Friday I held the last meeting of my seminar. I often find the last day of classes difficult; I always want to sum everything up nicely, but I'm usually running a bit behind and am lucky if I manage to remember to wish them well on their finals. This year, though, was different. I had only one course this semester (I've got some reassigned time for administrative work) and it was a junior/senior seminar. Most of my students will graduate in two weeks. They were acutely aware that this was their last class — for most of them, the last college class they will ever take.
And we managed to celebrate it in style. I had allocated the last two weeks of the semester for student presentations on their scholarship. I often do this, but this year I raised the stakes a little bit by turning the classroom into a mini-conference. I grouped the presentations by topic, and put the students into panels. I brought in food to eat during breaks between the panels, and prepared guidelines for the students on how to present their research as well as how to respond to their classmates' work.
The conference exceeded my wildest expectations. While not every presentation was on finished work, all were thought-provoking and insightful. Even better, the students in the "audience" asked terrific, thoughtful, helpful questions. Everyone in the class, of course, was familiar with almost all the works under discussion, so they could offer alternative interpretations, suggestions for further reading, and comments that really expanded the discussion outward in fruitful and provocative ways.
Over the past two weeks, I heard presentations the relationship between family configurations in fantasy series and the texts' attitudes towards Christianity; on sin in the Harry Potter series; on bibliotherapy; on narrative theology and the His Dark Materials trilogy; and on why adults read children's books, to name only a few. The students owned their research—they chose topics that intrigued them, and they became the experts, for at least this semester. More importantly, my students saw each other as scholars, as colleagues in a shared conversation.
Of course, most of my students will not go on to graduate school, and will never participate in another such conference. Then why do it? I can think of any number of reasons, but here are the three top ones:
1) Sharing research reminds us that our writing has an audience. Usually my students write only for me, and sometimes this leads them into a kind of no-style that is supposed to be "academic" but is often simply awkward. In speaking to their peers they tailored their remarks to their audience and in doing so almost invariably, but invisibly, clarified their writing. And even—maybe especially—in this Web 2.0 world, writing is still one of the major ways we communicate, in almost every arena.
2) Only practice makes public speaking less scary. I'm told that people list public speaking as a major fear, ranking it even above "death" as a most-feared concept. And yet most of us will have to speak in public at least once or twice in our lives, whether in making a presentation to a boss or teaching a Sunday school class or managing a volunteer meeting. Doing it is the only way to get over the fear. And this was a relatively low-stakes way to get started, with a friendly audience of peers.
3) Listening to other people's work can improve our own — again, whether it's academic or not. I know that the papers my students turn in today and tomorrow will be even better than the presentations they delivered, because they'll have had time to think through the implications of other people's talks as well as their comments. Ideas spark ideas, and while it's certainly possible to generate them in isolation, testing them against others is, I think, quicker and more efficient. It's why academics go to conferences, why scientists collaborate, why businesses organize workers into teams.
This year the end of the semester felt like a celebration — I could tell how much my students had learned, and they could, too. I ran into some of them a few hours after our first session, and they were still talking about it. And that, to me, is the measure of a successful course.