by Steve Roushakes
My ideal learning structure is the seminar. I’ve always valued personable exchanges of thoughts, and I just don’t find larger learning structures energizing or rewarding. Put simply, I don’t like to be strictly on the receiving end of a conversation, and I suppose too, as an educator, I worry about educational models that disallow a dialectic between the teacher and students.
Growing up I disliked school, especially junior high and high school, I think because the learning was structured in such a one-directional way. The teacher spoke, and we, the students, sat quietly, took notes, and went to the next class. I remember liking several of my teachers, wonderfully bright and witty individuals, but I don’t remember ever speaking with them, either in or out of class. I did okay grade-wise, but I never felt my mind genuinely sparked; I never felt part of the learning or that I was adding value in any way by my presence.
A case in point is seventh grade. I was at Thoreau (just a few miles from The New School), and a couple months into the school year I realized I hadn’t said a single word in any of my classes. Another month went by, and another – it became a game: how long could I go? – and in the end I went the entire school year without speaking in class. I must have learned something, but I honestly can’t recall any meaningful moments from my classes.
A great change came in college, though, when I entered my first seminar course. For the first time I found myself engaged in a roundtable discussion with a small group of students and our professor. (I remember him perfectly, Dr. Rafeq, and I honestly believe he remembers me too.) We were a focused group, and, having never expressed my thoughts in a classroom setting, I felt uncertain. But I immediately appreciated the effect conversation-as-education had on my mind and sense of self – I also appreciated that I had a responsibility to be part of the learning – and I quickly found my voice.
I had never worked so hard preparing for a course. The demands and expectations were high, but I was energized by the work and looked forward to each class. I find it telling that I felt deeply challenged, yet happy and never anxious.
The seminar was a real dividing line in my thinking about both myself and education, and I’ve never looked back. I found the learning purposeful, inclusive, and humane, and I like to think that my own teaching, twenty years later, is still guided by these three principles.