Socratic seminars have a wide variety of benefits in an academic setting. Understanding these benefits is important for ensuring that the seminar runs as smoothly as possible.
The core benefits come from the liberation of the students from the control of the teacher. While the teacher is still involved, he or she acts more in the role of moderator, keeping the class on track.
He or she will also select the text to be discussed – which is probably the most important contribution they will have to the seminar.
It is important that the professor be aware of the benefits of the Socratic seminar. This awareness will help him guide it – and more importantly, not guide it when it is moving in a productive direction.
A productive Socratic seminar may not be obvious at first, so understanding the signs and the momentum is vitally important. This allows the professor to know when to jump in, and when to pull back and allow it to run to its inevitable conclusion.
Of course, sometimes the conversation will legitimately go off track, which is when an intervention is needed. Knowing the difference is crucial to running the Socratic seminar correctly.
What follows below is a look at the benefits, so you can ask yourself if your seminars are functioning well or if the students are moving the goal posts.
It should be noted that not all of the following have to happen in order to have a productive seminar. If simply one of them is happening, it should be enough for the seminar to be considered helpful.
Inclusion of Alternative Points of View
This is one of the primary points of running a Socratic seminar. In today’s classrooms, there are a huge multiplicity of voices. Gone are the days when straight white men were the majority of the classroom being taught by other straight white men. (In this case, “straight” is used to describe presentation, not actualization of sexuality.)
In the modern classroom you will have gays, bisexuals, gender-fluid people, straight women, and members of varying ethnic, geopolitical, and socioeconomic minority groups. In many cases, the sum of these people will actually be the majority of the students involved.
Traditional teaching is designed to address the needs of “straight” white men. A Socratic seminar seeks to open up the discussion to the inclusion of these various minority groups.
This is where a Socratic seminar is genuinely helpful. While a member of a marginalized group may not feel comfortable speaking out in a lecture class, the nature of a Socratic seminar will allow their voices to be heard.
Allowing this will permit the discussion to move in non-traditional directions. They should be given the voice to explain what metatextual material they are bringing to the subject, and then advance their view.
For example, a member of a gender/sexual minority might see evidence of homoerotic images in a text by Hemingway that would be invisible to the straight, white, male student. A member of the Indian community might see parallels between his stories and their traditional myths. An African-American student, or another person of color, might see colonial exploitation in his descriptions.
All of these elements have a validity beyond the traditional canon and can make for interesting discussions. By stepping back and letting them happen, new views of the text will be revealed.
Each student can discuss what they took out of the text – as long as they can justify it with personal experience or metatext. They can debate and find new meanings within the text – separate from the author’s intent or the teacher’s original reading of the text.
Intertextual readings are also welcome, as discussions of the subtext that may be invisible to white men, but obvious to people from other backgrounds.
For example, in a discussion of American Psycho, students may notice that not only are the main character and his friends white, but all of his victims are white as well. A discussion based on the inclusiveness of both perpetrator and victim within the text may signify exclusion, or may indicate that the narrator is unaware of people outside of his point of view.
Another interesting discussion could be made of whether or not Patrick Bateman is in fact gay, and if his interactions with people and the subtext surrounding them indicate so. This would be an interesting point of entry for women, gay, lesbian and gender-fluid students to address the book.
Overall, in this situation it is best for the professor to let the discussion play out unless it is demonstrably off subject.
Socratic seminars are also a great way to provide a Marxist perspective to the learning process. (In this case, we are talking about Marxism from a linguistic perspective and not a political perspective.)
In linguistic terms, Marxism refers to a commonality of consciousness. In other words, it allows the group to first debate the text with all of their metatextual instincts, bringing out the intertext and subtexts. Then they can work together as a group to define a theory of the text from the group, rather than an individual perspective.
This group perspective would include some, but not all, of the data points brought up by each member of the group. In the end, you would get a cohesive whole.
A Marxist perspective will live in direct contrast to the capitalist perspective of a traditional classroom. It is no longer a teacher from on high explaining things to the students so they can later explain them to other people. Instead, it is a group effort that creates group consciousness.
For example, a teacher could start out with Jacques Derrida’s assertion that spelling and grammar are a form of tyranny imposed from the elites to keep the common man happy with his lot in life.
At the start, members of the white power structure in the classroom are likely to argue that this is absurd. That we need rules in order to communicate effectively. They may also argue that an argument without the tools of spelling and grammar are likely to be equally without merit.
On the other side of the argument, someone may point out that books like Trainspotting are a part of the canon and completely ignore traditional spelling and grammar. A third person might then argue that anything that can be understood (communicated) is valid. A book written entirely in emjoi would constitute a text if its meaning were clear.
Over the course of the debate, a consensus may be developed that there is a need for some rules to make sure communication is clear, but they are not the rules learned in elementary school. That Trainspotting is consistent in its spelling, and an emoji novel would also have to create its own rules.
The end result is an interpretation that includes all perspectives – that rules are important but not set in stone, and they evolve over time to create new rules in an ever changing landscape.
This conversation should be allowed to run its course.
Expanding the Canon
The canon – the set of works deemed important by educational institutions – is heavily weighted toward straight white males. For every Mary Shelly, there are a dozen Shakespeares.
Getting out of the rut of teaching canon can be a very difficult process. It is made even more difficult if the teacher has only been taught from canon.
Here is where Socratic seminars really shine. By asking to hear voices not often heard in the classroom, newer or alternative works can be introduced.
A gay, lesbian or gender-fluid student will have read other works and can bring them up in referencing the text. A Chinese student can talk about stories or novels they have read. African-American students can talk about their experiences with non traditional text.
By bringing them into the discussion and having them explained by their peers, students can become enlightened and see the value of these non-canon texts.
Over time, students may seek out those texts on their own. With each year, more pressure can be brought to include those texts in the canon. This is a powerful way to ensure institutions break with current canon, leave bits behind that are outdated, and update it with more diverse works.
That there is room for canon to be smashed is obvious. Nobody in a generation has actually enjoyed Finnegan’s Wake, for example. By exorcising that from the canon to include the works of Toni Morrison, more value can be seen in canon.
There are a near-infinite number of books/texts out there from every cultural, subcultural and gender perspective. Moving more of those books into canon should be a priority of any school. But the way to do so is through students – not teachers, who be definition will only be experts in the current, biased canon.
While this is more of a long-term benefit of Socratic seminars it cannot be ignored, because its influence will last generations.
cc Michael Purser 2017