Whiteboard of Iphigenia in Aulis discussion

Seminar Strategies 1: Exploring heroics by writing thesis statements

I mentioned when I was hosting @wethehumanities on Twitter that I have a number of stock seminar (class) activities that I pull out from time to time, and, as requested, I plan to write about some of them here on the blog. This is, hopefully, the first in an occasional series!

Seminar Strategy: Thesis Writing

The activities are not tied to specific texts and require little in the way of , so I can switch them up as I need. For example, if I have just finished marking essays, or students are about to start writing essays, I can pull out an activity that addresses some of the common problems students have. If my concussion headache is particularly bad, I can pull out an activity that is more student-driven and relies less on me interacting with the entire class at once.

The list, of course, is an ongoing project. I have been building it for almost a decade now and there are frequent additions and variations and the occasional deletion. I imagine most educators have similar lists they draw from. I like to provide a variety of ways for students to engage with materials over the course of the semester. This is not just to keep them entertained and interested, but to also teach them the critical writing and reading skills that are integral to a humanities course.

Painting: The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Francois Perrier, 17th century. Public Domain.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Francois Perrier, 17th century. Public Domain.

Today for seminar we were discussing Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. I forget how wonderfully complex this play until it comes time to teach it again; I am enamoured with Medea, so that week always tends to the highlight of the semester for me. But there are so many interesting explorations of heroic nature and the role of fate to be had in Iphigenia in Aulis and its complex plot of twists and turns, misunderstandings and missed timings, decisions and changed minds, makes we wish our first year seminar was 2 hours long, not a mere 50 minutes.
This week, I decided to pull out my essay writing activity (I’m afraid I don’t have a more exciting name for it) and I added a twist to it that actually worked very well.

Introductory discussion

The seminar is pretty straightforward. I usually start with getting a sense of how many students have ready, or tried to read, the play, how far they got through it, and how much of it they understand. Experience has taught me that only a few will make it all the way through (and that number is significantly less when class is on a Friday afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day!). A number will say they have attempted it and others will admit they didn’t.

I’m careful not to shame or lecture for students for not doing the readings. I need the students to be honest with me about how they have prepared so I can make the most of our seminar. Students know they need to do the reading, and I do emphasize to them that they will get more out of seminar if they come prepared, but unless unpreparedness is a widespread, consistent issue in a seminar, I try not to pay it too much mind. (Unless it’s Medea they haven’t read. Then I might tell them they have made kittens cry 😉 )

So the first part of any seminar is going over the plot of the play. Sometimes I outline on the whiteboard, sometimes I don’t. I find students are generally quite good at the broad strokes of a myth, but I question and encourage them to go into more detail than they do naturally. I’m not sure why students are averse to details, but this is a consistent problem I see across classes, essays, and assignments, and part of what the essay activity is designed to address.

Whiteboard--Discussion of Iphigenia at Aulis & key characters
Whiteboard–Discussion of Iphigenia at Aulis & key characters


Activity Preparation

I then move into preparing the class for the actual activity. With the theme for this week about expanding and exploring the complex definition of the hero, we briefly reviewed the cast of characters from the play (Iphigenia, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Achilles, Menelaus) and their roles in the play, eg, daughter, sacrificice, father, husband warrior, king, general, wife, mother, etc.


Students are paired off and each pair is given a sheet of paper. Working together, they will need to come up with a thesis statement in response to my prompt question. In this case, my prompt question was to argue how each character was heroic. Each pair did a different character, and some characters were easier to develop a thesis for than others. While on one level the activity is to help them develop better thesis writing skills, on another it is more about the discussions they have with each other about the character.

I circulate among the groups, checking in with each and offering feedback and suggestions on improving their theses. As I know a certain number of students won’t be prepared, I make note on the board of some key passages in the text related to each character.

This time, I added a new element to the activity. When students seem to be mostly finished this step, I ask them to pass their papers to the pair on their right. Again, my focus isn’t on the the perfectly written thesis, so if students haven’t quite got it finished, it’s ok.

