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Sunday, February 12, 2023

An Excellent Passage on Seminars

This much-shared piece by Vincent Lloyd has mostly been passed around for its account of generational and culture-war conflicts, and treated with praise or skepticism accordingly.* That should not overshadow the fact that in the middle of the article, Lloyd offers a superb brief description of the nature and purpose of seminars, one that's worth quoting at length:

By its nature, a seminar requires patience. Day by day, one intervention builds on another, as one student notices what another student overlooked, and as the professor guides the discussion toward the most important questions. All of this is grounded in a text: Specific words, phrases, arguments, and images from a text offer essential friction for conversation, holding seminar participants accountable to something concrete. The instructor gently—ideally, almost invisibly—guides discussion toward what matters.

The seminar assumes that each student has innate intelligence, even as we come from different backgrounds, have different amounts and sorts of knowledge, and different skills. We can each be formed best if we take advantage of our differing insights to push each other, over time, again and again. When this practice is occasioned by carefully curated texts—not exclusively “great books,” but texts that challenge each other and us as they probe issues of essential importance—a seminar succeeds.

A seminar takes time. The first day, you will be frustrated. The second and the third day, you will be frustrated. Even on the last day, you will be frustrated, though ideally now in a different way. Each intervention in a seminar is incomplete, and gets things wrong. Each subsequent intervention is also incomplete, and also gets things wrong. But there are plenty of insights and surprises, for each participant looks at a text with different eyes.

Lovely. And difficult! And a useful reminder that there is a difference between a seminar, properly taught, and a mere small-enrollment class. (Incidentally, the Journal of Legal Education and other law reviews regularly run articles about how to teach well. Some of them are useful, but in bulk they are repetitive. It would be more useful if they ran a few confessional pieces about teaching badly. Surely that happens too!)  

* On the generational and culture-war aspects of the piece, two observations.

1) Although the generational and culture-war framing is tempting, I think the real story here is one of institutional failure. If one accepts the basic account offered--and one is of course free to defer judgment pending further information--then the main problem here was with the Telluride Association, which a) massively retooled its program in a very short time period, b) despite strong talk about the importance and urgency of this retooling, relegated some of the most important, sensitive, and "emotionally draining" aspects of that program to "college-age students" rather than take on full responsibility for those aspects itself, c) imported (or fell back on as an excuse) a model of "democratic self-governance" that is ill-fitted to this particular institution or at least this aspect of this institution and left the success or failure of what it treated as a crucial enterprise in the hands of high school students, and d) used that model to divest itself of responsibility for acting and asserting authority, when it was clear that action and authority were required. It was not unique in this: many universities, among other institutions, seem to have lost the ability to give a firm "no" or to take responsibility for policing their own operations in ways that preserve their proper purpose and functioning as institutions. As much as I enjoy and find some merit in the generational framing, it seems to me that much of the fault lies with the older generation in such situations and that more of the attention and responsibility ought to be placed there. 

2) Although, for moral and mental health reasons, I avoid That Popular Social Media Site, I was curious enough about the reaction to this piece to visit it long enough to check. The positive reactions to the piece were mostly what one would expect. The critical reactions clumped around two points: a) The piece was published in the wrong place and is therefore suspect. b) The author abused his power by criticizing a young person, anonymously but with the possibility that someone could identify them. What these criticisms share is that neither of them is substantive or factual. The first criticism is also mostly if not entirely silly. (Doubly so because the kinds of venues that would surely have been deemed acceptable, the Atlantics or Slates, are neither particularly good nor run by people who show a particular abundance of professionalism or integrity.) I have some vague sympathy for the second criticism, particularly because the nature of social media culture and the fact of our large population means some people will always be happy to heap abuse on anyone who comes within their sights. But it's still not substantive or factual, and it depends in this case on a decidedly shallow, class-distorted account of power and its abuse. Nor does it seem genuinely respectful of that young person or her agency and capacity for decision-making and responsibility. 

Of course, neither of these points affect the passage about seminars, which is excellent in its own right. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 12, 2023 at 10:03 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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