All posts by Don Seeman PhD

About Don Seeman PhD

Don Seeman is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory. He is a social anthropologist (PhD Harvard 1997) specializing in medical and phenomenological anthropology, ethnography of religion and Jewish thought.

Professor Seeman-Response to Unit 1

Dear Students,

Thanks for your hard work on these blogs and responses. We are off to a very good start. For future weeks, a few bits of feedback.


  1. In your title for your blog, please include your name and the number of the unit. For example: “What’s Kinship Got to Do with it? Don Seeman, Unit 1.” This will very much help us to keep track of things going forward.
  2. I am very happy that everyone has started off being supportive of one another! However, there is room for suggestions as well. Was there anything in the two blog posts you found confusing? Is there a way to make the writing even clearer? Please say so!


best wishes,

Dr. Seeman

Oh OER, Oh Oer, has my little dog gone?

The truth is that I never heard the term OER until I read this module, though the idea has been on my mind for awhile. Our whole academic system is warped, in my view, by the economic interests that we never really name in our quest for purity. So, for example, we measure scholars and award tenure on the basis of decisions made by editors of presses who are themselves trying very hard to publish what will sell (and will tell you as much over a drink at any conference). They pay authors almost nothing ( I say with regret as the editor of a book series) and continually reduce their rights in a variety of ways.  Journals, some of which are quite profitable, do not even make the effort to pretend, and then cry with indignation if an author puts his own work up on a website or makes it available to colleagues. There has to be another way.

Lately, I have tried my best to publish with open access journals, which are a kind of OER I very much admire and respect. Of course, there are problems. Some just charge exorbitant fees to authors–pay us a thousand dollars for the chance to give people a chance to read what you yourself have written–while others struggle with various funding models. Two journals I recently published with, and that I recommend to others, are open access without charging authors– Medicine, Anthropology Theory, and the Jewish Studies Internet Journal. I believe they have some institutional funding and extremely dedicated staffs as well as some volunteers, so it is not perfect either, but it is at least an attempt to break out of the corporate stranglehold in academia.

We can also do more to support it.

A very fine Open Access journal in anthropology called HAU was started a few years ago. Rather than asking authors to pay for the publication of their work, they ask faculty to seek institutional sponsorships for a few years of $500-$1000, which sometimes comes from departmental budgets. Emory has a fund that will contribute to author fees if you want to publish open access but, to date, they will not support institutional memberships, which seems to me a shame.

Anyway, so much for my rant. My basic point is that these resources are growing in diversity and stature and that is something I think we want to encourage as much as possible, figuring out new funding models as we can.




Don Seeman Accessibility Module 8

It is funny, as I began thinking about my response to this module I thought about Maria Town, who was also mentioned by Susan. Maria took a freshman seminar with me on the topic of “Suffering, Healing and Redemption,” which I am offering with some revisions again next year. She spoke movingly in class about her family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina just a few months before. She also opened my eyes to just how difficult it can be for some people to physically navigate Emory campus and she devoted herself already as a Sophomore to pushing the administration hard to make some changes. Now she works in the White House and I wonder if she would chuckle to know that we are talking about her here. Should we tell her?

I am glad we had this unit, though I can’t help thinking in retrospect that this is training and information every faculty member should have and I am sorry I did not have it sooner. I very much like Marshall’s (?) formulation that thinking about accessibility is a means of enhancing education for all students and not just for those who specifically need some accommodation.

This unit has also unnerved me because honestly, I am not sure how to provide for all the eventualities we have been discussing. I don’t typically lecture from prepared papers. I have notes intelligible only to myself and I interact with the class to convey what I want to convey. Should I start writing out my lectures more formally so that they can be given to students who have difficulty with hearing or so that they can be used to caption the videos we are now being encouraged to use even for our f2f classes? How do I figure out the trade-offs between what some here called “access for all” and my own very real needs to play to my strengths as a teacher and to keep a lid on prep time given how deeply strapped for time many of us already are? We slip between calls for “access for all” and more measured language of “reasonable accommodation,” but I feel a bit adrift in figuring out what reasonable is, particularly in preparing these online materials. It feels as if there is a goal that we are not yet fully equipped to meet in terms of technology or even just my own ability to use the technology smoothly. Someone mentioned self-captioning everything she records online. That is a huge investment of time and energy I am just not sure I can make right now, though I agree with the aspiration.

