Thursday, January 12, 2012


My classes are all seminars.  That means the students work as a team throughout the class.  They need each other to bring up ideas, develop them, and work through discussion topics toward learning and understanding.  They don't absorb and respond as separate individuals; they are responsible collectively for generating the material for the class, and they must contribute if they want to have anything to take and make their own.

So on the first day of my classes, we spend a lot of time getting to know each other.  I like to have the students fill out a brief questionnaire, and then share some of their answers with the class.  This semester I'm co-teaching with a colleague, and we have double the usual number of students.  So we built on my usual questionnaire in order to include items from other of our perspectives, while at the same time cutting down the number of questions in order to get through the intros expeditiously.

Today was the first day of our class, and we allotted 20 minutes to go around the room and have everyone speak. There were 27 students, so everybody had less than a minute apiece. And because of the room we were in, they were seated in a large circle with some people in a second row behind.

Yet despite these disadvantages, it was one of the most invigorating introductory sessions I've ever experienced. In the end, it wasn't due to our structure or prep.  It was one simple choice that student after student made when they stood to introduce themselves.  They turned to speak to their fellow students instead of talking to the instructors.

We didn't tell them to do that.  We didn't give any indication about why the introductions were happening at all.  But over and over again, it happened.  The students stood and told each other, not us, who they were and what movies they liked and where they'd like to live if they could live anywhere and what's unexpectedly changed about them in the last few years.  

I was moved, I confess.  No lectures about how they needed to work together were needed here.  They were already in seminar mode.  If that twenty minutes is any indication, it's going to be a great semester.

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