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Seminar learning spaces are surging in popularity


Burton is professor of history and director of the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

The academic seminar is busy reinventing itself in 21st century style. A space of learning that the humanities have relied on for centuries, it’s more powerful than ever.

The seminars getting the high-profile attention are the ones that push the boundaries when it comes to “academic” subject matter. Taylor Swift is the celebrity seminar topic of the moment. But seminars for credit on everything from the music of The Beatles to hip hop studies are the new normal in higher education. The prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris plans to offer a seminar on Beyoncé.

Whatever the subject, seminar-style learning is as popular off-campus as it is in college classrooms.


The Night School Bar in Durham, N.C., was started on Zoom during the pandemic by Lindsey Andrews, a former bartender and instructor at North Carolina State. It is now a bricks-and-mortar gathering spot that uses the slogan, “Arts and Humanities, For All.”

It has faculty who have several jobs, teaching included. They offer workshops and seminars for anyone seeking academic discussions of complex topics from a humanistic perspective.

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The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research offers seminars on phenomenology and the body, as well as “What is a Social Movement?” They work in collaboration with local businesses and cultural organizations, combining teaching with publicly accessible programming like film screenings and book talks.

There’s a populist aspect to these seminars “without walls.” They echo the tradition of “communiversities” with roots in Black Power and the struggles for racial equality in the 1960s.

Today, the communiversity is a global phenomenon, in part because educators know that knowledge is most valuable when it operates at the boundary line of campus and community.

According to Dzulkifli Razak, professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia, this is a tradition with a long history beyond the West. “Students are confident that this is part of our culture … it is not something from the outside that we need to learn.”

Wherever the public seminar is flourishing, there are courses galore. At the Brooklyn Institute it’s as many as 100 a year. There are no standardized tests. Students need no proof of previous educational achievement and they set their own goals for each course.

Meanwhile, public universities are cutting humanities faculty. In Kansas, where “budgets are lower, enrollments are more likely to be falling, and where the pressure for career-oriented majors may be greater,” funding is being cut at multiple state schools.

The Mellon Foundation recently awarded $14 million to 10 liberal arts colleges – institutions most at risk for low enrollments – to enhance their humanities offerings and boost their numbers.

Meanwhile, climate anxiety and enrollment anxiety are converging in new majors in the field of environmental humanities, including Harvard University, which offers “Climate Change Literature.”

While humanities were always vocational for aspirational teachers and life-long learners alike, some campus leaders are leaning into “applied humanities” in innovative ways.

Despite the fact that many colleges and universities are touting the humanities as useful, the average annual tuition in 2023-2024 at a four-year college is $6,875 for in-state and $17,557 for out-of-state – too high for many.

By comparison, at the Night School Bar there are fees, but they operate on a sliding scale – from as little as $10 to $320 a course. That they offer no course credit or credential options doesn’t appear to impact their popularity.

The seminar evokes the Socratic method, that ancient form of dialogue between teachers and students. It remains a consistent feature of humanities classrooms in higher education, where the setting is small and intimate, typically 20 students per classroom.

The embodied seminar format is actually persisting and flourishing – in public – at a historical moment when virtual learning and AI-generated content are accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and not just in the United States.

In Sweden, Hong Kong and Australia, the rise of artificial intelligence learning is so fast and so global that UNESCO has launched the first set of global guidelines on generative AI for education and research.

In the face of all this technological complexity – with its own steep learning curves and accessibility issues – the old-fashioned seminar is flexible, mobile and easy to access. It can happen at a bar, under a tree, in a living room, wherever people are able to gather to talk about what they have read and debate ideas.

As some tech gurus work hard to convince campus leaders that machine learning surpasses all other forms, students and teachers in today’s communiversities are remaking the seminar so that it works for them.

Many agree the seminar format is capable of getting and keeping our attention, even and especially with all the distractions of a high-tech world.

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