The Seminar Mistake

This piece, originally the Collaboration Page in this Outline, has been requested as a separate item, and we here repeat it under a different title, in order to make it more readily available to those who remember it, but are not sure where they saw it. The idea of the Collaboration page was, How to work productively with other people? That skill is never taught and rarely exemplified in the humanistic sciences. The few examples are that much more precious, and we gladly share this one. Notice that the focus of the seminar mode of interaction is intensive, but the tempo is intermittent..

The Seminar Mistake, briefly, is not to use the seminar.

At the University of Washington, sometime around the mid 20th century, there existed a research unit called the Han Project, which steadily focused on clarifying little understood aspects of the Han Dynasty. Since no aspects of the Han Dynasty were well understood, that mandate offered a lot of room. The Han Project held a weekly Seminar, whose topic was publicly posted in advance. Apart from the regular research staff who formed the core of the Seminar, all graduate students and faculty had a standing invitation to attend, when the topic of the week was one that interested them, or one on which they had something to contribute.

Hellmut Wilhelm, as he might have appeared presiding over the Han Project seminar.

Those present at any one meeting were thus always different, to some extent, but the atmosphere of the meetings was constant. Students and teachers took part as equals, according to what they could contribute. Teachers knew that it was not a place to pontificate; students knew not to ask elementary questions. Within these limits, much of value to the topic of the week got asked, suggested, considered, criticized, defended, and sometimes decided. It was an excellent example of how to run a mixed scholarly conversation, with members of different abilities cooperating toward a common end. The Seminar operated under the gentle guidance of Hellmut Wilhelm, who had a positive genius for getting the best out of sometimes conflicting opinions.

Sometimes the Seminar ventured beyond the Han Dynasty. On one such occasion Leon Hurvitz predistributed a draft review of a then recent Japanese translation of the Dau/Dv Jing. The meeting that week included the usual suspects, plus a good number of Chinese Literature students. These were not regulars at the Seminar, but in the course of their own work they had been exposed to, or were engaged with, the Dau/Dv Jing. The Seminar took up Leon's predistributed draft, and went through it page by page. Criticisms were offered, misunderstandings were pointed out, eccentric translations of Leon's own (so like Leon: he had translated the whole of the DDJ in the course of his review) were identified.

By the end of the session, the Seminar had been through much of the DDJ text and its problems of interpretation. Much of value (along with some stuff of less value) had been contributed.

It would be a pleasure to record that Leon went home and rewrote his review, giving full credit to the helpful input of the Seminar. But no: he had already mailed his draft off to the journal. He had distributed his review to the Seminar as a model for the young, not as a channel for comment from young and old alike. This attitude toward one's own work is the Seminar Mistake. The Seminar Mistake is not to make use of the Seminar.

Some of us still wince to read the unameliorated gaucheries, the undeterred eccentricities, of that review. The discussion had been devoid of benefit to the review. But it was of great benefit to everyone else present, including those who may have attended the Seminar on just that one occasion.

Except for Leon himself, then, we cite this case as a sample of How To Do It.

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17 Mar 2006 / Contact The Project / Exit to Outline Index Page