While reading an article in the Daily Nous today, I came upon a “dirty list” of tricks to improve one’s appearance of intelligence in a seminar setting. These techniques are on the one hand useful to the academic scholar of philosophy, but more than that they shine quite the light into the “academic conference room”. Rather than, say, pursuing mutual understanding in some dialectical or discursive manner, one is taught, essentially, to go “on the attack” and to assert one’s intellectual will and keenness against another. In practice, this is useful for sharpening one’s mind, tightening one’s reasoning, and testing one’s courage. This is also a rather thin use of what a seminar can be, and today we will consider whether such sharp practice loese more than it gains by means of its tricks, dirty and otherwise.
Depending on the constituents, subject, and venue of a seminar differing values and outcomes are illustrates and sought after. Clearly, the custom and measure of judgment in an impressive academic setting is set, but at least in the younger years of a student’s life, one might think that collaborative discussion can be achieved with less of the posturing and vying that he or she will undoubtedly have to learn later in life. It seems a fairly considerable waste of talent to see and hear that such powerful and disciplined minds spend their time and energy tearing each other down rather than working with each other for more collaborative and masterful thinking. This thought, however, is likely over idealistic and does not take into account the necessity that an academic has of differentiating himself or herself from others in an increasingly competitive job market.
In seminars, however, with younger students, not yet necessarily needing to use “fault finding” or error-seeking behavior, can something more be achieved by seminar? Let us first look at a few of the techniques that our Oxford Professor suggests to his professional colleagues, and from there, we will see whether younger, less professionally inclined, students can improve on these techniques.*
The first technique actually is very helpful to a genuine seminar. He calls it “The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card.” In part, here is how he suggests it be implemented by an academic philosophy scholar:
“In philosophy, the get-out-of-jail-free card usually sounds like this: “Hmm… yes… that is a difficult problem, and I will have to think about it. Let’s talk some more later.” This is good because it’s almost always true — your seminar interlocutors are clever people who’ve chosen to come and see your paper, had an hour to think about it, and so if they give you an objection, it almost certainly does deserve your consideration outside the stressful environment of a seminar.”
The basic method of this technique is to admit that one is wrong, and in a student-seminar, this is an excellent trait. Nothing is more harmful to a basic conversation which seeks after mutual understanding than posturing, nit-picking, or refusing to accept that one may have been wrong over one issue in order to move on to deeper and more difficult issues. As a student is not a professional, one’s reputation will not be ruined and not even tarnished by admitting one was wrong. One might even “earn points” improving one’s reputation for being so broad-minded.
That said, one difficulty with the academic seminar which a student seminar does not share is the necessity for one-on-one interaction after the seminar in order actually to connect and move forward in a discussion. Clearly, a discussion conducted one on one after has several mutual benefits, but the fact that the discussion cannot be continued en groupe is an impediment to the nature and purpose of a seminar. Thus, in the student-run and teacher facilitated seminar, the point is not to raise objections per se, but rather, as said above, to seek mutual understanding and a deeper depth of learning on a question, generally related to human nature.
The next techniques that Parsons lists are “trapping” and “reverse trapping” where one essentially leaves objections and potential responses to those objections out of one’s paper. One does this to address an audience member inevitably bringing up one or more of these objections (generally, the more obvious ones) and for the speaker to feign thinking about the issue while already having a canned response ready to go. This leaves both the audience member happy for having brought up an objection and the speaker for having answered it. This, truly, does seem valuable and helpful given the circumstance of the academic seminar, but does it lead to increased mutual understanding? Is it intellectually courageous? To some extent, these techniques admit of prudence, so the objection raised here is not against the practicality of the technique but of the culture that has bred it. As a scholar, is one’s function in a seminar-setting to defend one’s reputation or seek after truth and understanding? Clearly, according to Parson’s, the time for understanding is in private while publicly one behaves something like a politician, but is this in keeping with the idea that a scholar has academic freedom? Is such a notion just idealistic and again not cognizant of the realities of the profession? At what point, should the “realities” of the profession be addressed and altered to be more in accordance with their ideals? These questions are not meant as indictments so much as questions of the nature and function of seminars. Are they being used in the ways they are meant, and if not, can they be improved?
In a seminar for students, however, this technique is rarely encountered, though there is the occasional moment where a student does attempt to take another student through a necessarily confining Socratic syllogism. If it were a student’s intention to make some grand statement with preparation for a response in mind, this would be useful if for instance, the student expected simply to get past this objection to further consideration of the point, but it would be harmful if the student simply wished “to score points” by both sharing an idea and showing verbal and mental acuity by responding to an objection. Why, though, is the former intention superior to the latter? Precisely because the intention in the first place is to consider an issue more deeply, which brings value to the conversation and all those present, whereas in the second instance, only the speaker is glorified. Though the second intention seems more descriptively American, it is the first which is more truly democratic.
Parsons goes on to describe several other techniques for segueing, vying, and winning over potential and eventual disputants in a crowd of scholars. Each one (Matadoring, Reverse Point-scoring, and Tour-guiding) is effective rhetorically for accomplishing one’s goal of “getting through” a seminar unscathed. But instead of feeling empowered and ready to speak to a group of like-minded persons, such tips and tricks (dirty tricks) leave one (me) feeling somewhat, well, dirty and “faint-hearted”. If this is the measure of a discussion at the highest levels of academic freedom and ability, where are the actual good conversations taking place, and why are they not taking place amongst these elites? Are they simply placed differently, not publicly? Privacy does seem, in general, to make for better conversations, but how does this affect the measure and goal of seminars amongst younger students? Ought they be more professionally driven and cognizant of the techniques they will undoubtedly have to develop to be professional thinkers, or should they remain broadly speculative and focused on, again, sharing a mutual and deeper understanding of texts and the issues within them? In a day where more and more people are focusing on the practical value of education, this question is very real. If the highest and best thinkers indulge in such practical concerns, and such concerns are very real aspects of their work, do students receive more value from idealistic and cooperative discussions or from learning the tinkering and maneuvering aspects of even the most liberated and reflective fields of study?
*It should be admitted that our writer Josh Parsons is not in favor of using these techniques simply for personal gain, and he does not think that “point-scoring” is actually useful in seminars. The focus of the essay, therefore, is directed at the very behavior that he is addressing, and not a personal indictment of his attitude, which appears to be similar to ours.