Another Way to Teach Seminars

Donald Kagan is a giant1 in the study of ancient Greek history–I mean sheesh, you should see his Wikipedia page! He is also one of the most celebrated teachers at Yale and the other day I had the pleasure of hearing him talk about how he teaches seminars.

Each week during the semester Professor Kagan has two of his students write a 5-7 page response to specific questions related to the week’s topic. For example, in his class on Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, he has students evaluate Sparta’s strategies and try to suggest better ones. The students circulate their papers a week before class so everyone has a chance to read and digest them. The class consists primarily of a group interrogation of the authors led by Professor Kagan. I believe the students find the process equal parts intimidating and inspiring. Each student is held to the fire twice during the semester.

Everyone is expected to be prepared for class. That becomes very clear very quickly because Professor Kagan considers every student fair game for probing questions. That would be enough to make me read. I should definitely do more of this in my seminars.

Ancient Spartans used to have lunch in groups of 15. Based on this (and his own personal experience) Professor Kagan says 15 is the optimal number of students in a seminar. I’d love to have a seminars this size, but I also hate turning students away. My compromise is to accept about 25 students. The class is still good for the first 15 and loads better for the 10 students who would otherwise miss out completely.

In addition to his oral feedback during class, Professor Kagan gives written feedback on the papers. He does not assign any grades to anything until the end of the semester. While I feel qualitative feedback is far more valuable as both a guide and a motivator, I also believe students deserve a clear quantitative signal about their work. If they want an A, they need to know if they need to invest more in the class. Final grades should not be surprises.

In many ways Professor Kagan’s method couldn’t be more different from mine. Learning how to write a long technical research paper and working on it throughout the semester is the spine of my seminars. Professor Kagan explicitly eschews this as he wants his students to spend as much time as possible grappling with the week’s reading and the concepts in those books (or even steles). Even so, I’m still excited to try a few of his techniques.

  1. Titan is probably the more appropriate term.