Diversity in Approaching the Liberal Arts Seminar

What happens when people from various parts of the world are brought together in one room and asked to speak on a subject? Seminars at NYU Abu Dhabi ...

Mar 7, 2015

What happens when people from various parts of the world are brought together in one room and asked to speak on a subject? Seminars at NYU Abu Dhabi have been designed according to the US American model of liberal arts, a system based on discussions in classes, quizzes, homework and exams. At NYUAD, students’ backgrounds are an essential part of how they approach these US-style seminars and lectures, and a multitude of different voices are brought to bear in each class, especially in cores that aim to bolster discussions and sharing among students.
Seminar-style classes were a novelty for Afeef Sahabdeen, a sophomore from Sri Lanka. Having gone to a school which followed a British education system, he said that having class discussions with teachers was something he was not used to in an academic setting.
“Culturally, you don’t discuss with the teacher," said Sahabdeen. "[In my school] it was more of a monologue. You don’t talk back to the teacher but here, it’s different."
Sahabdeen recalled being surprised in his first seminar-style class as a freshman.
“The professor taking the class was asking the students what we felt about the text instead of telling us what we should feel about it,” he said. “It was not what I expected. People said interesting things and ideas would bounce from one person to the other, obviously with some direction [from the professor]. It gives you a lot of freedom, and leaves the option [to participate] but also very subtly pushes you to do so.”
Though some may take it for granted that the many courses at NYUAD are held in a US-style seminar class, freshman Enes Krijestorac, a Mechanical Engineering major from Bosnia and Herzegovina, has found seminar classes effective in engaging students.
“The seminars that rely on discussions [are] very useful I think, especially when it comes to the courses which help to express your opinions, and leading discussions during classes make you sharpen those skills,” said Krijestorac.
The heterogeneity of students from different backgrounds is not so apparent in a typical lecture hall setting, however. Many times it is up to the students, coming from their different educational backgrounds and experiences, to adapt to the liberal arts system.
“Seminars don’t impose a specific style on students,” said Global Academic Fellow Olga Krestyaninova. “It is important to pair seminar learning with problem-based learning as you don’t only learn … from a lecture.”
Working in large groups is especially beneficial for students, Krestyaninova asserts, as each person can contribute pieces of information that they picked up at the lecture, allowing for a better learning experience.
Sophomore Hind Tantawi was used to lecture-style classes at her school in Jordan.
“My school taught lecture style classes, and so I didn’t find difficulty in asking questions if I had time to formulate my question,” said Tantawi.
She noted, however, the importance of making an effort to ask questions and participate in class. When there is too much work or the lecture proceeds too quickly, she said, it can be difficult to participate.
Seminar-style classes allow for better student-professor interactions. Natalie Kopczewski is Polish British and majoring in Film and Psychology. Comparing NYU Abu Dhabi to her experiences of high school in England and university in Munich, she said that professors here make more of an effort to get to know and engage students.
“Here, I feel that it’s more about ideas than memorization,” said Kopczewski.
Yunze Wen, a senior from China majoring in Chemistry, said that when students can relate to the professor better, it breaks the power structure in class and facilitates discussions.
“I feel there needs to be a dialogue during seminar-style classes. If people come prepared with what they’re going to say to class, it doesn’t work that well as the discussion should flow,” he said.
Werner Sollors, NYUAD Global Professor of Literature visiting from Harvard University, believes that in seminar-style classes, the individual teaching styles and the students' previous educational backgrounds play a larger role than cultural background.
“I don’t think the reason [for class participation] has to do with the culture; there may be people who might be shy to ask questions in class, but they approach me at the end of class,” said Sollors. “Humans imitate others, so if there are students asking questions, it encourages others to ask as well.”
For such a heterogeneous group, is it possible to have one system which everyone must conform to?
“People know that it is the [US] American model they must get used to here [at NYUAD]. At the same time, it is important to bring your own culture with you,” Kopczewski emphasized.
In any institution, there will not be one system that works for everyone.
“For instance, I know students in my school for whom the British system doesn’t work, but they thrive in a [US] American university,” said Sahabdeen. “It’s up to the individual to make out of it what they do. So regardless of where you’re from, whichever culture, whichever style you’re used to, it’s one of the only models which will work for a demanding curriculum.”
Siba Siddique is a staff writer. Email her at
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