11/06/2012 Daniel R. Porterfield

The Power of the Seminar

  • Assistant Professor of Dance Pamela Vail walks her students through a series of dance movements during an April 2012 class. Assistant Professor of Dance Pamela Vail walks her students through a series of dance movements during an April 2012 class.

After teaching my first F&M seminar last spring and loving the work my students did, I wanted to see firsthand the learning environments other F&M faculty create, so I’ve been visiting lots of classes this year. The visits have reinforced for me—at this fitting moment of reflection as the College celebrates its 225th anniversary—the primacy of the nurturing academic community that F&M has built as a hallmark of our educational experience.

One September afternoon, I observed as the Dr. Elijah E. Kresge Professor of Philosophy Glenn Ross led 15 students in a nuanced discussion of artificial and human intelligence. A few days later, I watched Assistant Professor of Dance Pam Vail guide her class of eight through a complex and beautiful set of movements that will become part of our Fall Dance recital. A week later, I observed a dynamic chemistry class taught by Professor Rick Moog in which students solved problems in small groups to help them grasp the difference between the Lewis and Resonance Structures.

Besides revealing the teacher’s soul of great colleagues, such visits remind me of the profound power of the seminar as a place and space of learning—a place too often taken for granted in today’s debates about online learning and whether students even need college.

F&M seminars are legendary for our faculty’s commitment to rigorous, high-impact teaching drawn from their scholarship. As the semester advances and the complexity increases, each class develops a personality. In great seminars, students assume a sense of collective responsibility to think and work at the highest levels.

It’s not simply the small class size that defines the real power of a seminar. Most important is the intellectual leadership of the professor. It is in the well-crafted seminar that engaged minds kindle fire and our students learn how to think. I like the way the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology and Ware College House Don Joel Eigen puts it:

“Most experienced educators will acknowledge that the real learning in any classroom takes place the minute a student asks a question. The effort to frame that inquiry—to try out an idea, to push the limits of the professor’s claim, to examine the assumptions of another student’s question—these are the moments that instructors savor. And these are the moments that students remember, the moment when they find their voice.” Students at F&M don’t take just a handful of seminars as juniors and seniors. Their entire education is predicated on a foundation of seminars, typically eight in the first year alone, some of which are integrated into our College House system or ongoing faculty research in Lancaster. Taking numerous seminars allows our students to experience the distinctive approaches and assumptions about knowledge of diverse professors and fields, helping them grasp the principles of intellectual design. In educating the next generation of students in the decades to come, we remain mindful that, in our increasingly knowledge-based society, those who can construct robust intellectual frameworks will always be leaders.

One more observation, drawn from watching Professors Vail, Moog and Ross engage their students: At F&M, the relationship that starts in a seminar may well continue into second courses, the major, and life after college. It’s no exaggeration to say that our seminars launch lifelong mentoring relationships.

Somehow I doubt we’ll ever see the online course that can do that.

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