July 22nd, 2008

Seminar Characterizations


While wandering through a new book sent for review I found this great way of characterizing how people (the specific reference is students) respond to ideas expressed in seminar discussions.

Free-For-All—There’s a prize to be had in this discussion—maybe it’s the instructor’s smile, nod of approval or confirming commentary, or maybe it’s one’s own sense of having said it well, of having made the point. Doing whatever it takes to win that prize is justified. That includes demeaning other ideas and seeking to make those who propose them look dumb. In these discussions, one-upmanship prevails.

Beauty Contest—Here it’s the individual’s idea that’s on parade. It struts before others, showing off all its finest features and then quickly moves to the dressing room. That others are presenting ideas while it’s away is not as important as getting that next idea ready for show.

The Distinguished House Tour—In this parade of ideas, each idea is advanced and then explored. Seminar participants may ask questions about the idea. They may explore its implications, even discuss its details at length, but pretty soon it’s time to move on to the next idea. Seminar participants leave the first, possibly impressed and pleased, but there’s another idea to consider and no time to really engage with any ideas visited on the tour.

The Barn Raising—In this case somebody presents an idea, maybe roughly outlines its characteristics and says something about where it should be located, but after that everybody pitches in and creates an edifice that has worked on and over by a host of participants. Credit for the finished idea belongs to everyone who worked on the project.

The Web address for the article (it’s an unpublished paper, “The Seminar,” by Michael Kahn) containing these characterizations is below. It’s a classic. Listen to how Kahn describes the birth of the seminar. “It was a beautiful invention built on the premise that a teacher wasn’t necessary, that all that was necessary was for peers to gather in seriousness (which certainly didn’t preclude joyfulness or playfulness) and friendliness. It was born as a way of education which told us we were capable of learning from our peers and of teaching our peers, and that we were not empty little vessels into which learning had to be poured.”


—Maryellen Weimer