By Katie King
I’ve been in a workshop setting before, so I know that’s not the issue. In fact, I loved it. In writing classes in college, we’d sit in a round table, never more than 20 of us, and discuss short stories, poetry, rhetorical theories, fantastical fiction, you name it. The artifacts we’d pick apart could be from the pristine archives of some notable author or a coffee-stained, non-stapled, typo-in-the-first-sentence piece from a classmate slapped on the table with seconds to spare before being counted tardy.
Mrs., Dr., whoever would ask us to address, first, what the artifact before us was. How would you categorize this work of fiction? Once the class had reached an agreement, we’d dive into what worked well, followed by what wasn’t working. Picture lots of nodding heads.
For non-fiction, the process was similar, although probably not as streamlined. Critical but reserved. Lots of straightened backs.
I always knew what to expect. Even in classes that were run as a Socratic Seminar, I still could anticipate. I’d snuggle into my position between my female colleagues– confident, empowered, probably one of the top contributors (unless we were talking about Postmodern theory).
Now, in the real world, dealing with real-world issues and talking with the people who have had to endure them, it’s hard to feel quite so cozy.
Throughout my liberal arts education, the questions in class discussion were always posed to the group, similar to how they are in the OGB Zoom classrooms. Still, I find myself mute. Bulge-eyed by the extraordinary conversations happening before me on the computer screen.
Why won’t I speak up?
I have a couple of theories, maybe you can relate:
- Leveling Up (and then staying up) We weren’t reading Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra… we were reveling in the dark, fantasy of Neil Gaiman’s short stories, snickering at the calloused comedy found in David Foster Wallace essays, and pouring over rhetoricians like Corder, Booth, and the god of them all, Kenneth Burke. Come to find, there’s a real difference between reading sci-fi fantasy and the Greek myths found in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Even Ray Bradbury knew that. One is an enjoyable depiction of the unreal, the other has magic staying power that withstands the test of time.
- “But Teacher!” Although this is listed second, it took me the longest to realize. I had grown far too comfortable with my prescribed role as “learner” in the school setting. My concept of learning was dependent on that of my teacher. Traditionally, the teacher was my crutch, my reference point, the responsible one. Transitioning to a more self-determining model of learning is tough but necessary for those of us who might be a little too ingrained in the scholastics.
- In-person vs On the Computer. Times are changing, folks. Similar to how we must learn to write for the screen, it’s important to become comfortable with speaking up on a video chat. If you are OCD (like me) I have a suggestion for you. Personally, if I don’t say something in seminar within the first 15 minutes, it’s unlikely I’ll say anything at all. Yes, I keep a keen eye of the watch. Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous. I recommend joining the Zoom call before it’s scheduled and engaging in conversation with the early birds. Shake it out a little.
- Rolling Plains that Keep On Rolling. In other words-the scope. Maintaining eagle eye precision over such a large body of work sounds daunting, am I wrong? Once you’ve entered the Great Conversation, you start becoming aware of how problems throughout history layer and are bound to one another. Don’t be fooled, this is where the fun comes in! We get to mind-map for ourselves. Advice for newcomers: don’t go into this endeavor already converting your Great Books reading to factual “social currency.” The lifelong journey of learning you’ll experience with OGB begins with the type of unguarded curiosity that never really stops.
- Experience. Plain and simple. I think I lack the experience necessary to contribute in conversation. Another way of putting it? I’m a lot more comfortable listening. Heck, if I could make a rhetoric out of listening I would. That’s simply something I need to get over and out of. Time and practice help.
- The Sacrament on the Altar. A common misconception is that these books should be treated with the reverence and awe restricted to the Sacrament on the Altar (ahem, Wilhelmsen). Heresy!
- Liberal Arts vs Liberal Artists. Yes darling, I’m referring to eloquence. You learn fast with OGB, canned talk goes only so far in seminar. That’s not to say eloquence is not appreciated and greatly admired. It’s just not the primary focus, that which I had been so accustomed to in my boutique, liberal arts university.
- The Saber-Toothed Tiger. A Great Book is many things, but it is not a large wild cat that lived in the past, with two long, curved front teeth. On that note, the ghost of a dead white guy is not going to come out of the pages to beat you over the head for not understanding their work fully enough. Approach the books for what they are: primary sources. They are the place we meet, the agora for Socrates and his constituents.
Here’s all you need to know about engaging in a great conversation- there will be great truths and great errors. It’s not enough anymore to just retain information and think critically about it. There’s a third component that is equally important. When you speak up in a seminar, you’re starting a reaction that could take you down a path of discovery that might not be attained on your own. To those of you who struggle with the same problem as I do, I implore you to explore the power of talk. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to us, it’s a life skill worthy of our pursuit. I like to think of a great conversation the same way I view great writing– the magic comes in the revision.