The students now look at the new thesis for the new character. They are invited to make any improvements to it that they think are necessary, and then to proceed to outlining one supporting point. They must include references to line numbers that back up their point.

I continued this as time permitted; each group got to look at three characters (including their first one) before we had to wrap up. During the activity, I circulated amongst the students, listening to their ideas and offering suggestions of other things to consider or passages to look at.

The nice thing with this activity is that it can be made as long or as short as time permits; whether students only get to look at one other character or whether they examine all five, they are having valuable discussions about the heroic nature and constructing arguments.

Wrap Up

To wrap up the class, I had students share the page that was in front of them with the rest of the class. For the sake of time, I didn’t have students give line numbers in their presentation, but they did need to share the thesis and supporting points.

I encouraged students to provide additional feedback, particularly if I heard someone discussing something that did not make it on the page but was still important. I also provided some feedback on key ideas that may have been missed.

In Conclusion…

I aim to use this activity at least once a semester. As I mentioned, I find students are reluctant to engage with specific details of a text to support their idea. Engaging with the text is a skill and habit that has to be taught and reinforced over the course of the entire semester. By presenting the activity as an essay activity, but having students work with pairs, they practice articulating their ideas and supporting their arguments.

Iphigenie, by Anslem Feuerbach 1862. Public Domain.
Iphigenie, by Anslem Feuerbach 1862. Public Domain.

Adding the rotation of the papers was an excellent addition. Not only were students practicing expressing their own ideas, but they were also practicing critiquing and editing others’ writings. In addition, it gave students the chance to have a series of short but focused conversations about several different characters, so they were examining the idea of the hero from multiple perspectives and, hopefully, developing an appreciation for the complex nature of heroes and fate.

The nice thing with this activity is that it can be made as long or as short as time permits; whether students only get to look at one other character or whether they examine all five, they are having valuable discussions about the heroic nature and constructing arguments.

A thesis statement is the hero of any good essay!

Blogging your way to better writing

[B]logging is in and of itself academic writing and academic publication. It’s not an add-on. It’s now part and parcel of the academic writing landscape. As such, it is of no less value than any other form of writing. Even though audit regimes do not count blogs – yet – this does not lessen their value. And therefore those of us who engage in bloggery need to stop justifying it as a necessary accompaniment to the Real Work of Serious Academic Writing. Blogs are their own worthwhile thing.

Pat Thomson, “Seven reasons why blogging can make you a better academic writer” Times Higher Education 2 January 2016 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/seven-reasons-why-blogging-can-make-you-better-academic-writer  (Originally posted 7 December 2015 on https://patthomson.net/2015/12/07/blogging-helps-academic-writing/)

Thomson argues that blogging “informs and supports other academic writing” in the following ways. Blogging:

  1. Establishes writing as routine;
  2. Allows you to experiment with your “voice”;
  3. Helps you focus on one point;
  4. Helps you find and write to your audience;
  5. Develops concise writing;
  6. Allows experimentation with different writing forms; and
  7. Develops writing confidence.

Blogging is academic writing

Reverse Outlining


Reverse outlining is a new technique to me and I’m planning to give it a go. This post by Ellie Mackin demonstrates how the method works.


So, what’s the point of reverse outlining? Breaking things down in a paragraph-by-paragraph way lets you look at the overall structure in a much smaller, and therefore clearer, way.  Sometimes, if I am stuck, I will write out the topic of each paragraph of a post-it note and play around with the way they might fit together (another variation on this is to cut out the actual paragraphs and play with the order).  It means I can do some fairly major restructuring with great(er) ease. It often just seems so obvious that the order of paragraphs (and sections) is wrong.

Ellie Mackin, “Reverse Outlining,” Dr. Ellie Mackinhttp://www.elliemackin.net/blog/reverse-outlining 13 March 2015