Seminar activity ideas 1: Introducing ways of using critical material

Seminar teaching


First year undergraduates can benefit from being offered support in the use of critical material – firstly to discover how to engage with it actively in order to enrich their own interpretation of texts (rather than simply passively absorbing and passing on received opinion) and secondly to explore ways of incorporating critical comment in their own essays.

What to do

In an introductory session, the following approach can be taken, using a short text such as a short story or poem, around which there is supportive critical material, in the form of articles, books or reviews. It requires some advance planning to pull out small extracts to represent a range of different critical viewpoints that relate to the text.

  1. Ask students to read the text and explore their own first readings. This stage could be fairly brief (10-15minutes).
  2. Offer pairs or small groups short extracts of critical material and ask them to talk about what it contributes to their initial reading, using the following prompts:
    • Does your critical extract:
    • give you any extra-textual knowledge or information that helps you interpret the text
    • confirm your interpretation, (perhaps expressing something you talked about in a particularly lucid way?)
    • add to or develop your interpretation
    • challenge your interpretation?
    • Highlight one or two short phrases which you might share with other seminar group members who haven’t had the same critical material, to allow you to explain the view of the critic and the way in which it developed or challenged your own reading of the text.
  3. There are alternative approaches at this stage:
    • One might be simply to report back to the whole seminar group, with students sharing the different critical phrases they have chosen, explaining what difference these made to their interpretation and then exploring as a whole group which one(s) they find most useful and convincing.
    • Another might be to ‘jigsaw’, where the groups re-form with one person from each of the original groups reporting back on their critical phrases.
    • A third might be to go straight into writing, asking students to write a brief five-minute response to the original text that in some way draws on the critical material they’ve looked at, either using it to support their initial reading, or arguing back to it. These quick bits of writing could be shared in the whole group.
  4. Finally a de-briefing discussion might explore issues around the usefulness of criticism, ways of using it to help establish your own reading, as well as using the student writing to reflect on what makes for appropriate, telling uses of criticism in essays.

Sample handouts

You can download sample handouts of critical material designed for use in this way in two pdf files: one on 
Short Cuts by Raymond Carver and the other on ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ by Angela Carter. The critical material in these handouts is pitched at a certain level and extracts could be easily substituted featuring more or less challenging critical perspectives.

A more challenging activity

For some groups of students, you might want to add the extra dimension of analysing the critical material itself, to explore the nature of the critical stance being adopted, questioning whether it is written from an identifiable critical position, or tradition of criticism, or looking at ways in which critical positions have changed over time, in relation to a text or writer.

Activity contributed by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, of the English and Media Centre