The Seminar Memo

NOTES ON PRODUCING A STRONG SEMINAR MEMO

The first task of a seminar is to identify the controlling ideas or the structure of an argument. Some authors make clear the controlling ideas. Others are less clear and they challenge us to do the added work of teasing out the key concepts. It is always our task to identity the most important concepts and the key conceptual commitments the author makes (e.g., phenomenological, cognitive, behavioral, psychoanalytic, cultural, various forms of reductionism (e.g., naturalism, scientism), empiricism, critical realism, social constructionism, essentialism, dualism, monism, etc.). In our thinking, in our writing, in our daily practice, and in our everyday lives, we make these commitments, often unbeknownst to us. And you can only focus in a brief seminar on the controlling ideas, not all of the ideas. And seminar memos should NEVER be a simple list of ideas.

Second, some authors make clear the methods of their work (i.e., ethnographic, qualitative, quantitative, survey, structured or open-ended interviews, experimental, case study) and where the methods are clearly articulated, our task is to determine if the methods have been used appropriately (e.g., you would not use a survey method to understand the idiosyncrasies of family dynamics, or a microscope to explore the galaxies, or the method of free association to understand the behavior of nation states). You will recall that in our study of the philosophy of social science, this kind of thinking is described as ‘methodological’. When we are exploring methodological assumptions, we are asking questions about how and why authors make choices to privilege one method over another.

Third, where authors use data (i.e., life histories, individual cases, historical data, statistical, etc.), it is important to see how they have used data to support the controlling ideas. Does the data support the argument? How so? And if not, what are the implications?

Fourth, some authors do not use data; often, this kind of work can be described as mostly “conceptual’ or ‘theoretical’. When an author develops a conceptual argument, our task is to determine if the argument is consistent, compelling, RELEVANT, and convincing.

Fifth, our thinking, writing, practice, and research is always governed by values. We make value commitments to “save the children,” “stop drug addiction,” “reduce incarceration,” “end violence.” Others make value commitments to use violence (e.g., declaring war, unrestrained policing and surveillance). Where values are made explicit, we should note them. Where the underlying values are hidden, it is our responsibility to make them explicit. Do we agree with them and why? Our methodological choices are also driven by values (e.g., recall David Healy’s critique of the RCT and the pharmaceutical industry).

Sixth, there is an important distinction to be made between critique and criticism. Our task is to thoroughly understand the arguments before we engage in evaluation (i.e., assigning a value of them). Here is where critique and criticism part ways: Criticism is in my mind a way of hiding from deep reflection and is most often a simple expression of
negative opinion. Criticism closes down discussion, exploration, imagination, and creativity. Critique opens up a playful and transitional space for deep reflection and imaginative action, and understanding and interpretation. If a seminar becomes criticism, the results are inevitably unproductive.

Finally, sometimes the best memos are those which pose questions and seek clarification: what does the author mean by this concept? How has it been used?

For forty years I’ve been participating in and teaching seminars and the very best seminar experiences have resulted from a kind of free exploration of ideas where the participants are continuously curious and open to exploring unfamiliar terrain.