those groups are in turn knit together in overlapping and interweaving forms.

    Out of that has been a version of what you call “commandeering” the conversation. Frankly, I’m not wild about hijacking the plane because I don’t know how to fly (nor of the power relationship implicit in “commandeering”), but I think that, to shift the metaphor, we’ve each grabbed an oar of the longboat and are really traveling in some interesting directions.

    That leads to better self-policing, or even “pre-“policing. Rather than finding ourselves in a position wherein we must call the inner authorities of ourselves, a careful awareness of the responsibilities of one precept-citizen to another will, says Pollyanna, alleviate the need for self-policing. Perhaps it can be more of a self-crossing guard.

    All of this, foundationalized by the gelling, allows us to find a way in which we might be our vulnerable, real selves with one another, and one we are able to interact from one stripped-down to true self to another, we can get down to the business of philosophy as it perhaps should be done: raw, naked, and unencumbered by unnecessary social constructions that not only keep us from seeing one another, but from seeing and seeking the truth. That generosity equips is better for, as Heidegger says, the “thinking [that] is thanking.”

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