Finally, as I myself get older, I wonder how this emphasis on accessibility as an institutional goal will help faculty members to continue productive lives as scholars and teachers even as it does get more difficult to get around campus or to see and hear with former acuity.

This course, at any rate, has opened up far more for me than simply how to use technology or strategies for online teaching. Though I am not sure how in each case it will or should play out, I feel as if I have been bumped up a notch in reflective awareness of things I have been doing for decades. Brava Leah!


M4 (Don) Emulation is the Mother of Invention or: What the Medievals can us about “heautagogy.”

This week’s readings have been challenging, voluminous, and mostly quite worthwhile. The truth is that calling this a class in online teaching is a misnomer, because it has turned into a very provocative class on teaching, period. I wish I had encountered some of this material earlier, not necessarily because I would teach any differently today, but because I would have made more intentional decisions about assessment, design and instructional method. The two most important takeaways I have from this week are that “assessment drives learning,” (when I repeated this to my wife, who works in the field of primary education, her response was something like “duh,” though it seemed really cutting edge to me) and that we are learning strategies we can use in all our classes, not just the online ones. So thanks Leah, and thanks to all of you.

That said, I do not think Marshall is being merely cantankerous when he asks (it is a beautiful question) “can a self teach itself something it does not already know?” This is of course a real philosophical question whose answer I do not take for granted. I tried thinking about “heautagogy” in terms of my own teaching/learning practice and realized two things. The first is that of course the best learning is self-driven and self-motivated. That is what I spend most of my own time doing when I have the option (currently I am engaged in a crash course on the medieval sociologist Ibn Khaldun), and it is certainly a goal of my pedagogy (sorry, I use that term in the old fashioned way) in the sense that i want students to become independent learners and ultimately to be independent of me (certainly on the doctoral level).  But this is not always a realistic objective, in my view, and even when it is, it requires a lot more careful thinking about issues of authority, habituation and graduated aptitudes of learners than I found in the assigned reading.

For the past few years I have been collecting notes for an eventual article on the medieval philosopher/rabbi Moses Maimonides’ theory of education, which is indebted not just to the classical rabbinic tradition but to Aristotle, Plato and Arabic writers like Alfarabi and Ibn Rushd. Without going into too much detail here, the fundamental problem facing all of these thinkers is the need to modulate learning through habituation, which is by nature a conservative, socially reproductive process grounded in authority, and the development of critical faculties that can overturn accepted norms, generate new insights and even generate new habituative regimes.

One of the reasons I find the medieval discussion (Maimonides is not alone here) so much more illuminating than some of the contemporary material is that rather than portray the need for fully independent, student driven learning as some sort of new discovery that needs to replace existing modes (wow, we even have a cool new word for it!) they understood that there is no escape. Beings such as ourselves will continue to need habituation even once we become independent learners, though some of that habituation can be self-directed.

There is a life-course dimension to this that is very relevant to modern higher education. For the medievals, one begins life subject to the authority of parents and teachers, whose responsibility it is to ensure habituation to appropriate norms that will not only allow for good citizenship but also make room for future learning! At some point this shades into a learner’s desire to emulate those who s/he respects, including their scholarly persona. One studies and thinks under a tutor and begins to internalize values, take responsibility for them, even decide what kinds of further habituation one needs  as an individual . To take just one example, a person whose self-evaluation in light of advanced learning leads them to understand that they have departed from the mean (by being miserly, for example) takes upon themselves to distribute charity in a deliberate and graduate way until that trait becomes second nature to them. If they come to understand that some aspect of their society is corrupt they may need to opt for revolutionary change, but even in so doing they must also realize that they will have no choice but to create new habituative practices if they seek to establish any kind of a stable way of life or platform for ongoing learning.

