The History Seminar Lowdown
One of the biggest changes you will find as you transition from school or college to university is the move from classroom learning to lectures and seminars. In lectures, you typically sit in a large theatre with a lot of other people (this will depend on the size of the module) and listen to the lecturer talk about the topic for an hour. They usually work through a slideshow and you take notes as you please. You don’t normally interact with the lecturer or the other students. In a seminar, you might be in an office or small boardroom/classroom with around 10 other students (again, subject to the number of people who take the module) and a tutor. I will be posting a follow-up blog to this one on lectures in the near future, but for today: seminars.
So, what should I expect in a seminar?
I had one seminar a week per module, so 4 every week (to accompany 5 lectures a week – we had 2 for Making of the Modern World). The lectures and seminars go hand-in-hand, so we would come to the seminars prepared to discuss and engage with the topic of the lecture. It was the same group throughout the year with the same tutor, so they’re really helpful in introducing you to people on your course. Usually they are guided by the tutor, but it’s the students who are doing the work this time. The tutor would pose a few open-ended questions to the group, or ask for some reflections on the lecture. The best way to think of it is a big group discussion; it’s a little more free and relaxed than a Sixth Form lesson, but a similar feel.
The reading is one of the most important parts of a History seminar, so if you have signed up for a History degree, you will need to expect a fair bit of reading! We were set 2-4 academic articles or journals to read through per module per week, and this constituted the bulk of my work. It is pretty time-consuming, because the material is often quite challenging, and I liked to make notes so that I could use them in seminars and for future revision and essay references. Having said that, I know other people worked through the reading much quicker, so it’s very much down to you. As with any Humanities subject, the onus is on you to decide how much independent work you do and how long you spend on it. Anywho, we would spend a chunk of the seminar talking through the readings and how we interpreted them, and the tutor would make sure that we all understood the texts’ arguments. The discussion would then flow into another related topic as people bring up knowledge from the lecture or their own ideas. I love History seminars for exactly this reason – they’re a great space to debate and explore your own ideas, as well as those of your peers.
I believe that seminars are where everything falls into place. I gained a foundational understanding of the topic in the lecture, and then would explore it further in the reading, but would consolidate it properly when I could vocalise my thoughts in the seminar. It starts to make sense in seminars, and I believe I got my best ideas for essays as a result.
Seminars can be quite daunting at first, especially when you don’t feel confident with a topic. It took me couple of weeks to have the confidence to offer my thoughts, but I’m so glad I got into the habit of contributing. When I started to interact with the other students, I felt like I had a much better grasp of the content and how I felt about it. As long as you have done the required reading, there is nothing to worry about in seminars. You’re free to share your thoughts and come at the discussion from your own angle.
Sometimes seminars would take a different form. For example, in Term 2 of Making of the Modern World, our assessment was to produce a presentation in pairs on the week’s topic. This required additional research and putting together a presentation, which would form the basis of the rest of the seminar’s discussion. I really enjoyed this, and loved the variety of the seminars.
You never know what to expect in a seminar, but I always found them engaging, informative, and exciting. In a History seminar, you find that all sorts of topics are dragged into the discussion, from politics to philosophy to geography to literature. It’s very much in your hands.