From Seminar to Study Group

September 02, 2004

It's true enough that no one teaches professors how to teach. But for sure, no one teaches us how to teach graduate students and doctoral-level seminars.

I'm a sociologist who has been at it quite a while -- my first graduate students are tenured professors with graduate students of their own by now. And yet, when it comes to teaching doctoral courses, I am still feeling my way along, making it up as I go.

With undergraduates, the basic rules are clear, at least to me. There are boundaries separating me from my students, making clear what my role is. I know some people struggle with that, but for me -- maybe because the undergraduates I teach are mostly fresh out of high school -- those lines are clear.

With my undergraduates, I'm an accomplished professional, out in the world, established in my life. They're figuring out what they want to be when they grow up. I know a lot -- sometimes it seems to me to be an amazing lot -- about what I'm supposed to be teaching them. They know very little about it. Sure, they may know a great deal about things that are related, useful, interesting, and important to consider, but they don't know the material I am setting out to teach.

So the lines are clear: I am the professor, and I profess. They are the students, and they study. We talk, we exchange, but basically, I teach, they learn.

Not so with my graduate students.

My undergraduate syllabi are prepared well in advance, down to the days the exams will be returned, let alone given. My graduate seminars? I walk in with anywhere from the first week to the first month figured out. And then? Well, it depends on who's in the seminar. And what I think I can learn from them.

My graduate students are pretty much my main teachers these days. Some of them walk in -- having gone straight from high school to college to graduate school -- and are only just slightly more "finished," more learned, than my undergraduates.

But others have run departments of nursing, corporate divisions, or activist movements. They've gotten degrees in theology or master's degrees in sociology, they have studied with my most respected colleagues, and read books in my field that I keep meaning to get to. They come with projects, work of their own, and want to see how what I can teach them can help them with their own work. And that's what I'd really like to do: help them with their work, not just teach them mine.

So how do you start? Where do you begin?

I start my graduate seminars with "intellectual autobiography." I ask my students to write a couple of pages about who they are, how they came to where they sit in my room. We share these stories of who we are and how we came to be.

I start with mine: I mix up the personal and the academic, as it is in my life, making it comfortable for them to do the same if that's what their lives are like and what their work is like. I keep copies of the autobiographies they give me. They're my crib sheets for going back and figuring out what a student is doing when they go off on some odd tangent in class, or as I read their later work for the course.

And then I try to start teaching them. I've never actually mastered the art of working a small room. I can do a large lecture hall, piece of cake. And I can work a crowd of 30ish; that's just like a lecture hall with more and easier back-and-forth.

But a room of six? I can't just talk at them. But I have stuff to say, stuff I want them to know. Yet it feels silly to be "lecturing" at six people, to talk nonstop for 20 or 30 minutes, going through my "shtick" on the topic.

Sometimes, if I've written on the topic, I can distribute that material ahead, and we can discuss my work just as we could discuss anyone else's. I can distance myself, become one of the discussants, maybe get defensive sometimes, but I'm not "lecturing."

Last spring, I taught a graduate course on the "Social Construction of Illness." I wanted to run through the history of labeling theory in the sociology of deviance, and show how it transformed medical sociology. It's important background to what we would be doing, and I knew a fair amount about it, and the students probably didn't. But that sentence is the most I've ever actually written about it. So I had to talk the topic through with the class -- me, sitting with my students around a table, talking and talking and talking. Weird.

I bring in food. If it's a morning class, I might bring in cookies and tell the students to pick up coffee or tea on their way. If it's early evening, I bring in a bottle of sherry and a bottle of port (everyone seems to like the port better; ugh). That sets a nice tone, and changes the feeling at the table, even if I do have to use plastic cups.

I'm trying to make the seminar room feel like my ideal learning situation, like it's my study group. For years and years, from graduate school on, a group of six or so of us would meet at a table in one of our homes, once a month or more if someone needed it, and argue our way through our work. We balanced the individual and the communal in a way that I know I will never surpass, but that I will always seek. I seek it for myself, and I want to show it to my students.

I went to a session on "teaching" once at one of the sociology meetings. There were 10 of us at most in the room. We were sitting around, without even the benefit of a table, and three of the people were the "panel" members, there to teach us about teaching. The dynamics of the room were awful. I asked the panelists about how to work a room of just the size that we were in, how to tailor your style to actually focus on a small number of people -- not a one-on-one exchange and not "holding forth" to the multitudes.

The panelists and others in the room mumbled, they stammered, they were hopeless and helpless. They showed me I'm not alone: We can pontificate and we can chat. But what is in the middle?

The problem of how to approach a particular graduate seminar usually resolves itself halfway through. By then, I've said what I needed to say, given whatever long raps I felt were required, and learned enough about who they are to divide up the work.

By midpoint, the students are themselves presenting, explaining how the theory and history that I've given and what they've read or heard fits into their own interests or concerns. With each of them taking a turn -- arguing, agreeing, pushing, suggesting -- I know that we have re-created my study group, and I'm happy.

I've got my pad out and I'm taking notes along with everybody else. I break in every now and again, ask for a few minutes to fill in some history or theory or background or whatever I feel is missing. But then, having said whatever I had to say, I'm back in the fray, discussing, arguing, thinking it through with the best of them, the rest of them.

Barbara Katz Rothman is a professor of sociology at the City University of New York.