After our vibrant workshop at Holyoke, I decided to dive into using seminar in my ENG 102 Literature and Composition course. It had been awhile, admittedly, since I relinquished that much control in a class, even though most of my classes feature active learning strategies. As predicted, handing the class over to the students flourished and nourished deep discussion of our common play, The Whipping Man.
Because of the size of the class (17 students that day), I divided it into two seminars, eight and nine students, respectively. We began the class with refresher of what it means to evaluate the effectiveness of aspects of the play. Students had fallen into the habit of confusing what they liked and disliked with effectiveness. After that, we made a list of possible points of discussion – both in content (plot, characters, dialogue, setting, etc.) and dramatic elements (set, costumes, sound effects, special effects, gestures, lighting, etc.). I instructed the group to analyze, and perhaps argue about, what was most effective and least effective about the play.
Then, I set them loose!
I should have had my flip camera because the interactions were beyond my expectations. Now, I should say that this class is quite active in general. Class participation is not a problem, and most students are prepared each class because I often have short written assignments based on the readings. Still, the worry is often that conversations unfettered by the professor will devolve into something unproductive. Quite the opposite. I was most struck by the depth of detail, referencing specifics from a play that most of the students had seen over two weeks earlier, the willingness of students to disagree (and do so respectfully even when passionately), and how the less talkative students were brought into the discussion by the more talkative students.
Perhaps the best moment of the seminar: one of the quieter students was urged into speaking by the other students. They asked him what he thought was the least effective part of the play. The special effects with Caleb’s leg, he said. He noticed what no one else in the class had noticed, including me: during the amputation scene, Simon cut Caleb’s leg on the upper calf. However, for the remainder of the play, minus the flashback scene, Caleb’s leg appeared to have been severed at the knee. It was the only way for the effect to be achieved throughout the play using the couch. For this student, it was an inconsistency which diminished the play’s overall effectiveness.
If not for the open interaction of the seminar, we may not have ever noticed such an interesting detail.