Lorenzo Costaguta, ‘Secondary readings in seminars: what’s the point?’

How to use secondary readings in seminars is something that has interested me since the very beginning of my teaching experience in the Department of History at Nottingham. Last year, while teaching in another Department, I was given very precise indications on how to organise seminars and how to employ secondary readings during them: the seminar class was divided into different groups, and each group was expected to prepare a specific reading on the week’s topic. Normally, the seminar was organised as a conversation between the different groups, moderated by the seminar leader, whose aim was to compare the arguments of the readings prepared. In September, as I found myself preparing the first seminars of the year, I quickly realised that now it was up to me to decide how to structure seminars – and also to determine what role secondary readings should have in them. If seminars are meant to further the comprehension of the module’s core themes, by discussing ideas in more depth and encourage conversation and debate between students, are secondary readings an irreplaceable tool to achieve the seminar’s goals?


Ideally, the answer is yes: scholarly literature provides students with indispensable critical insights, something that allows them to go beyond simplifications and passive knowledge. Yet, we all know how often this approach fails in reality: students, especially in their first year, have no time (or will) to prepare their readings, and even if they do, it is very difficult to estimate the extent of their understanding and in what ways this can be a solid basis for a seminar discussion. Students’ time is not the only problem: if you are teaching different modules, and for each you are expected to prepare a long list of secondary readings on topics you are potentially unfamiliar with, it is very difficult to create time to develop the kind of in-depth knowledge required to have a proper conversation on each reading. What is the best approach to adopt, then? After a couple of months of attempts, I am not sure that I came to any definitive answers, but last term’s teaching experience gave me some indications.


Thinking back to the seminars I led throughout the term, I can say quite openly that the classes in which the students were more engaged were those in which I stayed well away from secondary literature. To give a couple of examples: for the week on the 1848 European Springtime of Peoples, I asked students, divided into groups, to write “declarations” imagining they were the leading faction emerging from a victorious public revolt. I gave them some primary sources as examples, and left them free to use their imagination. At the end of the seminar, they read the declarations out and we compared them, connecting them with the primary sources available and with secondary literature. In another case, for the seminar on neo-imperialism in the late nineteenth century, I provided students with some political cartoons from the period. Each pair received a cartoon, and they were tasked with finding background information and suggesting possible interpretations.


Students really enjoyed both seminars. In particular, they liked dealing with primary sources and using their knowledge in unconventional ways to produce original documents. Furthermore, I believe that the seminars achieved the goals I had in mind. In the first case, the task led students to discern the differences between the positions of the various social groups involved in the 1848 revolts, listing down their requests and their approaches towards individual rights and constitutional reforms. In the second, it prompted discussions on key aspects of nineteenth century imperialism, such as racism, ideas of civilisation and images of Western “superiority”.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, it was the seminar on “Ideas of liberalism” in which I decided to focus more extensively on secondary readings. In that occasion, I used the standard approach of my previous teaching experience: I divided students into four groups, and I assigned them a different reading, structuring the seminar as a debate between four different points of view. Student feedback on this seminar was not particularly positive. The topic was theory-heavy, and I noticed that students did not have much background knowledge to contextualise the readings. We discussed difficult themes, such as the division of powers in liberal political systems, social contractualism and liberal conceptions of race. During the seminar, I had to frequently intervene to explain concepts that students were unfamiliar with and to connect the seminar’s topic with the broader themes of the module.


Looking over these experiences, it seems unavoidable to conclude that the use of secondary readings can actually be detrimental to students’ learning. It scares them off, inhibits their will to participate in seminars and does not facilitate a better understanding of complicated topics. Yet this is only part of the problem. Even though students enjoyed the seminars on 1848 and neo-imperialism more than the one on liberalism, I believe that it was the latter that gave the class the most informed picture of scholars’ interpretations of the topic, exposing the class to new and challenging ideas. Student participation might have been sparse, yet the discussion was conducted on a level of sophistication that was absent during the seminars on 1848 and imperialism.


In hindsight, I realised that in part this difference was caused by my own personal inclinations: liberalism is one of my areas of expertise and I therefore felt more confident in preparation, delivery and pushing students outside their comfort zone through extensive use of secondary literature, leading them through areas that they (although not I) were unfamiliar with. However, my bona-fide intentions should not lead to indulgence in self-assessment: students may not have been keen on being forced outside their comfort zones, yet problems were also caused by the way in which I prepared the seminar, electing to choose complicated readings when time did not permit a detailed enough discussion.


In conclusion, then, this term’s experience allowed me to identify some key principles to keep in mind and some objectives to pursue in the organisation of seminars in the future. The first principle is that students tend to prefer seminars structured around primary material rather than those based on secondary literature. The use of primary material should be contextualised and guided, yet if properly structured it favours students’ interaction between each other and their comprehension of the seminar’s themes. The second principle is that secondary literature is an indispensable tool to favour students’ understanding of complicated concepts, however its use should be limited, because, despite the efforts of the teacher, students tend to struggle with seminars based too extensively on scholarly articles. The aim on which I decided to focus my efforts during the second term is in direct correlation with these two principles, and consists of finding new ways to organise seminars based on primary material which allow the type of informed and problematised discussions that so far I have achieved exclusively with the use of secondary literature.