In the humanities, the main forms of instruction are (usually) seminars and lectures. To get the most out of these students need to be active participants. I’ll discuss what this means for lectures in a later post. For seminars, you need to prepare, listen to other students (not just your tutor), and join the conversation.

Why should you prepare for and participate in seminars?

Successful seminars are those in which everyone gets a chance to speak. This is important for your education because seminar is the place for you to try out your ideas and get feedback from your lecturer and your peers before you complete your next assessment.

If you turn up to seminar unprepared and just listen, are you really hurting anyone other than yourself? Yes, you are. First, it’s rude to expect everyone else to carry the conversation. Second, if you just sit and listen you are taking from everyone who’s speaking without giving anything back. Seminar discussions, like good dinner party discussions, require give and take from all participants.

Do you need to prepare for seminar beyond just doing the assigned reading and briefly looking at any suggested topics or preparation questions? Yes!

How do you go beyond basic preparation?

Seminar tutors often open with questions like the following:

  • What did you think of the text?
  • What did you find most interesting?
  • What did you find challenging or confusing?
  • If you didn’t like the text, why not?
  • If you liked the text, why?

If you’re worried you won’t be able to answer such questions spontaneously, jot down short answers while you’re preparing for seminar. Also, make note of your tutors’ favourite opening questions.

I’ve led seminars in which ‘What did you think of the text?’ was the only question I had to ask. The students had varied and strong opinions and we spent the seminar unpacking them.

Seminar participation isn’t all about answering questions, though. It’s also important to ask questions. While you’re reading make note of any questions you have or topics you’d like to investigate further. Then, you’ll have a response when your tutor asks if you have any questions.

What if you really, really don’t want to speak in class—ever?

As you’ve hopefully gathered by now, seminar participation will require you to speak in class. I know the terror the prospect of speaking in class strikes in the hearts of some students—I was one such student.

I completed degrees in music and English (at the same time—in British terms, I did two single-honours courses simultaneously; yes, it was insane, and I also worked part-time). I had no trouble standing on stage by myself playing my flute for the length of a recital—that was all well-rehearsed and I had my flute between me and the audience. What I worried about was thanking the audience and inviting them to the reception after the recital. As for speaking in seminars, that didn’t come up very often—the American system is different than the British system, and it was very different twenty years ago.

I did, however, get over my shyness. I can now lead seminars, give lectures, give presentations at conferences, and so on without giving a thought to nerves. How does one overcome this level of shyness? Preparation, planning, and support.

If you’re shy about speaking in seminar, remember that you are not alone. Sometimes, the most insecure students are also the most talkative; so, don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘everyone’ else is comfortable with this.

To make seminar participation easier, write out answers to set questions and anticipated questions. This way you can read out your answers—this is less scary because you don’t have to worry you’ll forget what you wanted to say. Also, if there are any words giving you trouble (synecdoche and metonymy always trip students up) you can either choose a different word or learn how to say it. Collins Dictionary online is brilliant for this—just look up the word and click the little red speaker symbol next to it to hear the correct pronunciation!

If you’re shy, you need to plan to speak in seminar. Challenge yourself to speak once in each of your seminars for the first few weeks of term. Then, increase the challenge to twice per seminar for a few weeks. It’s highly likely that after five or six weeks, you’ll be comfortable with frequent, spontaneous participation.

If you suffer from severe anxiety, please don’t try to tackle it on your own. Discuss your anxiety with your personal tutor, and if you’re comfortable doing so, with your seminar tutors. You may also need to enlist the help of a therapist at your university’s counselling services centre and have a chat with your GP.

Most seminars involve some sort of small group work before the groups feed back to the whole class. If the prospect of speaking to the whole class makes you feel ill, start by becoming an active participant in small-group discussions. Once you’re comfortable with that, set bigger challenges like volunteering to feed back to the whole class for your group. With the right plan and support, you can overcome shyness.

What if I’m not shy?

If you’re always eager to speak in seminar, don’t lose your enthusiasm—seminars need people like you. However, if you notice you’re always the first to respond to questions, try holding back occasionally; sometimes seemingly shy students just need time to compose their thoughts.

When seminar’s over, I’m done, right?

Not quite. You’ll find exam preparation and coursework essays easier if you take a little time while seminar discussions are still fresh in your mind to make connections to previous seminar discussions. This needn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes; I’ll discuss how to organise these post-seminar reflections in a later post on preparing for assessments.

Until next time.
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