Don't let a stifled yawn be your wake-up call

January 9, 2004

How do you inject life into an unresponsive seminar group? Susan Bassnett has some pertinent advice for the exasperated tutor

Sooner or later we all come up against one of the most dispiriting events for any lecturer: the bad seminar group. We turn up with notes and ideas that we feel sure will interest our students, and they sit there, dull and unforthcoming, as the silence becomes heavier and more oppressive and the energy drains out of the room. Afterwards, we wonder why we ever went into university teaching in the first place.

When this happens (note "when", not "if"), it is important to reflect afterwards, but it is also important not to engage in self-laceration or blame. The reality probably lies somewhere in between.

Situations vary: if a normally responsive group clams up, this may not be your fault - something may have happened outside, or students may simply have overindulged in the bar the night before. If they are always unresponsive, you need to look hard at what you are doing because the odds are that it is your fault. If you find seminar groups voting with their feet and failing to turn up, or openly showing boredom and contempt, it's time to seek help. Remember that this can happen in your first year as a lecturer or in your 21st, and you can always benefit from staff development training.

For a seminar to work, everyone must feel free to speak. A seminar is not a lecture, an interrogation session or an opportunity for one individual to show off. Your job is to facilitate discussion, to help shy students play a full role and to rein in tyrants. Start by ensuring that everyone knows everyone else. Setting precise tasks helps; seminars that begin with the tutor asking questions such as "What do you feel about this?" are doomed to inconsequence, but seminars in which people read aloud are equally dreadful. Setting short, clear assignments for individuals and ensuring that everyone speaks in any ensuing discussion is crucial.

I once had a seminar group that wouldn't work. In week one, nobody had read the set text; ditto week two. By week three, I was desperate: I said that as nobody had read anything, we'd talk about breakfast. I began to go round the room. The first two students muttered something about coffee, the third shouted that this was a waste of time, thereby allowing me to point out that he was right, and that if they'd bother to prepare we would not be talking about cornflakes. I then sent everyone home. From then on, we had great discussions. The group needed to be shocked into action.

Getting students to talk is rule number one. That rule is hard to follow if you are an international expert or passionate about your subject because, without realising it, you may intimidate students. Experts aren't always the best people to work with small groups. Seminars are a two-way process, and if the tutor can't or won't learn from the student something is wrong.

I know at least one academic who realised that he should take early retirement when his seminars failed repeatedly. Unconsciously, he despised his students for their lack of knowledge and felt they could teach him nothing. In response, they saw him as conceited and past his sell-by date.

Rule number two is to set clear objectives. Some tutors use seminars as an opportunity to talk about a lecture, others to introduce new material.

However you use it, be clear in your mind. The why-are-we-here-and-not-in-bed feeling students experience in badly run seminars is a major cause of communication failure. If students are comfortable, interesting discussion will happen even if they've had just two hours' sleep, and you'll go home feeling inspired.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Warwick.

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