Applying the Socratic Seminar in the College Literature Classroom

In my new quest to examine “the relationship between students’ abilities to read, comprehend, critically analyze, and write about literature and their persistence and success in education” (which is already feeling far too ambitious), I came across something called by several names: “The Socratic Method,” “Socratic Seminars,” or the “Paedeia Approach.” Many of you may be familiar with this centuries-old tool, but reading Margaret Metzger’s 1998 article “Teaching Reading: Beyond the Plot,” which discusses her experiences teaching freshmen in high school, sparked my interest. The problems she describes are still quite present in college classrooms, and her account of teaching The Great Gatsby with a modified version of the Socratic Seminar exposes challenges similar to those experienced by college literature students along with some desirable results.

Metzger’s variation, with an inner circle of students addressing higher-order questions about the literature under review while an outer circle enjoys a meta-view of the analysis process—started me thinking on the crowded nature of some graduate level workshops I’ve experienced, where I’ve found myself not listening well because I’m too busy thinking up something to say or worrying someone else will present my ideas before I get the chance. Further searching along these lines found this basic “how-to” application, “College and university teachers: Strategies for teaching graduate students,” this professionally produced, downloadable procedure, “The Socratic Seminar,” and the website of “The National Paideia Center [which] improves the ability of adults and students to think and communicate so that each might be good citizens, earn a decent living, and lead a good life.”

Basically, Metzger writes that for many students reading literature remains an intimidating task to which they bring a wide collection of fears and prejudices, saying, “They do not understand that anyone can learn how to read on multiple levels, just as anyone can learn, with effort, increasingly complex skills in sports or computers or music.” She briefly defines the Socratic Seminar, saying it’s “a focused discussion on a short piece of writing [where n]oncompetitive discussion moves toward a collective and deeper understanding of the reading rather than to one right answer [and s]tudents talk through possible interpretations.

Many powerful tools are present in this system: first, the use of open-ended questions encourages higher-order thinking where students are encouraged to work out possibilities; also, alternating the students between roles as active questioners and active observers removes the pressure to perform and allows listeners to really think about the questions and answers being posed. A safeguard against possible laziness could be to require all students to be prepared to take either role at any time and would encourage them to read the entire assigned work.

After having students practice the technique for some time, Metzger had them analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and was amazed by the results:

When freshmen read the ending of The Great Gatsby, I watched in stunned silence as they decoded multiple metaphors in six minutes. True, the students came to class well prepared. They had spent time on the reading the night before, and they had all written a journal entry about what confused them in the text, what comprehension techniques they used, and what they now understood. When they came into the classroom, they announced that they loved Fitzgerald. They worked through the text systematically. They gave multiple interpretations, all of them valid.

For many undergraduates, especially those who have come through high school with reading, writing, and literature phobias intact, Metzger’s modified Socratic Seminar may offer the right tools at the right time to allow both understanding and appreciation of literature. For graduate students, changing the nature of their roles in workshops and literary analysis sessions may offer an effective tool for examining both their own reading and writing processes and those of fellow learners.

Metzger, Margaret. “Teaching Reading: Beyond the Plot.” Phi Delta Kappan 80.3 (1998): 240-46. ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.

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