In this section, Professor McLaughlin shares insights about facilitating a reading seminar focused on discussion.
1.74 Land, Water, Food and Climate is a reading seminar, which means the students read scientific papers that are current and suitable for their level of preparation. They read three or four papers every week, and we spend the class session discussing the papers. Occasionally, I give a little background on things that are in the papers with a short lecture—maybe 15 to 20 minutes—but not every time. This puts a lot of responsibility on the students to read the papers.
It’s a format that’s often used in science and engineering classes at the graduate level, but it’s not so common at the undergraduate level. I find the students really like the discussion.
The difficulty with this kind of teaching is making sure you give the students enough of an opportunity to engage in the conversation, even when they make contributions that are inaccurate or go beyond the scope of the paper. It’s hard to resist interrupting, and eventually, you do have to straighten them out—you can’t let the students leave at the end of the class with a completely wrong impression about something. But having the freedom to say what’s on their minds is part of what students like about the course.
Facilitating a reading seminar is definitely an art, and you learn it over multiple iterations of the course. You can’t just start the very first year and be perfect at it—you have to learn the teaching style as well as the content. You have to observe what works and what doesn’t.
What doesn’t work, for example, is to ask an open-ended question and have nobody answer. It works better when you ask a specific question and the student can say, “Gee, I really didn’t think about that.” Because if the student says, “I didn’t think about that,” and then there’s a couple of seconds of awkward silence, another student will come into the discussion. And that’s what you want—to start getting that interaction.