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The dynamics of seminars


Seminars are not a rarity at Stanford   in fact, all my classes this quarter are seminars. It’s a class of about 15 people sitting around in a circle with a professor ready to facilitate discussion. There’s an array of laptops and open books with half the class eager to speak and the other not so much.

Me? I’m the latter.  It’s a quiet person’s nightmare. It’s not the fact that I don’t read or that I feel as if I have nothing to contribute to the class, it’s just that they make me nervous. The entire setup makes me fidget in my uncomfortably creaky seat. Having to squeeze in between passionate tangents or put in a good argument before the subject changes should be considered a workout.  

The dynamics of the seminar move fast, yet my two-hour seminars seem eternal. Here’s a collection of thoughts and notes I’ve taken as I sit painfully quiet in my seat for hours:

1. There are various types of people in seminars, and they somehow appear in every class. For example, there’s the one aloof guy who speaks a couple of times in class and then completely shuts down when others speak. This guy can appear in different ways, but he have overlapping personalities. Maybe he sits leaning back on the chair with his legs crossed and an open book in one hand and a pencil in the other. Or his head is slumped over their arm and flutter their eyes open once every few minutes. He may make great points and then once someone opens their mouth to respond to said greatness, his gaze will wander away. It’s part of the aloofness.

Then there’s that pretentious (but maybe unknowingly pretentious) commenter.  These commenters make subtle statements like, “If you read Vasari as much as I do then, you’d know that this is significant” or “Well to me, this is means just a lot more than the average reader since I only read Greek philosophy.” Sometimes these comments pass over your head, but when I sit there for two hours, they’re all that stick out to me.

The most interesting archetype is perhaps that distinctively older person in the class full of freshmen. This may be a sophomore with a slight superiority complex who coos and babies any freshman who makes an “intelligent” comment. We remind them of their freshmen days oh so long ago. And if there’s no sophomore present, it may be a person in their thirties or older who quietly scoffs when 18-year-olds go on tangents about love or politics.

2. Does everyone here really read the 200 assigned pages, or are we pulling stuff out of thin air? There’s, of course, one person who makes genuine comments about why this author is incredibly right in their argument about some subject, but then there’s also a lot of weirdly vague comments that can apply to anything with a little stretch.

I think some of us have amazing improv skills. I walk into class with some people who tell me they have no absolute understanding nor have they read a single page. Then, I see them flip through a book in two seconds and raise their hand to make a really great connection.

And other times I sit next to people who pull up the Sparknotes page about the book, talk about the book in the most specific and poetic sense and go back to scrolling through a fashion boutique’s website. If seminars have taught me anything, it’s that I really need to work on my BS skills.

3. How is everyone so absolutely smart? Did everyone in this room leave the womb knowing about Dante or Da Vinci? Were they writing philosophical insights since the age of seven? How do you pronounce anthropodermic bibliopegy without a single stutter?

Some people speak so beautifully in class that I’m entranced by how they interpret texts and voice these opinions that have never crossed my mind once. It’s an enlightening experience to hear everyone speak.

4. Can people tell I’m zoning out and thinking about how to color code my Google Calendar? I mean I can multitask and by that I mean I’m thinking about how violet is a nice color for my classes while I listen to how Eamon Collins plays into the Irish Republic.

Also, is the soft jingle of the crushed ice in my iced vanilla latte with three shots of espresso annoying? I feel as if I’m making the people near me wince when I take small sips.

5. Does the professor actually listen to our comments or do they just nod and write something down in their yellow notepad, too? Sometimes I catch my professor just drawing circles.

But I get it. Teaching seminars must be as exhausting as taking them.


Contact Rachel Ochoa at racochoa ‘at’

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