Teaching the Graduate Seminar: A Manifesto

I’ve recently had the opportunity to reflect on how I teach in graduate vs. undergraduate settings. Much of my recent teaching experience has been garnered in the undergraduate classroom, in educational environments where students are unaccustomed to taking much personal initiative in pursuing their education. As such, my class sessions are highly structured, building diverse activities into the session to push students to be actively involved in the learning process.

Somehow, I never expected my sessions in the graduate classroom to require that kind of structure. Most of the graduate seminars I took part in as a student were free-form discussions; while the professor played an important role in those discussions, none of the participants required any sort of prodding to become involved. We were all only too eager to share our ideas. After all, we all chose to join the program; we all wanted to be there, to learn, and to engage with the material.

I’ve come to realize that, like undergraduate programs, not all graduate programs share the same intellectual culture. Students who choose to pursue graduate education may have varying motivations, not all of which imply a passion for knowledge for knowledge’s sake. More importantly, many graduate students may never have learned, as undergraduates, those habits of intellectual initiative that are so essential to a successful graduate career.

This realization has forced me to think carefully about what I think graduate education should be. While I have been tempted to switch to a more directed, instructor-driven model of education, I want to keep my graduate seminars student-driven. I want my students to choose, through their contributions, what aspects of the material should become the focus of our discussions.

Of course, my role as the instructor is not passive. It involves providing context to allow for a more complex engagement with the ideas and concepts discussed. In addition, I take on the responsibility for making sure discussion proceeds in a productive manner. But I feel strongly that the increased responsibility for engagement, and the increased intellectual independence students are expected to show, defines the difference between graduate and undergraduate education, as well as the relationship between teacher and student, which in graduate school becomes more of a relationship between colleagues.

My role as a teacher in an undergraduate classroom is primarily to try to motivate students to become engaged with and invested in the material, and to guide them through the steps of analysis in order to help them develop critical thinking skills.

My role in the graduate classroom, as I see it, is really neither of those things. I believe that my students, as educated adults, already have critical thinking skills, and in choosing to join a graduate program in literature, they have declared themselves to be invested in the process of learning to think and talk about literature in a more complex and nuanced way. It becomes their role, then, to take responsibility for their own intellectual development.

My role, then, is to help graduate students take their own ideas and understanding of literature to a more complexified and sophisticated, a more fully-realized level.

I can do this by pushing them to be more exact in their observations and more rigorous in their interpretations, by questioning their assumptions and encouraging them to think of other perspectives, by suggesting new avenues for them to develop their interests and pointing them to resources that will help them explore their interests more fully.

 I believe I share that role with everyone in the classroom. Each student should likewise be challenging their fellow students, and helping them to develop their ideas and their analytical acumen.

While lackluster classroom discussions might have been improved by making the discussion less free and more directed, to my mind this solution would have ignored the root issue–that grad school is about becoming a scholar, in a deep sense. It’s about developing a scholarly attitude that involves the relentless pursuit of knowledge, and coming to understand why such an attitude is critical.

Instead of changing my approach to the graduate seminar, I have chosen to be more explicit with my students about what my expectations are, and to challenge them to take on a more active role in their own education. So far, I find them rising to that challenge, and our discussions more dynamic and energetic because of it.

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