Saturday, April 1, 2023

#91 / The Senior Seminar


My topic, today, "The Senior Seminar," is not intended to refer to one of those "go back to college" educational groups, where the word "Senior" refers to someone who is over sixty years of age (or, perhaps, fifty-five years of age). I am aware that there are such "Senior Seminars," and I bet they are wonderful. I know some people who have enrolled in a UCSC-sponsored "Lifelong Learners program," and I have heard nothing but positive remarks.
Today, though, I am still thinking about that article in The New Yorker that I wrote about in yesterday's blog posting. The article, by Bard College professor Hua Hsu, explores "conversation" and its benefits, and it contains the following observation: 

Where do we find a great model for conversation? Cohen points to the college seminar, a rare case of “a conversation that is at once a means to an end (learning something) and an end in itself (engaging in the flow of group talk).” She views teaching as drawing on the skills of a good conversationalist, going back and forth with her students, hopeful that they stumble into a kind of “communion.” The professor is an authority and a guide, but everyone must be ready to make side trips into promising tangents. Every class is fleeting; most aren’t archived or analyzed afterward. “When the term is over,” Cohen writes, “everyone in the class understands that something rare and mysterious has occurred and that our perspective on the world has been subtly but indelibly altered.”

What makes the classroom such an unusual model for contemporary discourse is its temporary and ultimately low-stakes nature. Even if a breathtaking seminar discussion spills into dinner and coffee afterward—and then late-night dorm-room philosophizing, a desire to stay inside that “loving” moment as long as possible—the next session might be a dud. It comes and then quickly goes because, other than some scattered notes, there are no remnants. The power comes from the realization that these conversations can happen only once: they are improvised and ephemeral, and can never happen again in the same way. You may forget what was discussed, but you will remember the exhilarating experience of the discussion itself (emphasis added).
I teach a course in the Legal Studies Program at UCSC, LGST 196, and the official name of the course is the Legal Studies "Senior Seminar." It is also called the Legal Studies "Capstone" course, and the title and topic for the course, when I teach it, is "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." The ultimate purpose of the course is for each student to research and write a compelling "Capstone Thesis," demonstrating the student's mastery of both research and academic writing. Completing the course with a passing grade is a graduation requirement for those students who are majoring in Legal Studies. 

Probably, a lot of the students taking the course wouldn't characterize it as "low stakes," but the classroom discussions (as opposed to the Capstone thesis) are all ungraded, and it is absolutely true that speaking out, saying something, listening to something that someone else says, and then responding to what you heard, has virtually no significant impact on a student's grade. 

Still, lots of students are reluctant to speak up and speak out. Students are typically reluctant to take a position - or to respond to what either I or another student might say. 

Isn't that true in "real life," too - life outside the classroom setting? Aren't we all, most of the time, reluctant to get involved in a conversation, and particularly if our own perspective is different from what we are hearing from someone else?

In a college seminar - and in "real life" - talking to others does lead to an often "rare and mysterious" result. We find - if we are bold enough actually to "talk to others" - that "our perspective on the world has been subtly but indelibly altered.”
Let's not be shy!

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