Structuring a Seminar

It strikes me that a good way to structure a seminar is to choose one important book and, along with it, read essentially everything the author cites. This method would obviously work mainly with modern texts, but it could work equally in theology and continental philosophy (the disciplines between which I am “interdisciplined”). In discussion with our very own JD, I once proposed a multi-semester seminar based on Pannenberg’s Anthropology in Theological Perspective, after which everyone involved would be tied for the most educated person alive. Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory would also allow for a similar expansiveness and would allow the students to gauge his polemic. In continental philosophy, Agamben would be an especially valuable target for such treatment, not only because he is reading such fascinating texts most of the time (what would be better than a course based on The Open?), but also because you would get a sense of how rushed his readings of many figures, including those most important to him*, can be.

The Agamben and Milbank examples would also serve a kind of meta-pedagogical purpose beyond simply providing a broad reading list and a detailed example of how to go about assessing a major work — it would attract the kind of student who follows the “cool” contemporary stuff and tends toward a kind of presentism (i.e., the kind of student I was and in many ways still am), but for the purpose of disillusioning them a bit and broadening their horizon.

[*Random free dissertation topic: Agamben and Heidegger on Aristotle.]

20 thoughts on “Structuring a Seminar

  1. A good friend of mine actually took a seminar based on exactly that Milbank TST example at NTS. They couldn’t read everything, of course, but they read major texts by Hegel, Marx, and Augustine’s City of God along with a good handful of others. I think this was two years ago or so.

  2. I like the idea a lot, too, because it exemplifies the bonafide constructive use of primary sources. Perhaps this so seldom happens these days because so few people know how to do it. I could really see this as something one could, too, do in an advanced hermeneutics course.

  3. Hey Eric, do you recall who taught the course? Was it Dr. Noble? Intrigued.

    This would be a wonderful way to do history courses as well. If you follow one main survey text — say, Pelikan’s fourth volume for a class on Reformation — that class would be so much better if students were able to read alongside that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc. But, it would also perform a similar kind of operation as you’re talking about with Agamben’s quick — at times hasty — readings…Pelikan admits he has to leave all kinds of things out of consideration (and he does — just, all kinds of things!). And if this were done as a kind of “multi-seminar” class (probably no more than two, though, so that you are still able to have breadth outside of whatever the main text is dealing with), one could really come away with a fuller knowledge of each class they take. This is especially appealing to me, because I feel like I keep getting to the ends of semesters as though I’ve just begun to scratch the surface — because I have!

  4. If one were to do this for an MA Christology seminar, what would be one’s centerpiece text? Seriously. All suggestions welcome.

  5. Nate, I think that would seriously depend on the time period to be covered, but for the apostolic age until the late patristics I think it would be hard to beat Aloys Grillmeier’s ‘Christ in the Christian Tradition.’ He covers a remarkably wide range of primary texts.

  6. Yeah, I kinda agree with Ken that it would be necessary to know the time period — are you thinking of it as a survey? Something like Schillebeeckx’s Jesus and Christ would seem to defeat the whole reading of anything else idea — since they’re so stinking huge — but they’re excellent (especially for NT stuff). If you’re doing early church controversy…I’d say Meyendorff’s Christ in Eastern Thought…it’s short, covers all the necessary players in the field (although I think it begins with the fifth century — kind of showing how the four centuries preceeding that began to congeal and create problems).

    Thanks Eric.

  7. Doing standard survey type of stuff might be useful, but it’s not really in the spirit of what I’m proposing in the post. It’s not like Homo Sacer is an even-handed introduction to the problem of sovereignty, for instance.

    Depending on how brave you are, Nate, maybe God of the Oppressed?

  8. Ooohhh… those last two are very good suggestions. God of the Oppressed is particularly tasty. Yeah, I’m not thinking survey stuff either…that stuff can be addressed in discussion.

    Any other suggestions? I’m very interested in any and all ideas here.

  9. I like Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator a little better, but I still don’t think it really works with what Adam is talking about. Adam, do you think this might be kinda hard to do on a topic (e.g., christology)? It seems like this would really work best with some kind of creative thought-synthesis of some sort. I kind of like the idea of Marion’s The Idol and Distance…Nietzsche, Holderlin, P-Dionysius, and Heidegger…that actually might be a good book for christology (whether or not the conclusions are agreeable)!

  10. This is a really great idea. And I wish I occasionally got the kind of student who knows or cares what the “‘cool’ contemporary stuff” is or whose presentism isn’t a thin veil for anxious narcissism. I say this with affection for the students I do get.

    So from the sublime to the ridiculous, I had a couple of other ideas for how to structure a seminar. One was what I call the ‘nepotism’ seminar, in which all of the readings are by people I know personally or at least have met. It’s interesting how much good stuff is in there if you don’t feel required to go tromping after the ‘names’. The other is what I call the ‘bad’ seminar, in which all of the readings are in some way clearly ‘bad’ and the objective is to discover the ‘good’ in contrast.

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