My First Seminar

There are several observations every student makes about their first seminar. Firstly everyone turns up fifteen minutes early to their first ever seminar, without fail. Also, everyone wears their best clothes for the first few weeks- making the entrance into the room look like a fashion week runway for a bit. Thankfully, this does quickly change. Everyone realises how wonderful those five extra minutes of sleep are, and that nobody cares if you turn up in your oldest, oversized hoodie from 2012, so long as you have something worthwhile to say about the text. Besides, it gets pretty cold on October mornings- who can blame you?

But you also learn that seminars are really important in an English Literature degree, and to me, seminars are at the heart of it. You will definitely do a lot of independent study, learn about all the famous critics and read some controversial views in literary journals at university. But there’s nothing better to improve your analytical skills than having an enthusiastic discussion about Shakespeare with the girl from across the seminar room- especially with such a controversial play as The Taming of the Shrew. It was the first text I studied at university, so at first most people were hesitant to say anything- especially me and a few others who had a few issues with some of the themes and ideas in the play. The seminar leader’s job is to get you to talk about it, even if you’re nervous and you don’t want to admit you take issue with the text.

At first, it seems a bit awkward. I think this is because people feel like everyone else might be smarter than them, but seminars are there for discussion and the broadening of ideas. I remember one guy making an observation about the play, and then everyone else started talking, either agreeing with his point or (respectfully!) disagreeing with it. By doing this, you look at a text in a way that you couldn’t really achieve at A Level, where everything is more black-and-white or if you were working on your own. Here, individual ideas are much more encouraged.

After a couple of seminars you realise that you all have the same thing in common: a love of literature with a lot of strong opinions about it. What you learn in a seminar is how to strengthen your arguments, listen to other people and think in different ways about the texts you are studying. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the seminar leaders are often experts in the field you’re studying, too, so they steer the conversation in some really interesting directions.

One thing your flatmates tend to say when you have your first literature seminar is “you get to talk about a book for an hour? Wow that sounds so easy!” which is the most infuriating thing they could possibly say. While I find seminars really enjoyable, if you don’t read the text before a seminar it is glaringly obvious. As you might expect, you are expected to have a good understanding of the topic before the seminar. So, as well as being fascinating, seminars can be quite intellectually challenging- which is what you want. I’ve had my viewpoints on sonnets drastically altered by my classmates, and one friend and I still don’t see eye to eye on the works of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning after one seminar last year.

The seminar classes are quite small, with up to fifteen people to a seminar. This means you get to know everyone’s views, and understand others’ thought processes. After my first seminar for one module, a few of us went to lunch to continue a discussion we were having, because we didn’t want to stop the conversation there. It’s a great way to get to know other people as well as your own ideas.

My first seminar

Seminar sizes are small so you get lots of attention!

The main thing I got out of seminars, and the university experience as a whole, was a lot more confidence in what I had to say, and a huge improvement in my communication skills. That first seminar laid the foundation for me to improve my arguments, by listening to what other people had to say against them. It’s important to have your ideas heard and discussed, and the seminar environment facilitates this wonderfully. One of the best things about studying English Literature is that you get so many of them.

Becky Liddell

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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