Conversation has a kind of charm about it, an insinuating and insidious something that elicits secrets just like love or liquor. –Seneca
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 each seminar meeting amounts to, on average, twenty pages of reading. The reading may be more lengthy depending on the nature of the reading.
How Seminar Works
Seminar 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. 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
The discussion begins with an opening question asked by one of the leaders. 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 dialogue may stay close to the text or depart from it entirely.
The direction of discussion cannot be determined in advance of the seminar, but moves by necessity of “following the argument.” 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 the ‘chief explainer’ or ‘instructor’ by offering information and giving the correct interpretation, but 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 to understand the author, the text, each other and themselves. For our purposes, the true teachers are the great books themselves – the poems, novels, philosophical and political treatises, works of natural science, Supreme Court cases, not to mention other texts, documents and pictures.
The aim of seminar is to help participants arrive at intelligent understandings and insights of their own.