In the first semester of my PhD at a US university, I took a 700 level seminar course, which was in my area of interest. As that was my first graduate course, I did not know what students were supposed to do in the class. I did not ask my colleagues and adviser about students’ roles and responsibilities in a seminar class. I was so excited to take the class because the readings – mainly book chapters and journal articles – were not only most recent ones in the field but also focused on minority and local issues that I was highly interested in. At least three readings were assigned for each class.
The first day of class, the professor and students negotiated the schedule for student presentations on various topics that were mentioned in the syllabus. As the topic for the first week of presentation was interesting to me, I decided to go for that class. In preparation for the presentation, I read all articles and made some 30 slides using PowerPoint. That was my first experience presenting in the US University.
As I was finishing up the presentation, I had a feeling that even though I was presenting the content of the articles well, my colleagues were not comfortable with my presentation. Relying on the lecture mode, I just explained main arguments from the readings, the authors’ research methodologies, and their key findings.
“What would you like us to do now?”
When one colleague asked the above question after I finished my presentation, I had a moment of shock. I began to realize that I had not understood the goal of a seminar class. Surely, I was not aware that I had to have some discussion questions or tasks for the class. I had not realized from the first day of class that student presenters were supposed to be in-charge of discussion afterwards. I thought that I was just a student presenting in front of my professor and colleagues.
My professor threw some questions from the readings and asked us to discuss in small groups. She just went around observing the discussions. After the discussion was over, she asked each group to share what they discussed in their group. She asked me what my view was on what the groups had discussed. This way, I realized that it is important to have discussion questions and skills to facilitate group discussion in a seminar class. Also, it is important to briefly comment on what the groups discuss. This may help to check whether the discussions reflect issues and ideas in the readings.
After the class, I felt that I should have asked my professor about what I was going to do in the class. However, I was so happy to learn how to facilitate seminar class.
Different professors will have different expectations, so I am not suggesting that knowing one or two things about any type of class is sufficient. But international students should listen carefully and ask additional questions about how academic activities are done in every class. Professors know that international students may need to learn the basics even at the advanced levels. Students should take the initiative to ask and learn the basics in order to avoid embarrassment, mistakes, and failure.