What is a Socratic Seminar?

Socratic seminars are an alternative to the traditional mode of teaching, in which the professor or teacher lectures and is often the sole giver of information for the class, who take notes and may from time to time ask questions. With the Socratic seminar, the teacher presents the class with a text to discuss among themselves, with the teacher acting more as a moderator or facilitator of the content of discourse.

The goal is for students to be engaged, find ways to learn from each other, and feel more empowered in the classroom. New ideas that may be unfamiliar to the teacher him- or herself may develop, which can lead to new pathways of learning.

This is counter to traditional lecture methods, which emphasize rote learning, ideas transferred from professor to student, and exam-based results on the process. Instead, the students come to their own conclusions and, in an ideal situation, will eventually write papers for a grade rather than taking exams.

Socratic seminars can take the place of traditional lessons for every class or can be mixed into the class schedule, depending on the preference of the instructor.

This type of learning has its supporters and detractors. Like any teaching method, its success depends both on the ability of the teacher to guide the discussion, and on the students being willing to participate.

The name for this teaching method comes from Socrates’ valuing of debate and discussion over the basic exchange of facts between teacher to student. Socratic seminars have become increasingly popular in recent years in fields of postmodern study, where there exists a belief in the absence of a universal truth.

By giving up on the idea that a given text has the ability to impart any lessons at all, Socratic seminars allow the free-form establishment of a multitude of meanings within the subtext, metatext, and real text.

That said, Socratic seminars have also been successfully used by modernists, new defeatists, and traditional courses that emphasize the ideas of plot, character, and theme.

Whether or not a particular area of study is amenable to Socratic seminar is up to the professor or teacher. In general, however, more success has been seen in the literary and humanities fields than in STEM and other similar rule-based curricula.

Benefits of Socratic Seminars

Socratic seminars can be beneficial when it comes to bringing new voices and experiences into the classroom. By shifting the emphasis from the teacher (who will always enter with his or her own perceived or unconscious prejudices), there is room for multiple ideas and ways of approaching the text (particularly on a metatextual level).

For example, a diverse classroom will include poly-gendered and racially mixed individuals. Each one of these students approaches the text from a different perspective based on his or her own personal experience, bias and knowledge of other texts. These various biases (or frameworks of expression) mingle with each other and create a new, often unique truth (or approximation of truth within the boundaries of expression using the symbols of discourse available).

This helps students examine their own perspectives, gives greater reach, and can contribute to build a deeper understanding of the text itself. It is also useful for empowering students to learn how to learn, as opposed to waiting for authority figures to give them knowledge from above. Students are ultimately forced by the sense of classroom community to participate, stay engaged, and express themselves.

Reinforcement of their own agency in the classroom encourages further study and ongoing engagement with the text itself. This can lead to an enhanced educational experience not only in the classroom, but beyond, in other classrooms, and even in non-traditional educational settings.

Socratic seminars are student-oriented: run by the students, for the students, for the enlightenment of the students.

Criticism of Socratic Seminars

It should come as no surprise that Socratic seminars are controversial in an academic setting.

For years, the idea of learning has been that authority figures pass on knowledge to students, who eventually become professor or teachers themselves, thus passing on the same knowledge. The cycle repeats itself (with occasional additions to the canon) for an infinite amount of time. A common argument has been, “Herodotus meant this a thousand years ago, and it means the same thing today.”

Another criticism sees students as empty (or near-empty) vessels waiting to be provided truths in association with their own reading. In other words, they read the text (filling up a third to a half of their vessel), then come to class with the idea that the teacher, through lectures and questioning, fills up the remaining part of their vessel.

Whether or not a student learns is then easily measurable through traditional testing methods. A “mark” can then be entered into a ledger indicating how much they have learned, how well they learned it, and if they are prepared to move to the next level of learning.

Furthermore, people have questioned the need for a teacher present at all, if the students are going to be teaching themselves. What role does an authority figure hold beyond the mere choosing of the texts? Is it possible that learning itself may be corrupted by uniformed students deciding what truths can be found intertextually?

These later questions assume that there can be “truth” to be found in a text. That words have meaning; that words combined with other words also have meaning; and that a complete text has an overall meaning. This leads very well into telling students what the “theme” of a work is, how the characters demonstrate this theme, and what clues can be associated in the text itself with this journey.

Obviously, this approach is treated with derision by structuralists, postmodernists, new defeatists, and other post-texual proponents. A primary objection is that the system used to generate a new construct of truth is fundamentally false.

Words, as we know them, are simply made of individual symbols, critics argue. These symbols are completely arbitrary; using arbitrary symbols to create larger symbols is arbitrary. And it feeds into ongoing capitalist constructs: Teachers make money by “knowing” how to decode the symbols; students pay money to learn this process of decoding and then use that knowledge to teach others to decode (while making money themselves).

 

In other words (no pun intended), ideas like “absolute theme” are simply a form of crypto-currency, not unlike Bitcoin. Know the algorithm, and win at life.

The other basic criticism of these criticisms is that the deck is stacked to favor the current power structure, with deeply ingrained bias towards straight, white, heterosexual males. For hundreds of years, white men taught white men, who then taught white men, and so on. In general, these men were wealthy, and the process was created to bring a rationale for their wealth to the masses.

These biases have built upon each other until we reach a point where there is no need for discourse, because these men had decided years ago that the truth they had discovered through rote work was absolute. It is often compared to a priest talking to his flock about the Bible: “There can be only the truth, I say.”

This involves a huge leap of faith to be considered true. Obviously, in 2017, there are many more voices to be heard in the classroom beyond the prototypical “straight white male” (whose sexuality has always been questionable). Blacks, gays, Asians, women, poor people and other demographic groups come from a different frame of contextual awareness than straight, wealthy, white people.

Their symbiosis, by its very nature, brings new potential truths into the fray, and these truths, say, proponents of the Socratic method, are equally valuable. That said, in certain circumstances, critics of Socratic seminars have made inroads – and probably have a point.

To say that 1+1 = 2 is demonstrably true, even though the symbols themselves are arbitrary constructs, as is saying, “Applying an appropriate amount of heat to water will make it boil.” The lack of a substantive metatextual meaning in the symbols involved does not matter to the heat or the water. It simply boils.

Overall, the general – contemporary – viewpoint is that while Socratic seminars have the tremendous power of agency, greater learning potential, and empowerment in the humanities, they are probably not well suited to STEM lectures, where an illusion of universal truth must be maintained.

Method of Socratic Seminars

The method of Socratic seminars has two basic scenarios.

  1. A text is assigned before the class; students read it and come prepared to discuss. This is better for longer works, though does run the risk of the student coming into contact with pre-existing ideas.
  2. A text is assigned at the start of class; the students are given a set amount of time to read it before the discussion begins. This creates a fresh reaction to the text, unhindered by any potential external biases.

At this point, the teacher asks a prepared question about the text, which the students discuss among themselves. In some cases, one student is assigned as leader of the discussion. In other cases, the discussions are more free form.

In general, the “rule of the game” is that no one’s comment can be deemed wrong. Instead, it must be considered “useful,” “non-useful” or “problematic” – and fellow students must be able to explain why it falls under any of these three situational aesthetics.

At the end of class, the instructor either asks the students to summarize their findings, or assigns them a paper due next class that defines what they have come to believe, why they believe it, and the source of the belief.

cc Michael Purser 2017

 

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