Graduate Seminar Design

As I have noted previously, recent events, some good and some bad, have convinced me to revise my research and professional agendas, returning to my first love, which was understanding how the structure of language and the structure of the imagination interact and reveal each other. In an effort to move my own thinking along as well as to gauge interest for narrative studies in my home department, I decided to offer a seminar on the topic this semester. And I think I made a mistake in how I designed it.

The course’s design, to some degree, was predicated upon the nature of the English department in which I work, which houses concentrations not only in my home field of folklore studies but also in literary studies, rhetoric and composition, creative writing, and linguistics. Given such a diversity of interests, I decided to keep the reading load relatively light, the assumption being that students would pursue relevant citations, topics, etc. in their own fields of interest and bring those readings and explorations back to the seminar table. The mistake I made, I think, was not in formalizing this assumption into some sort of structure of assignments or moments during seminar discussions that made it possible for disciplined students to share and made, er, less-disciplined students aware of the work involved in being a successful scholar.

This was a foolish mistake on my part, and one as a mid-career academic and pedagogue I should not have made. It was, in other words, a rookie mistake. My defense of such a rook move is that I was so excited by the work I am doing and the things that I am reading that I assumed others would be, too. And there were, to be clear, a number of students who embraced the open design of the seminar, but it did not serve all students equally well.

Now, some will maintain, quite rightly, that those students it did not serve well are probably not going to make it very far in graduate school, nor in the profession, and you will probably be quite right. And I generally don’t have a problem with such things taking their natural course. But it does feel like a waste of time both on my part and on their part. Look! You want to cry. Look at all the cool stuff all around you! Just look down, pick something up, and play with it! It fascinates me that people can want to be in graduate school and not be intellectually curious, not want to understand the nature of scholarship (of science), and not want at least to try to do the kind of work that scholars do, if only for the sake of trying it out.

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