What Is a Seminar?

…here pedagogy  seems to be invisible: seminar participants run the conversation themselves, pursuing the unfolding dialogue ideally through non-hierarchical interactions.

This post was written by Sarah D’Adamo* and Christien Garcia**, PhD candidates in English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University.  
Broadly defined, the seminar is a form of advanced instruction and discussion organized around a focused inquiry. In practice, seminars tend to take shape through particular forms of sociality, generating more informal, intimate, and sustained environments of engagement. Why is it interesting to think about the seminar, and specifically the graduate seminar, in relation to pedagogy? Perhaps because here pedagogy seems to be invisible: seminar participants run the conversation themselves, pursuing the unfolding dialogue ideally through non-hierarchical interactions. In many graduate seminars, the faculty member hosts the discussion as a kind of laissez-faire overseer, occasionally laying a hand as guide, mediator or provocateur. So, somehow this space of instruction works without a predetermined understanding of what knowledge will be transmitted, and without the expectation that that transmission will be from teacher to pupil.

 

To a pedagogue, this might sound pretty messy. Yet, to anyone who has taken part in a seminar, it’s fairly clear that engagement is made up of many small pedagogical gestures. To carry a conversation forward, a discussant may need to explain her outside knowledge to the group, to pose questions through an explicit approach she is trying out, or to translate her thinking into a common language. These practices are the very same that we teachers hope to maintain in our tutorials or classroom discussions. But these communications in the seminar context are also more “advanced,” we think, because they are offered to the group as gestures, rather than delineated as concrete tasks, assessments, or outcomes. Seminars also offer a unique potential to more explicitly suspend the pedagogical assumptions that are naturalized by consumer-based understandings of learning as training, so that the kinds of work we stage and acknowledge as productive become more varied and exploratory.

…the graduate seminar is an appropriate laboratory for such a project: there pedagogical acts feel provisional, as they probably always should, because the group is consciously working with a common understanding while at the same time trying to reach beyond it.

Gayatri Spivak describes the aim of humanistic education as an “uncoercive rearrangement of desires” (A Critique of Postcolonial Reason). Structuring and sustaining such a formulation in practice is certainly a challenging prospect, but it offers a kind of alternative definition that we educators might hold up as our horizon as we navigate forms of coercion and question the place of desire within educational settings and institutions. And the graduate seminar is an appropriate laboratory for such a project: there pedagogical acts feel provisional, as they probably always should, because the group is consciously working with a common understanding while at the same time trying to reach beyond it. The seminar space makes possible the sort of indefinite and horizontal process of ‘working through’ suggested by Jacques Ranciere’s “universal learning’ (The Ignorant Schoolmaster), which reclaims every learner’s capacity to grasp knowledge by her own framework, without the explications or translations of a master teacher. As a space for performing knowledge, discovering intersections and divergences, and negotiating individual positions inside of a collective, the seminar writes large the messy, capacious task of education.

To think further on this process of negotiation, we also recognize that the standardization of education has depended on the framework of the individual as a component of the aggregate, in as far as the individual serves as the interface for the accumulation of shared knowledge and skills. This approach to a collective outcome enacts a pedagogy that devalues types of learning that can not be accounted for beyond individualistic terms such grades, employment rates, income and career status. If a “rearrangement of desires” happens in the seminar, it may involve a reconsideration of the desire to build the collective through the individual. The interstitial spaces between individuals suggest one of the ways that the seminar can give value to the distortion of ideas, wherein students are working at the limits of their knowledge (as individuals), rather than focusing on the mastery of or even production of knowledge.

Somewhat paradoxically, the role of the teacher in a seminar environment – which is imagined as a space without a teacher but with a pedagogy – is all the more necessary for encouraging and modeling an alternative to the status quo of education…

The teacher of the seminar then has the difficult task of defining and conducting nondeterministic education, the very awkwardness of which exposes the seminar to the scrutiny that endangers its place within educational institutions. Somewhat paradoxically, the role of the teacher in a seminar environment – which is imagined as a space without a teacher but with a pedagogy – is all the more necessary for encouraging and modeling an alternative to the status quo of education as the dissemination, retention and actualization of knowledge. Yet it is through this form of engagement that students and teachers can explicitly see themselves as acting upon each other in a pedagogical process that is ambient and shared, and by which processes of critical attention, intimacy, and reflexive thinking could be explored and generated by every learner.

About the Authors:
*Sarah D’Adamo is an Ontario Trillium Scholar and currently researches postcolonial ethics, global pedagogies, and intercultural reading in fiction and Western educational institutions. She previously worked as an international teacher of English literature and language at the secondary level, and these experiences continue to inform her pedagogical and scholarly engagements. 
**Christien Garcia’s research uses psychoanalytic discourse to ask questions about imaginary and political life. His recent publications include “Limited Intimacy: Bareback Culture and the Imaginary” (2013, Textual Practice) and “Queering the Praxis Divide” (2010, Psychology & Sexuality). Christien also contributes images and writing to WhenWeBuildAgain.org, a communal repository for work about architecture and desire, and he is co-editor of the para-academic zine ATIC
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