Our Distinctive Teaching Method

students listening intently

In the William Penn Honors Program, we have developed a distinctive “pre-disciplinary” teaching approach within our great books curriculum, characterized by the following features:

Socratic Discussion

Our seminars do not (except on rare occasions) include any lecturing or direct instruction, but are wholly devoted to Socratic discussions of the assigned text(s). In these seminars, the professors raise open-ended questions to generate discussion, including follow-up questions that respond directly to the issues and thoughts raised by the students.

Professors as Moderators

Each seminar is co-moderated by two professors. The moderator role does not involve dispensing specialist knowledge; rather, moderators serve as guides into and through the texts. There are three conversations occurring simultaneously within the seminar: the conversation with the ages (via the text), the conversation around the seminar table, and the conversation with oneself. The professor’s role is to moderate these conversations, responding spontaneously to the unfolding discussion, rather than guiding students through points that have been previously mapped out.

Text as Equalizer

In our seminars, the text serves as the democratic ground for engagement. As soon as a professor weighs in with extra-textual knowledge, the attention shifts away from the text to the professor-as-expert, which closes down the discussion, sending the message that the text must be interpreted for the students, rather than by the students. To avoid this, our discussions do not focus on context, but are limited to the world of the text at hand, as well as texts previously read in the curriculum. After a text has been thoroughly discussed and understood on its own terms, moderators look for opportunities for good “springboard” questions that enable students to make connections between the text and their own personal lives and cultural milieu.

Close Reading

Seminar moderation involves striking a balance between depth and breadth, as we are often covering lengthy, complex works within one seminar. To add depth, we practice close reading of specific key passages within the seminar as a way into the text, and we read these passages aloud as a group. Close reading involves an attention to the multiple dimensions of a text, with a careful eye on language (keywords, metaphors, imagery, connotations, etc.). Opportunities for close reading analysis may be suggested by the moderators or by the students.