When Seminar Classes No Longer Work

I’d like to say that the Fall 2019 semester was wonderful and that all my students were brilliant. It feels good when everything is going well, after all, and I like to brag about how smart my students are.

The truth is, however, that this semester was miserable, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. What was going on? What was I doing wrong? What could I do better?

Now that the semester is behind me, I’ve come to the conclusion that something wasn’t working with the students. I hate to shift blame onto someone who isn’t me, but I think that what happened with my classes this semester is indicative of a larger trend in higher education.

Students are no longer capable of engaging with course material that requires reading or watching something for more than a few minutes. This is fine in large lecture classes, but it makes smaller and more discussion-focused seminar classes very awkward and uncomfortable.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and it would be helpful to give some background information first.

There are generally three types of classes in a university: lectures, seminars, and labs.

Lab classes are above my pay grade, so I’m not going to talk about them.

Lecture classes are larger classes with minimal participation. The professor stands on stage presenting information, and evaluations are structured so as to measure the students’ retention of this information. If an individual student performs poorly, they fail. Unless a specific professor has an innate knack for entertaining an audience, most people don’t particularly enjoy lecture classes. These classes are necessary and vital to what a university does, of course, but students tend not to think that they’re fun or engaging.

Seminar classes are smaller and focus more on individual student participation. Although it’s still necessary to evaluate students based on their retention of information, these classes allow much more room for individual student expression. A lot of Social Science and Humanities courses with more specialized topics, such as the ones I teach, are seminar classes. If a seminar class goes well, both the students and the instructor can get a lot out of the experience. This is the type of class where students have the sorts of transformative experiences that the institution of higher education likes to celebrate.

In lecture classes, the instructor basically has to show up, present material, perform evaluations, and make sure these evaluations are assessed properly. This is far from easy, and there’s a lot of planning and preparation involved. Still, it’s the responsibility of the students to do the work or risk failing the class. If a student gets a bad grade, it’s the fault of the student, not the instructor.

In seminar classes, the instructor still has to show up, present material, perform evaluations, and make sure these evaluations are assessed properly. At the same time, because the classes are smaller, there’s more of an opportunity for student engagement, and most seminar classes are designed to take advantage of this. While an introductory lecture class in Art History might expect students to memorize lists of names and dates and manufacture short and shallow essays about, for example, the symbolism of fruit in Renaissance painting, a seminar class would encourage students to dig deeply into a more specialized topic while discussing their own thoughts and intellectual interests in a structured manner.

Because the instructor of a seminar class has more leniency in evaluating each individual student’s performance, they also have much more responsibility for what each student gets out of the class. This involves a lot of extra work for the instructor, but the trade-off is that they can more or less teach what they want.

Most seminar classes are upper-level – meaning that they’re intended for students in their third year or above – and many also have prerequisites. The idea is that you can’t just throw someone with no prior knowledge, training, or skills in the discipline into a small class and expect them to succeed. Essentially, by the time someone becomes eligible to take a seminar class, they should be able to contribute to it at the requisite level. In other words, it wouldn’t make much sense to allow someone with no knowledge of Art History into an advanced seminar for specialists, even if they really enjoy art.

A major problem in American universities, however, is that many colleges now require courses to have a minimum enrollment in order to avoid being cancelled. People who teach seminars are therefore under pressure to open registration to everyone. In addition, instructors are also pressured into allowing upper-level seminars to count for university general education requirements, especially if the class is offered by a “program” instead of a “department.” (A department can offer a major and thus grant a degree, while a program is generally younger and smaller and can generally only offer a minor or a secondary major.) What this means is that, practically speaking, you might have a bunch of sophomore accounting majors taking an upper-level seminar (offered by the Gender Studies program instead of the Art History department) specifically about the queer symbolism of fruit in Renaissance painting.

Meanwhile, students don’t want to risk their GPA on a seminar with a strict instructor and a qualitative assessment structure, so people who teach seminar classes are under a lot of pressure to make sure everyone gets a decent grade. This means that there’s no way to warn students if they’re not doing the work and not performing at the required level.

This is not an ideal situation. As you might imagine, it creates problems.

Many experienced instructors can handle these problems with a range of strategies that can help to make the best of less-than-ideal situation. Unfortunately, a collection of ill-prepared students sitting in an advanced seminar can result in some truly awkward situations that nothing can be done about.

In order for a seminar to work, there need to be at least two good students. If there’s only one good student, the rest of the class will resent them, and that student will grow to resent the class in turn. Two students can get a discussion going, however, and all it takes is the enthusiasm of two people to encourage the other students to contribute as well. Having multiple good students also enables each individual student to slack off sometimes, meaning that the classroom space feels more collaborative.

