student life

The English seminar survival guide

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For people who are shy, people who don’t like expressing themselves verbally, people who find it difficult to think on the spot, seminars can be terrifying.

English Literature ones especially. Faced with a group of highly intelligent people staring at you as you bluster and flounder trying to make a point, it is easy to clam up completely and end up looking as if you know nothing at all.

YUSU, the English Department, your Course Reps – they all have perfectly good and sensible advice relating to seminars, but nothing particularly practical. For those of us who aren’t blessed with the ability to talk intelligently and confidently, here are some hints and tips that I’ve picked up along the way, which can be applied to any form of seminar, not just English.

  • Avoid eye contact with the tutor

In an English seminar, if you make eye contact with the tutor, you might as well be saying “Pick me, I want to say something, pick me.” They will then look at you expectantly or even directly ask you if you have something to contribute. Then the only option is to bluff outrageously. Best to be avoided at all times. Making notes has the added bonus of no eye contact and looking studious at the same time.

  • Get in there early

If you find it difficult to contribute to discussion when everyone is all talking at once and debate is raging furiously back and forth, say something early on in the seminar when everyone is feeling a bit awkward and dopey and not talking much. This way you look eager and enthusiastic and means that you can relax for a while until the next lull in discussion, which is where you jump in.

  • Sit next to a very talkative person

It sounds like odd advice but if you sit with someone who talks often during seminars, you are more likely to go unnoticed by the tutor if you don’t say much. If the quiet people all sit on one side of a table it is extremely obvious when discussion is purely on the opposite side, and therefore the tutor is more likely to ask “So what does anyone from this side of the room think?” Then you end up with the awkward feeling of being obliged to say something, anything, and it usually comes out wrong.

  • Read ahead

If you can guess vaguely where the discussion is going, quickly flick through the book and find some well-placed quotes to have ready. This makes you look prepared and like you know the book inside and out, as well as giving you time to think of an intelligent-sounding point to go with the quotes.

  • Ask lots of questions

If you’re lucky you will have a seminar tutor who is clearly an expert in their field and obviously intimidatingly intelligent and passionate about it. Asking questions about the topic of discussion is a good way to engage them for a while. Most tutors, given the chance, will be quite happy to deliver a mini lecture about what you’re discussing, giving you and the rest of your seminar group a chance to sit back, relax, make a few notes and benefit from their vast knowledge. Be careful not to ask too many though, otherwise you just look like a bit of an idiot or a timewaster. Obviously ask them relevant questions, not just what they had for breakfast.

Originally published on The Yorker 5th December 2010

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