Classically Inclined

April 3, 2017

Experimenting with student-led seminars

Term’s been over for a week or so now, and I’m just about catching up with myself and all the things I’d meant to do over term but didn’t get around to. And by ‘catching up’, I mean ‘making a list rather than just remembering them and occasionally flailing’. There are a number of things I could write about, but let’s start with the pedagogy, which has been one reason this term has been so busy – I’ve been running two new courses, which has been a lot of fun but a lot of work as well. I’ve also been trying out something new, since pedagogy only works if you keep it fresh and keep tweaking it to make it better, and I wanted to give up an update on the experiment.

Full credit should go at this point to the marvellous Ellie Mackin, who planted the seed for this project in my head back in the autumn term. At the start of November, she vlogged about her use of the student-led seminar format as part of her teaching, and in chatting about it, I started to get the germ of an idea. I’d come across the student-led seminar when reading around pedagogy, but to be honest it had never appealed – it always got sold as something to make learning student-centered, and I firmly believe in subject-centered learning, plus I couldn’t see how it would operate beneficially with the kinds of subjects I generally teach. However, one of my courses this spring has been our Advanced Latin Author unit, which this academic year has focused on Latin Letters, and I realised that this might be my chance.

A bit of background – the Advanced Latin Author units are the final stage in our language sequence. We have a mix of second and third year students with different levels of experience: they may join us with A-level Latin, take the Language and Reading course in the first year, and then move on to the Author for their second and third year, or they may join us with GCSE, and start with Intermediate Latin in the first year before progressing through Language and Reading to the Author course in the third year. We change up the Author course each year – last year’s course looked at Catullus and Horace, while next year’s will be my new Latin on the Edge course (of which more anon). So one thing that, to me, marked this course out as a good place to introduce student-led seminars was the fact that it’s usually quite a small group (not more than a dozen students), that there’s a clear focus for the course, and that the students on it are particularly committed to the ancient languages.

The other thing that made it a good choice is that there was the opportunity to introduce student-led seminars as a component rather than the totality of the course. When I’ve read things about involving students in curriculum design, there’s been a very all or nothing approach which has not really appealed to me, or indeed necessarily been possible in a UK system rather than a US one. But the thing with Latin Author is that there is a text you are reading. That is one big fixed objective of the term – read the text, understand the Latin. The other big fixed objective is to help students understand the context of the text, however it’s framed in the course objectives – in this case, giving them the background to letter writing practices in the ancient world and how the Romans thought about them as a genre.

The way I structure these courses is to split our time into two classes – two hours of reading the text, and one hour of seminar. In the past, I’ve sorted out the seminars and decided what topics to cover. I realised that I could easily hand over picking topics to the students, so they could explore things they were interested in further. They would have the control over their studies that this strand of pedagogy prioritises without giving up a unifying thread, provided by the core text.

So I set it out to them in the first week back – I would run the seminars for the first two weeks of term, the seminar in the week they had a formative translation test, and the seminar for the final week of term, which would be exam catch-up. The other seminars would be organised by the students, split into three groups with responsibility for two seminars each. They could pick whatever topic they wanted, but by the end of the previous week they needed to provide a seminar preparation handout of the standard they were used to in other courses. They then needed to lead discussion and guide the conversation in the seminar itself – I would be present as a content expert, but would be a seminar participant, not the leader.  They could consult with me in advance, but ultimately, this was their gig.

Well, they looked very nervous at this, but agreed they’d have a go – and I’m delighted to report that overall, I think they did really well. We had seminars on the letters between Pliny and Trajan, representations of women in the authors they were reading, Roman social life, the role of scribes, the role of beneficia in letters, and a discussion of curse tablets (which counted since they’re letters to the gods) – all topics which generated great discussion. Plus I got to run my seminar on letters from Roman Britain, which gave me a chance to go back to the Vindolanda tablets and read up on the new finds from the Bloomberg excavations, which was just of joy.

Having tested the principle, I was struck by the level of engagement that the other students in the class had with the topics chosen, and also some of the really interesting and creative directions that our conversations took us. They helped point out some contextual stuff for our core texts that we hadn’t covered in other class meetings. Students chose topics that I would not have expected them to have chosen, but was very glad they had. As some of the students said to me when I asked how it was going, they also felt more of an obligation to do the preparation work because they didn’t want to leave others in the lurch – and in turn didn’t want to be left in the lurch when they came to run their seminars! I hadn’t thought about this aspect of peer pressure, but in these small groups the students get to know each other quite well and that builds a real sense of camaraderie. I got the impression that the students enjoyed doing the seminar component this way, although I’ve yet to see the official feedback.

So the plan now is to build these into next year’s Advanced Author course from the beginning, getting students to do more of them across both terms, and seeing how it works as part of a full year’s programming rather than a term. I do wonder whether part of the reason that this worked so well, beyond the particular set of personalities I’ve got this year, is that the seminars form only part of the course – the primary texts still give the students an anchor and some firm structure so they don’t feel unmoored or dislocated by the fact that seminar content evolves throughout the term. I guess I’ll see how it goes next academic year, but I’ve got a pretty good feeling about this.

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