Conversation has a kind of charm about it, an insinuating and insidious something that elicits secrets just like love or liquor. –Seneca
Seminar is a practice of conversation based on close study and reading of a book. The aim of the practice is to help participants arrive at intelligent understandings and insights of their own, and to give participants the opportunity to improve habits of mind – concentration, reading, listening, reflecting, imagining and reasoning.
The central focus of a seminar discussion is always a book. Why? For the simple reason that the book – especially th best books – makes us work harder. It sets the bar we lift our minds up to. For this reason, not any book will do, but a book with the highest stakes attached to them, and one that binds us together in common interest. We want masterpieces of human thought and imagination – real food for the mind and heart, objects of great beauty and, possibly, truth, and therefore objects of our highest desire.
A presupposition of all seminars is that a book we place on the table for examination and inquiry and wonder – whether ancient or modern – that raises the bar and makes us work hard – might have truth, might have a definitive answer to one or more fundamental questions of importance to human beings. The possibility of truth is a working hypothesis. On the other hand, a certain book or passage might not be true, but that is something to see too, and to understand why. The books might move us to see things differently, sometime radically differently. Certain books can change your life. The seminar holds open this possibility as a matter of practical interest. Though the possibility of truth is central to seminar practice, books for us are not sacred cows. Agreement with the books is not a requirement, and we don’t worship them as religious relics. They are levers for learning, to get down to the bottom of things for ourselves.
Another presupposition of seminar is that participants joining the discussion are motivated by a desire to go to the sources themselves. This means we eschew interpretative “lenses” and strive to the best we can to try to understand the book as it understands itself. We are careful not to impose our own preconceptions on the book, but we think about the issues they raise directly.
How Seminar Works
A Symposium seminar is made up of five to eighteen participants, with one or two leaders present, sitting around a large table, or in a circle (in a gallery, for example), or collectively in video conference. Preparation for a standard discursive seminar meeting amounts to, on average, twenty pages of reading. For close-reading seminars, however, the most concentrated form of our practice, only two to five pages of reading are assigned.
Seminar is a practice, and differs essentially from both ordinary conversation and a formal lecture. A number of people from a variety of backgrounds, experiences and ages, face a challenging text which may present ideas alien to their own experience, and they attempt to talk about it reasonably, thinking through the book and the questions raised by it. Participants are co-investigators in the questions of importance rising from the encounter between the text and the particular group.
There are three basic ground rules:
1. Politeness, no matter how sharp the clash of opinions may be.
2. Readiness to support opinions with an argument, or readiness to answer questions by other participants.
3. Keep reference to outside sources (other books read, expert opinions etc.) to an utmost minimum, since the text at hand is the common ground.
The Opening Question
In close-reading seminars, the session begins with an oral reading of the text, which lasts 10-15 minutes. The discussion then begins with an opening question asked by one of the leaders. The basic opening question inquires into what is coming into sight in a particular reading, with an eye to paying close attention to the unfolding argument and action of the text.
The movement of the conversation is not predetermined in advance, and may develop in one of many directions. It may concern itself with what the author is trying to say, understanding an idea in its own terms; the discussion may focus on an interpretation of a difficult passage in the book, or a definition of a term; or the conversation may take up more general questions which beg to be answered; or it may consider views offered earlier in the seminar or during a previous seminar. It may range from a particular word and sentence to a most general issue.
The direction of discussion cannot be determined in advance of the seminar, but moves by necessity of “following the argument” and by a will to understand the text as it understands itself. More often than not, participants walk away with more questions than they started with, together with a sharper understanding of the outlines, the foundations, presuppositions, and alternatives of an important issue or controversy.
The role of the leader is not to be a teacher, a ‘chief explainer’ or ‘instructor’ by offering information and giving the correct interpretation. Rather, the leader guides the discussion, keeps it moving, raises questions and objections, suggests possibilities, in order to help the participants in every way possible understand the author, the text, each other and themselves. It might seem to some that anyone can be a seminar leader, or that all great books seminars are alike. But it takes skill and a great effort of attention to be a good leader: for the best leader is one who is capable of not only suggesting where the real problems are, and paying attention to the particular group, but most importantly being silent when needed, or stepping out of the way. The best conversations may even be ones in which the leader is silent.
For our purposes, the true teachers are the great texts themselves – the poems, novels, philosophical and political treatises, works of natural science, Supreme Court cases, not to mention other texts, documents and pictures.
“Tonight I was lucky enough to be part of another fantastic conversation facilitated by David Saussy and the Symposium Great Books Institute. I have to say: these conversations are now one of the favorite parts of my week, and constitute very real and very necessary food for my intellect. It’s so deeply refreshing, in the midst of a busy week dealing with things on the lowest levels, to get together with a few other people and attempt to talk about the higher things, the things which are most important to us as human beings. To be reminded of these deepest and most fundamental human issues is to be grounded, to be restored, and to be brought back to one’s senses in the most pleasant and rewarding way.” -Jeff Johnston, Albuquerque, New Mexico