Ever since I was a doctoral student in philosophy, I have experienced the seminar, usually held once a week, as the heart of the academic environment. Why is the seminar so important?

If we are to stick to the etymology of the word, we should use a different image than that of the heart. The seminar is the nursery where seeds germinate and seedlings grow strong in a favourable environment, to then be planted out. That image fits well with doctoral education. The seminar is the place where doctoral students get training in presenting and discussing their scientific work. They get the opportunity to present their studies and texts and receive constructive criticism from senior researchers and from other doctoral students. In this way, their theses will be as brilliant as possible and they can practice the academic forms of giving and receiving constructive criticism, of defending their positions and changing their minds.

But there are also other seedlings in the academy than doctoral students and thesis drafts. Even senior researchers’ studies and texts are originally seedlings. Even these need to grow before they can be planted in scientific journals or at book publishers. The seminar never ceases to be a nursery. I dare say that the seminar is just as important for established researchers as it is for doctoral students.

The seminar is also the weekly event where something finally happens together with others. Academics often work in a certain solitude, especially when writing. Colleagues who may not have met since the last seminar reunite and continue the conversation in the familiar seminar room. Is the seminar like a recurring dance arrangement for lonely academics? Yes, the seminar probably also resembles an academic dance palace. In addition, sometimes you can invite presenters to the seminar, maybe even stars, then the event will be really brilliant.

The seminar is not least one of every academic institution’s most important places for discussion where colleagues meet regularly and learn to understand each other. Despite working from different theoretical, methodological and linguistic starting points. The academy is not homogenous, but is full of theories, methods and languages, even within the same discipline. If we do not meet every week and continue the conversation together, we soon become strangers who do not understand each other.

All these images reveal essential aspects of the academic seminar: the image of nursery as well as the image of the dance palace and the image of the place of discussion. Yet they do not reveal the significance of the seminar that I experience most strongly. I must return to the image of the heart, of the life-sustaining centre. I want to say that the seminar is the place where an academic subject becomes alive and real. The subject can be philosophy or literature, mathematics or neuroscience, law or economy. What can such strange subjects mean in the heart of a human being? At the seminar, living philosophers, literary scholars, mathematicians, lawyers or economists meet each other. At the seminar, they bring their academic subjects to life, for themselves and for younger researchers in the making. Each seminar pumps new reality into the subject, which would otherwise be pale and abstract. At the seminar you can see, hear and even smell what philosophy and other academic subjects really are. They never become more real than in the seminar.

I think we could go on forever looking for different meanings of the academic seminar.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

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