The leader is a steward and facilitator whose main goals are to 1) ask questions, 2) keep focus, and 3) help others articulate their opinions. With younger students, K-8, seminar leaders must have a much more active role in the seminar than their colleagues in the higher grades (9-12), but in general, the distinction between a “seminar leader” and a “lecturer” is that a lecturer presents received knowledge as it is, whereas a seminar leader, with some context, allows for that which is and that which should be to be questioned in a democratic and civil space. Occasionally, a seminar leader will steer students clear of egregious errors in reading or facts, but if a seminar leader has trained his or her students well, often enough the participants in the seminar will be capable themselves of performing this task, effectively moving the onus of authority from the leader to the group.
Though the seminar leader should feel free to share his or her opinion on a passage in the text, the text itself, and the opinions of those also sharing, the leader should be aware that he is in a position of authority and that to assert his opinion ought to be a matter of the highest discretion. For many respectful and young students, the distinction between fact and opinion, though theoretically known, is easily dissoluble when an authority figure speaks–so, good judgment, which is harder to learn than to speak of, is paramount. For those younger leaders, and those with powerful personalities, taking a step back from sharing and working on facilitating is often invaluable to one’s growth as a leader. Remember, as a leader one must focus most on cultivating the conversation as a whole and on the development of the voices and thoughts of the participants. This, in itself is an important lesson for any person living and working within a democratic framework.
How then does a seminar leader guide without directing? With questions, of course, but what sorts of questions, exactly, ought the effective seminar leader ask? There are four basic categories which may be used either along a progressive line or, in the masterful seminar-leader, in response to his or her group’s abilities, goals, and tastes. The category of questions are those of affection and disaffection: (1) Do the participants like this particular character, this event, the denouement of a particular situation? Frequently this manner of questions starts a seminar off as something of an ice-breaker and helps to bring an emotional connection to the text while lowering participants’ inevitable (however so small) resistances to each other’s thoughts and opinions. For example, tonight I will be giving a seminar on Sophocles’ Antigone. One of my first questions will be: So, what did we think of Creon? Good guy or bad guy? These questions are basic, yes, but they engage the thinking and feeling of participants, and in the early parts of seminars, it is important to get the most amount of engagement from the most amount of participants so that when the discussion becomes more difficult, a firm and scrupulous connection and base will be present from which to build a deeper and more challenging discussion.
The second manner of questions are (2) those of the facts of the matter or the intention of the character or author. I include both facts and intentions together here, because rarely does rote summary of, let’s say for the moment a play, remain summary. Invariably a participant will break in with a question of “why” a character acted in a certain way, and this is helpful, because it creates a deeper level of discussion. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone, the main action is set off by the fact that Polyneices, older brother of Eteocles, had been expelled from the city and Eteocles, who had the weaker claim to throne was then supported by the people (Around this point in the explanation, someone will undoubtedly ask why, and I will undoubtedly say that I do not know, and ask the participants to consider why). After the pause, I will continue to explain that the brothers then, as the curse by Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus details, killed each other by a simultaneous killing blow, and now Creon rules (their uncle–brother of Oedipus’ former wife Jocasta), and he has forbidden that Polyneices be buried because he is a traitor. Now this is a small inversion of the Athenian law where a traitor may not be buried on Athenian soil, and it is even an open question whether Polyneices, who had the stronger claim to the throne by birthright, is attempting to overthrow a tyrant or is leading an insurrection or invasion. Beyond this, there are questions of whether Creon’s edict really has the force of law at all if it goes against the unspoken law of the gods. All of these questions, during the course of a brief summary will be raised, therefore, summary only really exists in order to lead-up to deeper and more important questions than facts. Digressions are then the goal, rather than a failing, in giving brief summary statements/questions of facts.
The third category of questions are where leaders and participants begin to get into deeper waters. Connected the digressions which result from the summaries and questions of facts one may ask “to set-up” or “prime” the discussion are (3) philosophical questions–which in the case of Antigone center around duty to family vs. society; the right of human law vs. divine law; and the love of the dead vs. the love of the living, et alia. These questions might be reducible to questions of justice as fairness and the ethics of duty, though of course in the context of life and discussion, such clean distinctions without further discussion and investigation do not truly serve. What this means is that one must not attempt to explain away philosophical questions (or allow one to explain them away) in terms of this or that term or concept, but to consider, by means of examples, further-questions, reasons, feelings, and opinions, the real, living character of these questions and their relationship to the lives of the dramatis personae of the text and beyond, possibly even into one’s own life through analogy. This brings us to the final order of questions.
This fourth category could well be the first category depending on the taste, judgment, and skills of the leader, but generally, (4) questions of analogy to one’s own life, are reserved as sort of a final reflection on a text. I say this because frequently such questions will not even be asked by a leader (and can very easily be seen as inappropriate without the proper rapport), but rather by the participants themselves, either alone or in smaller company (with friends or family) after the seminar. These are easily the most valuable questions, because through these questions do the lessons and values of the seminar and text remain with a participant. Such questions, even though listed as a type of question a leader might ask, are generally brought up by the participants themselves and precede the revealing personal information, often of a deeply personal nature. Such information must be allowed into seminar sparingly, because it is highly charged with emotion, and though it can contribute a great deal to the solidarity of the group, it can also act as a vehicle of estrangement. As such, such judgements require the greatest amount of discretion on the part of the seminar leader, and these questions, therefore, occupy the final and highest point in a seminar, even beyond philosophical considerations.