THE SEMINAR TABLE
Anywhere else it would be a simple, unremarkable piece of furniture. But atop the Cumberland Plateau, nestled concentrically within the University’s wooded Domain, a stone-laid classroom building, and a ring of thoughtful religion students and their professor, it served as the nexus around which my academic experience at Sewanee revolved: the Seminar Table. Literally or figuratively, the Seminar Table is the touchstone of liberal arts education for all Sewanee students. Whether its essence emerges in a secluded cove, over a microscope, or on a theater stage, this sacred altar of intensive, communal learning plays a fundamental role in the University’s ultimate purpose: preparing students intellectually, morally, and humanly for life.
At the helm of Sewanee’s Seminar Tables are professors wholeheartedly committed not only to teaching but also to learning. They come to each class, each semester, with a fresh eye and willing ear. Believing they have as much to gain from attentive, open exchange as do the students, these teachers challenge their classes and welcome challenges in return. Sewanee is populated by deeply, personally invested professors who inspire their students to do hard, necessary work and who create a climate in which intellectual, moral, and emotional inquiry can flourish.
Texts serve as the shared foundations of seminar work and ground us in our academic task. From this grounding, oral and written discourse spring and a web of intellectual meaning and scholarly community can be crafted. Indeed, the true effectiveness of the Seminar Table lies in the conversation that takes place around it: readers converse with texts, readers converse with each other, readers and texts converse with the world – past, present, and future. This dialogue is rooted in questions posed by the teacher, raised by the students, and presented by the text itself. As we confront these questions and engage, oppose, or concur with the texts before us, writing becomes a way of life.
The ultimate aim of the Seminar Table is not for the professor to convey a set of predefined information, but for the group to grapple communally with complex, unwieldy questions that may defy concrete answers but demand consideration nonetheless. In doing so, seminar classes move beyond binary debate to collaborative reasoning – together. Holding objectivism and subjectivism not in opposition but in alliance, we embrace the ambiguity of examined life and gain the benefit of richer understanding.
Working with a small group of peers and sharing an investment in the texts and questions up for consideration allows a rich meaning-making, community-engendering process to take place. These weekly seminar meetings are often complemented by out-of-class exchanges: collaborative dinners at professors’ homes, festive gatherings at Shenanigan’s, treasured conversations at Stirling’s Coffeehouse. Through the intimacy of these experiences, a seminar of students and their professor becomes a community within the broader campus body, and these smaller, interlocking communities in turn enrich our larger one.
The simultaneously intellectual, moral, and emotional work conducted within the community of the Seminar Table helps prepare us for deeply ethical social engagement. Through texts and discussion, the seminar experience creates opportunities to develop deep empathy and to engage imaginatively with the world. What we learn as seminar students radiates concentrically back out, but this time beyond the bounds of classroom and campus to the global community of which we are a part and to which we have responsibilities.
Given the challenges of a complex and diverse world, the seminar experience does not attempt the impossible task of imparting upon students all the answers. Rather, our time around the Seminar Table prepares us to be lifelong learners and, in doing so, edifies us for our enduring undertaking: to investigate difficult problems, to grapple with questions that refuse easy resolution, and to do so not in isolation but in community. A Sewanee education cannot anticipate the challenges its graduates will face, but it can and does prepare us with the ability to approach those challenges with good hearts and disciplined minds.
Though we may be unaware of it at the time, when we take our last excursion into understanding, push our chairs away from the Seminar Table a final time, and pass through Sewanee’s stone gates and into the world beyond, we carry with us an education that will endure. The professors and students with whom we have shared rich academic and personal relationships will continue to inform our lives well into the future. Sewanee’s liberal arts experience, grounded in the Seminar Table’s many forms, allows us to remain focused on difficult, morally pressing problems, to deploy the capacities necessary to tackle them with sustained compassion and resolve, and to find therein a sense of interconnected humanity. It is at the Seminar Table, then, that we may find the true meaning of Ecce Quam Bonum, reaching deliberately past Sewanee’s bounds, and thus, indeed, become prepared for life. “Behold how good.”
KATHARINE K. WILKINSON
© Katharine K. Wilkinson