Ten People You Will Find In A Humanities Seminar

By Kiasha Naidoo & Ali Ridha Khan

Throughout your humanities career, you’re bound to have an encounter with the seminar room. For many, their experience with humanities seminars are short-lived, e.g. hitting-up your mates during your regrettable goth phase, like “dudes, there’s a seminar on  E X I S T E N T I A L I S M” or date ideas for the poor PPE student trying to impress their crush with how smart they think they are – our seminars are not opportunities to woo your crush! For others, presenting at a seminar is the arc de triomphe of their career in the humanities. Of course, that’s before realising they’re destined to be penniless scholars with more paper-cuts than published papers. While the latter paints a bleak picture of the seminar room, we must stress, attending seminars is far more exciting when you’re observing the people in the room rather than actually listening to the discussion. And hey, we know you did not read the pre-circulated paper anyway! Here’s our pick of ten people you’ll find in a humanities seminar

  1. Let’s start here, with the seminar regular; nobody knows who he is, or where he came from,  he’s just a random bloke that’s always there. Never saying a word, always hunched over his chair, and “uhm’ing” at every major point. He usually stares deeply into the speaker’s eyes, with judgement and contempt, like “you didn’t reference me on page 2!”. Some say he’s always been there, some say he’s not even there, some say a lot of things which takes us to our next contested-intellectual.
  2. When Sartre said “hell is other people” he was referring to this very person and their global community, the oxygen thief. Nothing says the life of the room more than the oxygen thief, they have the most to say, makes the most notes (fyi, if a grocery list was someone’s magnum opus ya’ll finna steal them notes) and leaves the audience asking more questions than when they arrived. Their questions are comments which run faster and more incoherent than Ozzy Osbournes’ ‘Crazy Train’. 
  3. The groupie. Every seminar room across the globe has been graced by their presence. Just check their Instagram: ‘a brilliant discussion by Michel Foucault’ or ‘many poignant points raised by Chomsky this evening’ or ‘a very moving discussion by Mr West this evening #SayNoToAbortion’. Poor thing. 
  4. The wordsmith. This is the young postgraduate who hasn’t read any piece of writing from start to end but knows buzzwords from a collection of theories and will use them in the incorrect way with an unbelievable amount of confidence. They give themselves 5+ extra points for every French or German term they use, 10+ if they can use two or more languages in the same comment. This person often hyphenates words for no clear reason and will point out when he is referring to Being with a capital “B”. They often talk about why/that they drink their coffee black and refer to people as “bodies”. Almost definitely has an extensive collection of black polo necks. 
  5. The tactician launches scathing critiques of most arguments but can somehow do this without making academic enemies like the rest of us. This person often smiles and nods affirmingly. Admittedly, you feel warm and fuzzy inside too when they do this. They will ultimately expose fundamental flaws in the research you’ve spent the last two years working on with a simple question of your assumptions. They’ll finish off every comment by saying “I’m not really sure though, these are just some rambles, what do you think?” You’ll hate them for it, but look into their smiling eyes and somehow…love it?? 
  6. The one question wonder: an overconfident and obnoxious “budding scholar”. They require an introduction, which they no-less provide without burdening the chair with such a request: how thoughtful. Their introduction,  longer than the presentation, this includes but is not limited to their name, credentials, discipline, thesis title and an acknowledgement of their advisor. Once upon a time, they had asked a question so brilliant and contextual that it threw the room into unanimous applause. Instead of coming up with a new question; one which speaks to the subject-matter, that makes sense and is contextual, they’ve taken to repeating the same question which awarded them, to their mind, prestige. Sadly, hoping to get something out of the audience. 
  7. Our seventh quintessential type is the dualist. This person is present in the body, but certainly not in mind. They’re required to be there for the credits or just to be seen and for them, it doesn’t hurt that the seminar room has great internet. During the allotted time of the seminar, if you look over their shoulder at their laptop screen, you’ll witness them accomplish at least 4 menial admin tasks, play 2 rounds of Candy Crush, accidentally giggle at a Twitter post and scroll through 2 articles. In the time that the crowd discussion takes place, they will frantically try to make sense of the pre-circulated reading. After realising this is futile they will close their laptop and nod at comments until the time is up. They leave feeling like they were very productive and tell themselves they’ll read the paper later. 
  8. The war-maker. Legend has it nothing brings them joy. They live to lambast, cripple and strike fear into the hearts of any who oppose them, ultimately, every-living-soul. They even disagree with you when you share viewpoints and politics. They can be spotted by standing-up to speak in a clearly seated setting and by wagging their finger at the speaker. In their spare time, they identify as “social-commentators” and speak on behalf of the twitter-tariat.  
  9. The Narcoleptic, our brave friend can be found sound asleep in every humanities seminar. Come film screening, ramblings of the oxygen thief or the rage of the war-maker they sleep straight through. Adding to the acoustics, their rhythmic snoring is unmatched dropping a beat so profound the D.O.G.G. has been quoted with saying “Damn, that shit’s tight”.  And don’t get them wrong, the subject of the seminars are not responsible for inducing the much-lauded slumber. What’s most interesting about their public siesta is that they walk out without recalling their power nap until their pictures appear on some humanities subreddit: “Foucault said Prison is a Humanities Seminar”.
  10. Oh yes, and then there’s us, the observers. We read the pre-circulated paper, make notes and have questions which speak to the subject matter but we’re too busy laughing at ya’ll to focus. I kid, it’s the anxiety –  the anxiety to perform. Seminar rooms are places of performing intellectual prowess; the ability to convey intellectual contributions in a coherent and concise manner is an undeniable challenge for many senior academics, one that more often than most, they refuse to admit. Instead, this performance ends up alienating the room, encouraging students to put on a performance as opposed to asking a damn question, making a comment or dare we say, challenging a tenured Professor.

Ali Ridha Khan is a Masters student in Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and an Andrew W. Mellon Masters Flagship Fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research. Ali Ridha is an academic until he finds a real job.

Kiasha is an Honours philosophy student at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and an Andrew W. Mellon Honours Fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research. She holds a BA PPE degree from the University of Stellenbosch and writes things sometimes.