What I mean by a “good” student is a student who can and will do the work and contribute to the class. A student who can do the work but doesn’t isn’t a good student. A student who has done all the work but sits quietly in the back of the room isn’t a good student. A student who hasn’t done any of the work but “contributes” anyway isn’t a good student either. Meanwhile, the students who don’t do the work, don’t pay attention, and have to be “reminded” to put away their phones and laptops in the middle of class are aggressively bad students. For a seminar to be successful, the instructor needs to work with the good students to create a critical mass of goodness (attention, engagement, contribution, and collaboration) that overwhelms the badness (the attitude of students who clearly don’t want to be in the room) before it becomes pervasive.

An experienced instructor can set boundaries and encourage a productive classroom environment by rewarding goodness and punishing badness. If there’s no genuine student engagement, however, there’s nothing to reward. Meanwhile, in the hope of at least maintaining a neutral status quo, it can be tempting for an instructor to avoid punishing disengagement by, for example, calling out a student who is clearly spending the entire class scrolling through social media.

It goes without saying that it’s easier for men to set these boundaries. If you’re not a cisgender man, you’re already starting at a disadvantage, and every other minority positionality you occupy makes it even harder to maintain an atmosphere of civility and respect in the classroom. There has been so much work (here’s an annotated selection) that demonstrates how sexism functions in a university setting that this observation has almost become a truism, but it’s still worth commenting on.

To return to the point of this essay, what happened this semester is that I didn’t have a single good student in either of my seminar classes. I know that sounds awful and judgmental, but this is what I mean:

(1) Not a single student prepared for class by doing the required reading or viewing.
(2) Even if one or more of them did, those students did not engage with the class.
(3) Multiple students were actively disengaged and disruptive.

What this meant was that…

(1) It was not possible to have a sustained discussion about the material.
(2) It was not possible for students to otherwise engage with the material.
(3) Students were not capable of retaining or intellectually processing the material.
(4) Students grew to resent being asked to engage with material they couldn’t understand.
(5) Students who were not prepared still insisted on speaking, which was awkward and awful.

In other words, everyone was uncomfortable and no one learned anything.

I tried to mitigate this as best I could by offering praise and encouragement on evaluations, devising in-class groupwork projects and other activities meant to stimulate engagement, and having students watch and discuss short videos during class in lieu of doing any preparation outside of class. I learned the students’ names, I memorized their interests and hobbies in order to help bring them into class discussion, and I played trivia games about tangentially related material to help wake them up and get them in a positive frame of mind. I gave them all sorts of snacks with sugar and caffeine, and I even brought my dog to class several times for stress relief.

But nothing worked. Even students who showed promise at the beginning of the semester were performing poorly by the end, and I felt awful.

What I ended up doing was relying more and more on my presentations, thereby transitioning my classes away from seminar discussions and more toward lectures. Unfortunately, the course material I chose for my seminars was ill-suited to become the subject of a series of lectures, by which I mean a set of discrete topics that could be broken down into smaller units of information suitable for evaluations intended to test basic retention.

Writing these lectures and evaluations felt boring and empty to me, and I hated it. To give an example, imagine having a class about Sailor Moon in which, instead of discussing what makes the show so fun and interesting and culturally meaningful, you have to present the text as something along the lines of, say, “Please list three visual elements of Sailor Moon intended to appeal to its target demographic.” As a result, class sessions that could have been really special and magical became tedious and soulless.

The main problem was that none of the students did any of the assigned reading. Let me emphasize this: None of the students did any of the assigned reading. Moreover, most of them had no intention of doing the reading. The course hosting platform my university uses, Blackboard, allows the instructor to track who has accessed the course material, and almost no one even clicked on the links for the assigned readings and videos. Because none of the students were willing to do any work for my classes, I had nothing to work with myself, and every single one of my attempts to engage the students with the material (and with each other) ended in an awkward failure.

As I wrote earlier, I ended up turning my seminar classes into lecture classes, and any discussions we had were very broad and not too terribly productive. I did my best to smile and laugh through the entire semester, but I have no idea what my students got out of my classes.

I’ve been noticing a trend that’s become more pronounced with each passing year, and I think it’s finally time to acknowledge what’s going on – the undergraduates at my university are unable to read or watch more than a few uninterrupted minutes of video. Even when presented with short and accessible material, they cannot engage with it. I’ve always had a few students in every course who were capable of doing enough work to contribute to a productive classroom environment, but their numbers have been shrinking, and this semester I finally hit zero.

I have theories about how we got to this point, but that’s immaterial. What’s more important is figuring out where to go from here.

Specially, what sort of material can students engage with? Moreover, is the specific information gained through college classes what’s important, or should the emphasis of seminar classes be on the process of developing textual and media literacy and critical thinking skills? If the goal is the retention of information, is there a better way to deliver this information? Something like a podcast, perhaps? If the process is important – and I really think it is – what can be done to encourage it? What needs to change so that students can do the work they need to do?

The only conclusion I have to offer is that this issue requires more research. Surely I’m not the first person to have made this set of observations, and there have to be strategies for addressing these problems in order to create classes that are more useful, beneficial, and interesting to students.