Seminar Participation Woes

You know it’s not going to be a great day when only 13 of 22 seminar students are there at the start of class. A few wander in late, but not many. What’s so tough about a 9:30 timeslot, midweek?

Then the stonewalling start. The readings amounted to less than two dozen pages, admittedly not the easiest material but I deliberately downsized my page counts from the last time I taught this seminar on early medieval histories, hoping that quality of analysis would trump quality. Matters aren’t looking so good three weeks into our course.

Some of the students do very well. They participate fairly readily and show that they’ve done the readings. They ask questions when they’re unsure of how to interpret an event, word or entry, but most of the time, their readings are insightful and interesting.

Then there are the students who feel inhibited by their lack of background work. For all sorts of complicated reasons, there’s no way we can require prerequisites even though I always ensure that I offer a suitable prereq the year before the related seminar. So I can’t simply growl at them to take the prereq. And suggesting they pick up a general textbook on the era doesn’t seem to crack the nut of “I don’t know nothing about the Middle Ages, Prof A!”

Others are simply unsure of themselves, despite having done quite well in the prereqs. Perhaps I intimidate them when I make an offhand joke about the sources we’re studying or try to fill in the overlong silence by sharing an anecdote about the Emperor Valens. I reassure them that they’re not expected to know Latin or master the whole period just to participate in class, but I sense their disbelief in face of my reassurance.

Finally, there are some students are simply not going to speak up unless I prod them directly. There are always a few of those, so I’m not too worried. I was just hoping with only twenty-two in the class, they’d have nowhere to hide. But the vast majority of the class, either by physical absence or ducking the participation expectations, drag the seminar experience down.

Next week we’re tackling Jordanes’ History of the Goths. The page count goes up a bit and I’m biting my nails already, wondering how class will run.

3 Responses to “Seminar Participation Woes”

  1. tiruncula Says:

    In seminars like these, I’ve successfully used this technique modeled by my most terrifyingly effective undergraduate professor: require either everybody or a handful of students each time to come prepared with five minutes or so of remarks on the assigned reading and call on somebody to things start off with their prepared remarks. I emphasize that their prepared remarks can include not just sage observations but questions about things that puzzled them. I find students in classes that are prone to stoney silence feel much more comfortable if they don’t think they have to think of something to say on the spot, and the class quickly comes to feel comfortable with the routine of starting class that way. If you require everybody to do that, you can call on anybody without feeling like you’re putting them on the spot - if you want to be that nice.

  2. Belle Says:

    Another strategy (FWIW): ask them to come in with questions that a newbie might have on the text/topic. I’ve had good luck with asking them to ask questions that a high-schooler might ask, and then asking another student to answer it in those same kinds of terms. Explaining something as if you’d explain it to a non-college student w/no experience in the field forces them to rethink the whole audience issue, and permits students who aren’t comfortable (yet, one hopes) with a more scholarly voice to participate.

  3. Another Damned Medievalist Says:

    Welcome to my survey class!