Seminars improve vastly when students do assigned readings

To the Editor:

As someone who has led seminars, some good, some less so, over the past 20 years, I found much of interest in Zachary Zwillinger’s column, “Simple solutions can improve Yale seminars” (4/9). His proposed solutions — assign less reading, limit class discussion, add frequent quizzes, encourage the seminar leader to speak more — all boil down to the same thing: Humanities departments should offer mini-lecture classes capped at 18 students but call them seminars.

Interestingly, all of Zwillinger’s solutions are professor-driven. All of my suggestions, on the other hand, are student-driven.

I have taught a seminar with the identical syllabus twice in the past three years: The first time it was the best class I’ve ever taught, the second, quite possibly the worst. What was the difference? The first time, the students came to class having done the reading (yes, around 150 pages a week, sometimes in archaic English or difficult translations) and, much more importantly, with reactions. They liked some passages and hated others. Where one student admired a historian’s writing in one place, another despised that same section.

At the beginning of the semester some students dominated the discussion, but by the end of the semester there was more balance; some people still talked a lot, but the quieter students made their points, too. The class discussion gave students ideas for papers, and many students refined their ideas in subsequent drafts after hearing others’ points of view.

This week, I distributed copies of Zwillinger’s column to my junior seminar. While all of us have experienced seminars both good and bad, I am relieved to report that collectively we agreed that a lively seminar encourages independent thinking.

Everyone who has ever been in a good seminar realizes that seminars work best when everyone does the reading carefully beforehand. I agree with Zwillinger that reading responses and worksheets are make-work assignments that students often dash off in seconds. Unlike him, I see their intent: the instructors want seminar members to do the reading. In fact, though, instructors need to demonstrate how much better class can be when seminar members do the reading and do it carefully — which can be hard to do if no one ever does the reading!

Next year I plan to start my seminars with this column because it forced me to articulate why I teach seminars. For that, I thank Zwillinger.

Valerie Hansen

April 12

The writer is a professor in the Department of History.