My own tendency in college teaching has been to assume too much independent motivation and skill among students at various stages. To give one example, a favorite assignment of mine (which I learned from my own advisor) is to ask one student each week to come to class with a precis of that week’s readings and to lead the first part of class discussion based on their own questions or critical observations. The few times I tried this with Emory undergraduates, it was an abject failure and I dropped it. Students did not yet, in my estimation, have the critical skills needed to carry out the activity successfully and other students were (in my view justifiably) annoyed that they had to spend their class time on this rather than hear from me–which does not just mean receiving a lecture but engaging in a structured conversation.

Now, I could have made this assignment work better if I had been willing or able to spend much more time on it–working with the individual students before class, making sure that their precis were always distributed in advance , and if I devoted a fair amount of class time to teaching those particular skills. But given the economy of my own time, that was energy I needed to spend on research and writing; the students were not clamoring for more independence; and the honest truth is that it is I think it is OK for undergraduates to rely more heavily on the instructor, particularly as they are experimenting in a variety of fields. They need to develop the habits that can allow them to be more independent and that occurs over time and over many classes– I did not view it as essential to make the delivery of content secondary to that goal. It actually feels like my responsibility to make sure a certain amount and kind of content is covered in the course, and that is something I do not want to disparage.

I expect more of course of graduate students, but here too I have found that more independent learning simply takes much more instructional time and energy. First year doctoral students are not the same as advanced doctoral students, etc.

My point is not that we should not strive– the various assessment techniques we are discussing can help us to set an appropriate level. But we need to accept that habituation, emulation and authority are not enemies of independent learning but segues to it; that students need to be met where they are at rather than where we imagine them and that we also need to have realistic expectations of ourselves and where our time can be spent given the assessment regime to which WE are numbingly subject.



Are we there yet? Are we THERE YET!!? Don’s Reflection on Module 2

You know those commercials with the attractive executive sitting on a beach somewhere with her smart phone  and a big umbrella-drink, taking business  calls while pretending to be at the office? I think somewhere in the back of my mind that is how I expected this summer’s  online learning to proceed.

I mean, I am always interested in improving my pedagogy, but an eight week course? Over the summer? I could be writing another article or learning Arabic or just spending time with my family. Yet, here I am in a minivan packed to the gills with four young kids on a three day road trip trying to focus on responding to scholar blogs while someone is throwing popcorn all over the place, someone else is yelling about getting hit in the head with popcorn, and the effort of reading while my wife drives is making me carsick anyway.

But enough about me. I think my point is that aside from whatever pedagogical goals we may have, I would guess that I am not entirely alone is thinking that a primary motivation is the need to supplement my relatively meager salary and participate in the illusion of freedom that always seems to accompany new technologies before we realize how much our lives need to change in order to accommodate and maintain them.

Freedom is the real promise of online learning, for both students and instructors, and I would rather not hide that behind some grandiose vision of how much better our learning outcomes will be. Maybe they will, but at the end of the day, some student who needs to hold down a job over the summer will be able to take this course in a way that wouldn’t be as feasible if they had to spend the day going back and forth to Emory campus; just as I may be able to go away with my family or get some research done off campus while still hopefully making ends meet. I would be interested to know how online learning is being used in more lucrative academic professions like law or medicine where the impulse to find ways to double task is not so pressing.

For me, at any rate, this initial introduction has shown me that in order to do this well I won’t be sitting on a beach someplace because this kind of teaching takes real work and focus–maybe more than traditional teaching, or maybe that will diminish as my learning curve hits plateau.

Ideally, I would like my online teaching to enhance students’ sense of themselves as participants in the educational process and not just consumers–people who can be involved in the production of knowledge themselves. But I’ll settle for a little additional freedom, if I can master the technology, because that’s really the truth of why I am here.