The seminars were not intended as surveys. The goal instead was to plunge deeply into a few seminal masterpieces in order to come to grips with their continuing importance for human life today. In a sense, the books were the real teachers in these classes. Cutsinger’s primary aim was to assist students in the fine art of attentive reading and to promote a disciplined exploration of a few of the world’s most enduring ideas.
The seminars were always conducted as Socratic discussions. Each class began with a question about the reading for the day, and it was expected that students would join with their teacher and each other in a shared conversational inquiry. A premium was placed on precision, explanation, and defense. Students were held doubly accountable: for courteously listening to the contributions of others and for patiently justifying their own observations.
For further clarification as to how this all worked, see Doing the Asking and The Spin of Plato in His Grave, two provocative and highly pertinent selections from The Underground Grammarian, as well as Rules of Thumb for Socratic Discussion, a succinct description of six key ingredients for a successful seminar, adapted by Professor Cutsinger from “Notes on Dialogue” by Stringfellow Barr, one of the founding fathers of the great books program at St John’s College.
While it is sometimes thought that Socratic conversation is less rigorous than a more didactic and professorial style, its rigor is simply of another kind. In the serious cross-examination of a great work, the course of conversation is often unpredictable; it is certainly less linear than in the “traditional” classroom. But the intellectual commitment required, the daily vigilance, demands a preparation and yields a mental fitness not promoted by other forms of learning. These advantages were always pressed to the full in these seminars.
- Reading. In keeping with Socrates’ observation that “it is better to deal thoroughly with a little than unsatisfactorily with a lot” (Theaetetus, 187e), reading assignments were relatively short. Students were expected to study the assigned texts very closely and carefully, however; as Cutsinger explained, underlining important words and passages and maintaining a dialogue with the authors through copious marginal comments are essential preparations for a Socraatic class discussion.
- Constructive participation. For obvious reasons, a course of this kind is not for students who prefer an education they can simply ingest as the passive takers of notes. It is for those who enjoy the acts of thinking and reflection and argument. Frequent contributions to class discussion are not merely desirable; they are essential. One third of the final course grade was based on class participation.
- Essays. Students would write three essays of 5-6 pages each. Neither book-reports nor research-papers, these essays were to be viewed instead as continuing conversations in which their authors wrestled in writing with the ideas opened up by at least three of the books. Professor Cutsinger used the grades received on the two best essays in calculating the final course grade (one-third each).
Professor Cutsinger’s Breviary of English Usage was always used in his grading and commentary. Anyone student wondering why he was such a stickler about the fine points of writing was advised to meditate on the various examples of grammatical and logical errors described in this handbook, as well as on the essay Why Good Grammar? from The Underground Grammarian.