Wednesday, 23 November 2011

One way seminars go wrong

For me, anyway. This week I found myself in a familiar, depressing pattern in a seminar on Mill's account of the good life. A talkative but not very well-prepared group gradually accelerated into a free-for-all in which we very rapidly and confusedly moved over a lot of ground, missing important distinctions and failing to stick to the question in play. I was slow to react: partly because I was slow to gather that the group as a whole hadn't understood the question I had asked at the start of the seminar (because most of them hadn't come to the lecture, and because many of them mistakenly believed that their A-level study of Mill had been adequate to the day); partly out of irritation at a particular, self-confident student repeatedly asserting that Mill's position was 'pretentious' (irritation not helped by his helpful definition of the word 'pretentious' when I said that I didn't understand what his argument was. Yes, thank-you, I know what the word means. What I am politely trying to convey is that calling Mill pretentious is a rather silly ad hominem).

What should I have done instead? I now think I ought to have gone back to basics: returned to the question at hand - what is the good life? - and the answers in play - hedonism, desire-satisfaction, perfectionism; insisted on the precise use of terms in discussing them. I'm wary of doing that kind of remedial work in seminars, because it too often reinforces the unfortunate impression that many students have of seminars as revision classes on the 'points' in the lecture. But perhaps I was too wary in this case.

For this particular group next week, I'm going to be rather more directive and careful about these basics, and see if that improves the quality of discussion.

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