If you are a good student (and I know you are) then you’ll have read your English Style Guide from cover to cover at least five times and will be very familiar with the section titled: ‘Seminars and What to Do in Them’. If you haven’t read it (Shock! Horror!), then go and read it now because it is very helpful and tells you everything you need to know about what to do in seminars.
That said, I’m sure you want to know even more about what to do in seminars, which is why I’ve written even more about what to do in seminars. Being in a seminar is just like being at a house party, but you have to navigate it completely sober. That may sound awful, but at this party, learning is your drink of choice (stay with me), and if you take it one sip at a time your inhibitions will fade and you’ll soon be the life of the seminar, dancing on the tables of knowledge with all your pals (feel sick yet? Sorry). There’s really only two things you need to do, but I will waffle on about both of them because I care about you deeply.
1. Prepare for seminars:
Tell yourself you want to be prepared, you want to work, it’s why you’re here, the purpose of your existence is to do this degree. Repeat it over and over until you get so bored of saying it you need something else to do, and oh, what’s that there? Some reading you need to do? Great! Read it!
Make a few notes, even if all those notes say is: I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT I’M READING. If you don’t make notes, or fold pages, or underline things, or stick page markers in as you go, by the time you get to seminars you will have forgotten all those wonderful initial thoughts you had. They are valuable, even if it might not feel that way. Because reading is usually a solitary activity (and that’s probably why we like it), the idea of having to share this process with others can be intimidating. Try and set aside that fear, remember we are all in the same boat – we are here to learn – and the only way to do it is to be prepared to try new things. A degree is all about new things. You will like some of the new things if you try them.
Read any secondary stuff you’ve been told to read. It will help support your understanding of the primary text, and introduce you to new ways of reading and discussing it. If you are finding a text particularly hard, secondary material is your first stop. If there hasn’t been any provided, then use the library to find some – even just skimming through a couple of articles about a text can really help you to grasp what’s going on. Then go back to the text and try again. Trying is the important thing here. Fear of failure often holds us back from trying, but not trying is a much surer route to disaster. Once you’ve tried, you can always try again. You can’t do nuffin’ with nuffin’, see?
Remember, your prep is just that – prep. You don’t need fully rounded and polished ideas, just make a start. Then……
2. Go to seminars:
They happen just after lectures, those nice things you like because they involve sitting back, listening and not having to participate in terrifying activities like – GROUP DISCUSSION AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
One quick way to alleviate the terror of looming seminars is to follow the above: prepare. At the very least, read the primary text and listen to the lecture.
When you get to seminars, put your phone on silent in your bag and have a chat. A good opener is, ‘anyone read this!?!?’ and take it from there. Your tutors will direct discussion and give you starting points, in the form of questions or topics usually. Work off them, ask questions of your peers, of yourself, of the tutors. See if there’s anything in your prep that relates to what’s been asked. If not, add it in anyway. Your tutor will be impressed if you deviate from what’s been set (within reason, obv) and your fellow students will be relieved that someone is distracting them from the terror of trying to answer what’s been set.
Quite simply, what you put in, you get out. That’s how it works. You can’t sit in a seminar and not participate, and then when you come to write an essay or revise for an exam complain that you haven’t got enough information to work from. You will be provided with all the material you need to start, but it’s up to you to put some work in to make the most of that material.
Remember this is not school, you don’t have the same restrictions. I mean, there are some restrictions, but your degree is YOUR degree. How you work and how much you do is up to you -this is a fun, cool thing – don’t be afraid of taking chances, and putting yourself out there (where is ‘there’? Nobody knows, but maybe you’ll find out). It’s hard getting used to university study, figuring out what’s what, and who’s who, and where’s there, but try not to get bogged down in worrying about “The Rules”. Yes, you have to attend seminars to get your attendance marked, you have deadlines, you’re always been told to read this, and read this extra stuff, and watch this, and do more research here etc etc. But you do have choices. I think being at university is largely about discovering what these choices are, and then what to do with them. The more you try, the easier it will get, and the clearer everything will become. This goes beyond being in a seminar, of course, but a seminar is as good a place as any to get the party started! (Yes I know how cringey that sounds, especially with the exclamation mark at the end, but I don’t care because participating in seminars has boosted my confidence and now I express myself freely at all times).
-Katie and T.E.A