How to: organize a seminar or reading group

Here are some tips, garnered from my experience organizing a seminar (on “The Mathematical Experience” – the experience, not the book) a few years in a row. They supplement Asher Auel’s comments in an older post. I encourage anyone else who has organized a seminar or reading group to add comments and advice of their own.

1. Be very clear about your target content.
It’s important to have a solid reading list in mind, and to have read ahead quite a bit. Of course, you don’t need to know everything before the seminar starts. It’s also important to spend some time looking at tangential references, so that you are aware of them, as options, as the seminar proceeds.

The reading list I used in my seminar, most recently, is basically the list here. The first time I ran the seminar I didn’t know about most of these sources, however. One of the byproducts of a well-run seminar is a new list of interesting things to read and work through.

2. Figure out your target audience.
A seminar of only graduate students is very different than a seminar that includes faculty or undergraduates. People in other departments might be interested too.

3. Advertising is important.
Most grad students are overbooked as it is – you may have to really sell your seminar. Personal invitations are most helpful. Try to be open to tweaking the seminar to accommodate your audience.

I found that having an especially exciting first seminar meeting – with accessible, yet intriguing content and questions – works well for luring people in, and gives a taste of what to expect in the future. But I’ve also used an engaging introductory lecture, followed by discussion, to hook people in the beginning.

4. Getting it to be for-credit takes a while.
Every department has an involved process for determining what courses to offer for credit. If you want your seminar to be for-credit, it’ll probably take a year’s notice. (My department starts this process in the late spring.) Having the endorsement of a faculty member will be helpful and possibly mandatory. In general, faculty assistance in organizing a seminar is quite helpful, but less fun. My department decided not to offer my seminar for credit, but I ran it nonetheless.

5. Really think about the format.
In my experience, you have to work hard to get people out of the lecture-format complacency. If you want discussions, you’re going to have to tell everyone, often, and actively facilitate them. If you want cooperative seminar planning and direction, start early and be patient. Plan out talks far in advance. Small logistical things can make a big difference – hold the seminar in a room meant for seminars; schedule a snack break half-way through, and rotate snack-procurement responsibility.

6. Make people do things outside of the seminar.
In general, participants only get out as much as they put in. As an elective, make sure your participants really want to be there. If they do, then they’ll actually be happy to have responsibilities such as problem sets or presentations. Having said this, I’ve found that it is crucial to have a range of possible levels of involvement. Some people want to attend passively once a month, some people want to help organize everything each week – it’s great if you can structure the seminar to accommodate this range.

7. Make people do things during the seminar.
Seminar facilitation is an art – you have the ability to make the seminar boring or fascinating. As a general rule, the more engaged people are, the more interesting and worthwhile the seminar will be for everyone. If the meetings are not going as hoped, don’t hesitate to change the format or content to adapt to the interests of participants.

8. Be courageous.
It’s one thing to lecture linear algebra to undergraduates. It’s another thing to sit at a table with your classmates and/or with faculty, and to tell them what to do. But the same advice applies: try to establish an accepting atmosphere where people (including yourself) feel comfortable trying things out and making mistakes. As Michael Jackson sang, “I believe in me, so you believe in you…”

Overall, seminars are a really fun and exciting way of learning material. At my undergraduate institution, all the upper-level courses were taught in a seminar style, and it taught us to be independent learners and strong communicators. If you’re bored with sitting passively through lecture after lecture, then start your own seminar!

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