In the simplest possible terms, a student’s primary job in a seminar is to manage his or her own interest and engagement. As teachers, we can do a lot to get students engaged, but we cannot be inside the heads of our students. It is up to each participant to find connections into the text or dialogue, and only he or she knows what will work.
Teach the term “interest management”—a term I first heard from Margarete Imhof—or something similar that will work for your students. Students should understand that they are responsible for the quality of the seminar, and that the quality is affected by their ability to participate. As facilitators, we can then get students more metacognitively aware by asking them questions like: “How are you managing your interest in this dialogue?” or “What are you doing to stay connected to the process?”
The most important component of managing interest is curiosity. If students are curious about something, they are likely to engage. This is why it is extremely important for students to generate their own questions, particularly during the pre-seminar stage. Students can also get powerfully interested in seminar when they are able to emotionally connect. For example, texts on the topic of animal testing have almost always worked for me to get students engaged.
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