In Praise of the Socratic Seminar

In a literature classroom it can be easy to lose sight of the “so what” of the course’s broader impact within not only students’ undergraduate experience, but also the trajectory of their professional careers. But as instructors in literary studies are acutely aware, a student’s exposure to reading literature in class has real-world impact: it may be the first time they encounter their own implicit biases and understandings of the world, which begin to fracture under the weight of evidence-based textual analysis and close reading.

This is where the Socratic Seminar comes in.

In short, the Socratic Seminar is an opportunity for the instructor to bow out of a roundtable conversation—and also an occasion for the instructor to sit silently outside the roundtable while students facilitate their own discussion based on pre-circulated questions.

You can go about this technique in various ways. For example, ReadWriteThink recommends that instructors prepare students to debate and talk through ambiguous or contentious issues of a short work of fiction; but what I have found most effective in my teaching background is encouraging students to meta-reflect on the course itself as it pertains to both their short-term goals in college and their long-term goals in their professional careers.

The seminar itself is rather simple. I pre-circulate questions to students and explain the process to them:

  1. There is no moderator, so coming prepared is a requirement. The conversation begins only when students take leadership and start talking.
  2. This assignment gives students the freedom to lead the discussion without the instructor’s input—making it paramount that students bring a list of talking points, which draw from specific examples to substantiate their claims.
  3. Students may speak at any time, as long as they do not interrupt one of their classmates.

I also make sure to explain the purpose of this assignment: to brainstorm—both as an individual and a group—the outcomes of this course as they relate to students’ interests, majors, and future goals. Ideally, by collaborating with their peers in a group thinking-based discussion, students will leave the course with a crystallized understanding of what purpose the course served for them and how they might pivot those skills in other classes, internships, and eventually future employment scenarios.

The questions I pre-circulate typically look similar to the following:

  • How did your approach to literature change from the beginning of the semester until now? What did or did not change in the previous 12 weeks?
  • How did your approach to writing change?
  • How did you apply the suggestions you were given during peer review sessions, commented feedback, and student-instructor one-on-one conferences?
  • How do you think your experiences with writing in this course will assist you in other courses at the university?
  • Reflect upon the experience of approaching multiple literary forms and texts. How did your thoughts about literature change as the course progressed? Which prior convictions were affirmed? Which ones were not?
  • How would you characterize yourself as a reader and writer? Which questions about the literature, reading, or writing from this class remain unresolved?
  • What do you wish we would have addressed or spent more time addressing?

What I have found is that students are more than eager to talk about themselves, their skills, and their enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for the course; therefore, it is important to view students as collaborators rather than within a the traditional teacher-student power relation. This perspective spares my feelings in those moments when I worry I did not perform each task throughout the semester with perfection, as well as serving to remind me that—similar to what I write to my students in my comments on their papers—there is always room for improvement, revision, and recalibration.

In explaining my teaching philosophy, I express a desire to provide first-generation students with a roadmap to becoming confident with their voice and ideas among their peers, especially those who come from a long line of college graduates. Thus far in my teaching career, the meta-reflective Socratic Seminar has served as the conduit for that long-term goal.

By reflecting on their experiences and discussing the new skills they acquired throughout the semester, my students begin to understand their position in the world, which equips them with a quiet confidence that no graded writing assignment ever could.

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