College of Liberal Arts

Humanities (M.A.)

What Is a Seminar?

At the Core of Towson University’s M.A. in the Humanities

The most modern of the standard forms of higher education, the seminar is a German system used in most American graduate schools of arts and letters today. Unlike the traditional English form, the tutorial, and the traditional French form, the lecture, the seminar is a collective dialectical experience. In it students present and debate knowledge and opinion; professors chair the session.

Ideally, as the very word suggests, the seminar (Latin seminarium, seed plot) aims at planting and cultivating original knowledge or fresh interpretation. After a student reads a paper to the seminar, it is questioned, corrected, extended, contracted, or otherwise redacted by others in the group. This process cultivates the paper, ideally to refine it for publication, the marketplace of scholarly ideas.

Practically, the seminar allows students to present an interpretation of a subject and thereby bring a carefully considered and articulate opinion to the session. When that opinion is challenged, the friction among minds sparks thought in a Hegelian way that both processes and produces knowledge. Practically, too, your major seminar papers could become a chapter or part of an M.A. thesis. Or they will become parts of the anthology of revised seminar papers that you will present for the completion of the degree. For these reasons, all of your major papers should be carefully planned with your professors. Another practical consequence of the seminar is that you should improve reading, writing, listening, and speaking habits. But they are mere skills; the powers you will cultivate are trenchant questioning and rock-ribbed reasoning.

Unlike undergraduate learning, the formal graduate seminar is neither a lecture nor and open-ended discussion. Unlike a law school class, it is not a large lecture punctuated by Socratic-or cross-examinational, one-on-one questioning. And unlike the popular abuse of the word, it is not a session in which one expert answers questions of curious non-specialists. A graduate seminar is small, ideally no more than twelve people who sit at a table. This symbolic format makes all members teachers and the professor a director and judge as well.

Related to the seminar is the pro-seminar (pro, like, in front of a seminar), an advanced undergraduate / early graduate course. Like the seminar, it requires the chief works in class from the student, but unlike the seminar, the professor will lecture briefly at the beginning of each session on that part of the topic under study. Pro-seminar sessions are more like formal discussions than like the point-counterpoint of debate in a seminar. Likewise, the pro-seminar focuses more on direct exegesis of the primary texts than on scholarship about those texts.

In either a seminar or pro-seminar, besides shorter minor paper, you will write a major, full-dress research paper or a paper of literary (or historical of philosophical) journalism of some 25 pages. Many of these papers you will present to the seminar, so they should throw a new slant of light on their subjects, be grounded on solid facts and tenable authority, and be written in a correct, clear, cogent, and concise prose style. While few papers can be original, all can be fresh in their claims, sailing father off the coasts of received opinion than does an undergraduate paper. Your best guide is to read and emulate article in distinguished scholarly journals.

During seminar sessions, you should listen closely and engage others civilly. Remember that an argument is not a quarrel and that humorous irony should never descend to peevish sarcasm. Remember too that silent acceptance of a claim with which you disagree is less tolerance than retreat. Don’t forget that you’re with other advanced students, more inquisitive than merely curious, who should long before have learned to take criticism gratefully and to deliver it gracefully.

So in a graduate seminar you will read, write, and talk more than you did in an undergraduate course. Others will look to you as the specialist in small parts of the general subject that the seminar investigates. Because your role is crucial, you must always be prepared, reading more than what is just required. You should never miss a seminar session because its success depends on your knowledge and opinions. In a seminar, you're not just a member of the audience; you’re a player in everyone else’s education. And without everyone’s participation, inquiry--and graduate education--is thwarted.

That is why Towson University’s M.A. in Humanities seminars emphasize careful inquiry. The core requirements are styled “The Humanities and Historical Inquiry,” “The Humanities and Comparative Literary Inquiry,” “The Humanities and Philosophical Inquiry,” and “The Humanities and Rhetorical Inquiry.” Each course offered under these captions cultivates careful inquiry into an idea, topic, or theme that since ancient times characterizes a part of what it means to be human. In the core seminars you should learn by practice how to frame questions from historical, literary, philosophical, and rhetorical critiques, and thereby learn to inquire not only more deeply but also more diversely into human issues. It’s fitting that the M.A. in Humanities program is housed in the College of Liberal Arts, a family of disciplines that liberates us from the often narrow focuses of time, place, and self, the better to understand the human condition.






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