The View From Here

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What do students want of a literature seminar? A recent discussion about this with some of the graduates at York University who are either beginning to do some undergraduate teaching or who have had teaching experience at other institutions before doing graduate degrees raised some interesting questions about authority and education.

I told them one of my worst teaching experiences, something that happened to me when I started teaching at 22. I was giving what I thought was a tremendously high-powered seminar on Eliot's Four Quartets to a group of about eight students in a small room on a warm afternoon. As I ploughed relentlessly through all the possible readings of "Burnt Norton", driven on by the tyro's usual mixture of fear, need for authority, horror of silences, and anxiety to impart as much information as possible in the shortest possible time, one of the students (I remember him as a large young man with big feet and strong opinions) fell sound asleep. I didn't have the confidence, then, to shout in his ear or give him a kick or - better - to stop talking and ask some questions. Instead, mortified by my own embarrassment and that of all the other students, I let him slumber on all through "Little Gadding".

Teaching is not only about talking. In the English department at York, there are lectures, seminar groups of between 12 and 15 and smaller tutorials: and this principle of small-group teaching, hung on to in the teeth of pressures of time and numbers, is part of what makes us an "excellent"- rated department. Seminars need to be clearly defined. Students want to know what sort of thing a seminar is and what is expected of them.

Where this conversation about teaching became more vigorous was when we talked about tactics for running what is, in effect, an artificial conversation over an extended period of time on a specific topic, between people of quite different views and temperaments and reading experiences. (That is the great pleasure of this kind of teaching: when do you get in normal life to talk about a book, in concentrated detail, for two hours?)

We agreed that long formal papers given by one student as a way of introducing seminars are much disliked: they tend to quash discussion rather than invite it. Other tactics are preferred: readings, group presentations, students coming with questions or passages prepared, research exercises done in groups before the seminar.

For the teacher, there is always bound to be a tension between wanting to "get through" a certain amount of material and to propose some possible readings and arguments and, on the other hand, allowing space for disagreement, improvisation and surprises. It is usually a mistake to overstructure a seminar in advance; it is also a mistake just to go in there and see what happens.

All teachers know that there are times when it is quicker and more efficacious to tell and explain rather than to ask and wait. All teachers sometimes talk too much, or talk to themselves in a roomful of captive listeners. It is an occupational hazard: I do it when I am tired, or teaching something I have not had new thoughts about for too long.

But shouldn't the teacher be the one that does the talking? Some colleagues feel passionately that they have never learnt so much, or been so inspired, as by one gifted teacher they always remember, who poured out wisdom and knowledge and opinions. They never minded being "lectured at". But I think this is an increasingly questioned model of teaching. Like other professions where the loss of unquestioned authority has long been needed and is much welcomed - the law, medicine, government, the Royal Family - absolute authority in teachers, however inspirational, is not (it seemed from our discussion) what students now want.

And we all know the bad symptoms and effects of authoritarian teaching: impatience with people who know less than you do, sarcasm (students hate this more than anything), condescension, giving off the air of having a secret agenda that you are not going to disclose, but which the cleverer students are going to "get" and the dim ones are not (and will be made to feel that they haven't). These habits open the way to seminars where a few chosen students talk all the time, not to each other but to the tutor, where the less confident students do not utter a word and are never asked why, and where the students go off at the end of the two hours having listened to no one but their teacher and often not even knowing each other's name, let alone feeling that the tutor knows theirs.

But attempts to break down the authority model can be fraudulent. A more interesting and open way of deconstructing authority might be to pass the chairing of the meeting from one member of the group to another. Or well-prepared students can be encouraged to run the seminar themselves.

A seminar is not necessarily going to be amusing or entertaining: it can be slow, sometimes dull, often arduous. Not all the responsibility lies with the teacher: if the students have not put the work into the reading, nothing will happen, and everyone will feel frustrated. But they can sometimes turn into occasions where everyone in the room feels, equally and as equals, that they have learnt something by talking and by listening: and that is a model for civilisation

The writer is Professor of English literature at the University of York