How to Prepare for History Seminars
I think seminars are the most important hours of the week for your degree. Lectures are great to try and take on as much information as possible and get a sense of the content, but seminars are where you form your own opinions and put what you’ve learned into practice. You’re met with all these thought-provoking questions, and given the chance to put your ideas forward and form engaged and informed opinions on some really interesting topics. The more you put in, the more you get out. For that reason, preparing for the seminars is key to getting the most out of them. As any Humanities student will tell you, we have a lot of reading to do each week. The onus is on you to work your way through the reading list, which can feel overwhelming at times. Getting the balance between doing all the reading, understanding the content, and all the other commitments and time we need to rest is not easy, and unfortunately, this blog doesn’t have the quick solution. Nonetheless, I’d like to share some of my advice for preparing for seminars as effectively as possible. Everyone just seems to get on with it in their own way, since different approaches work better for some people. Hopefully, my tips can give you some ideas of how to adapt your process if you’re feeling a bit snowed under at the moment.
- The core readings
In most of my seminars, the tutors have structured the discussion around the core readings. Usually this is 3-4 articles, primary sources, or chapters which discuss the week’s content in depth. After lectures, I found that the core readings usually helped to answer some of my questions and consolidate my understanding. They can be long and complicated sometimes, but reading them carefully can be really valuable. Even if it’s complex, see if you can identify the overall argument the article makes — that way, when you sit in the seminar you have a general understanding which can be built on in the discussion. If that’s not possible though, don’t worry! Tutors like to challenge you with tricky readings, but the most important thing is that you understand it. Make use of the tutors’ office hours to ask them to clarify things with you, or raise your questions during the seminar (chances are, other people have the same questions too).
2. Seminar questions
There are usually 4 seminar questions on the module webpage each week. These get to the heart of the topics the tutor wants to address, so if you can go in with some thoughts in response to those questions, you might make your life a bit easier during the seminar. You don’t have to worry so much about thinking off the top of your head if you have a couple of points ready to make. Plus, if you have the basic ideas down, you’re free to think a bit deeper and make even more insightful judgements. I’ve also found it useful to have a couple of bullet points for the seminar questions in my notes for future reference; if I’m going through notes in preparation for an essay or exam, I don’t want to spend loads of time reading through everything. Instead, my answers to the seminar questions give me a quick summary. I don’t always have time to do this, but I know it makes a big difference when I do!
3. Making notes
I think this is a very individual thing — no two people make notes in the same way! Some like to handwrite, others type; some jot down a few key ideas, others write a page; some copy out quotes, others phrase things in their own words. Whatever works for you will be absolutely fine! It’s worth giving some thought to what will be most useful for you in the future. For example, if you rely heavily on notes when writing essays, having lots of quotes and citations will save you time in the long run. Or if you forget the content easily, maybe a couple of sentences summarising what you’ve covered that week will be helpful.
I can’t give much guidance on how to take notes, but one thing I’ve found helpful is to jot down questions as I read. Some articles can be dense and get a little confusing, but if I can put my question into words and write it into my notes, it somehow helps to clarify things. Often things start to fall into place as I carry on reading, but if they don’t, my question is written down as a reminder to ask a friend or my tutor.
Why not give one of these tips a go? Hopefully they’ll be of some help in the final weeks of term!