As classes wind down and the end-of-term scramble begins, I am reminded of the superiority of lectures over seminars. My work is largely done in my lecture classes; my work has just begun in my seminars. I can confidently say I have a breadth of knowledge about the U.S. Civil War and about Shakespeare’s comedies and romances. On the other hand, I know next to nothing about the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, yet will have to write a sophisticated 20-page paper on it by the end of the term. Does anyone else see this as problematic?
The best seminars often begin with the professor setting the stage through a 15-minute mini-lecture, followed by some kind of discussion. Often one of your peers will present that week’s reading, and the class will launch into open floor discussion. These are good seminars.
But not all seminars are created equal. Other seminars start with open-ended questions that the same students respond to in the same order and for the same duration every week. These seminars become formulaic and, frankly, monotonous. Maybe your professor has gotten lazy and decides not to begin the class with an overview. At this point, the seminar loses focus.
This is also when you and your peers fall into established roles. First, there are the alpha students. They will speak immediately, regardless of whether or not they have done the reading. Then there are the betas, who clearly have not done the reading and wait for the alphas to initiate so they can piggy-back like ramoras off of the alpha deluge. Finally, there are the gammas. These are the kids who have done the reading, but let the alphas and betas take the front lines so they can actually consider the question at hand. These students often offer the best responses — insightful and to the point — but their comments often get ignored by professors.
Lectures are good because, if for no other reason, they allow your professor to do most of the speaking. Professors got to where they are because they did some interesting research and know more about the subject than you do. You or your parents paid Yale a lot of money to listen to men and women like them. With the spotlight on the instructor, he or she has the option to deliver organized, thematic lectures (though admittedly not all elect to do so). You still have the option to flex your pontification muscles in lecture classes during the weekly section. Unlike in seminar, in section it is okay to be an aggressive speaker because often your TA is reading the material for the first time as well.
Finally, the kind of learning one encounters in lectures is sequential and pyramidal. The midterm, papers and finals all build upon each other, incorporating ideas from your class notes, section and your course readings. You cannot do well in a lecture unless you have been consistently diligent. Seminars, on the other hand, often see come-from-behind hitters triumph. Since one’s final paper in seminar often has nothing to do with course readings (history papers, for example, consist of outside primary and secondary research), one can slack off all semester in seminar, then write a great paper and get an A in the class.
To improve the seminar experience, some specific changes are needed. First, professors have to organize their seminars better and add structure by setting an agenda before class. This will give the seminar some focus and allow students to concentrate on relevant readings. Second, professors must continue to lay the scene at the beginning of each session through a mini-lecture in order to give class discussion some context. Finally, professors have to be vigilant about curbing the alphas and the betas. Encourage the gammas to speak, and stop rewarding the alphas with A’s. Steer discussion so the same students do not dominate it each week.
Until some of these improvements are made, I will happily take all lectures during my remaining year at Yale.
Steven Engler is a junior in Saybrook College.