Friday, November 10, 2006

Advice: academic reading groups

In the English Department at Regional U., I'm one of two ladder faculty who work on the Renaissance and one of four who work on a non-modern period (we also have an Anglo-Saxonist and an Ancient World specialist). All things considered, this is awfully good for a department of 20 full-time faculty, and I'm especially lucky in that all four of us are very active scholars AND almost exactly the same age--not only are they good people to bounce ideas off of, they're also just plain fun to hang out with.

However, this isn't the same as having a group of peers with whom I can really discuss the minutiae of my work, turn to for suggestions about sources, or just chat about the latest scholarship. Many of my colleagues in other subfields make up for this by participating in regional reading groups made up of faculty from various local institutions--depending on the group, they may meet once or twice a month; may present works in progress, discuss recent books in their field, or trade manuscripts; or they may just chat and keep in touch largely through an email discussion list.

To my knowledge, though, there is no such group in my region for Early Modernists. (There IS an Early Modern colloquium at the university in The Next City Over. . . but it's 65 miles away and it appears to be designed solely to bring in speakers; I'm sure that I'd be welcome to attend talks there, but I'm not sure that it would present quite the kind of community that I'm looking for. Also, 65 miles isn't exactly close.)

So you see where this is going. I've talked to my department chair about how her own reading group functions, and she was very enthusiastic about the possibility of my starting one up in my own field. However, I have no--zero!--experience with this kind of thing. I've done my homework, and I think that there are probably enough Early Modernists in the English departments at nearby institutions to support such a group (and if we included faculty from the history and art history departments, so much the better); I can also handle all the little managerial issues of setting up a mailing list and/or webpage, arranging for meeting space, and all that good stuff. Not for nothing was I the manager of the INRU marching band, and at least no one in a Renaissance reading group is likely to be setting Sousaphones on fire.

But, see, I'm a good manager; I'm not sure I'm a good leader. What if people express interest, but never attend meetings? How does one decide which books the group is interested in reading, or whether indeed to orient the organization toward reading recent scholarship--or reading each others' own works in progress--or doing something else entirely? And will this whole thing just turn out to be a huge pain in my ass?

On the one hand, I'm really excited about the opportunity to meet and make connections with people at other institutions (including grad students!), and if I intend to stay at Regional U. for any length of time, I'm probably only going to be happy if I have that kind of professional circle. This would also be a good thing for my department (and institution)'s reputation, and as such would be a good thing for my C.V. and my reappointment and promotion bids. But on the other--well, it's a little daunting. Who am I, with my 11-month-old Ph.D., to be managing such a thing?

So. . . anyone out there ever organized a reading group or colloquium (whether regional or institutional)? Any thoughts or advice you'd care to throw my way?


StyleyGeek said...

A friend and I started up a reading group for our centre last year -- it's a virtual centre and has members in a whole bunch of different depts, so although we didn't have to organise people from different unis, there was still the problem that we didn't see everyone involved regularly enough to know for sure if they were really into it.

It's going fairly well and I'd say that the biggest factor in keeping people interested and making it work smoothly is planning a few sessions (preferably a whole semester) ahead. We solicit suggestions for papers and books to read at the start of each semester and leave people with plenty of time to suggest things. Then we group them thematically and find a few background readings to put on the schedule the week before anything that requires specialist knowledge that people in the group won't have. We email out the schedule and ask for feedback. Tweak it, and THEN start.

This means people know what is coming up and will plan in advance to get to the session that interest them most. They will also notify non-members of the group who might be interested in a given meeting's reading. People can also do their reading when it suits them rather than having to read something every fortnight, which they might not always have time for.

The biggest problem is that because all our members have different areas of specialisation, and many of them are grad students and insecure(!), people are often embarrassed to suggest something they want to read because they worry it might not interest other people or that it might be something everyone else has already read. We try to make it clear in the initial emails that people shouldn't worry about this, and that if something is really not appropriate, we'll get that in the feedback on the proposed list and remove it. But it is still an issue, I think.

Lisa, Paper Chaser said...

We tried, but it died out...mostly because a few of us where good, conscientious readers, and others just never read anything suggested by anybody else. So there was free-riding,and members got resentful.

Anonymous said...

i have no advice to add, but it sounds like a fabulous idea, i wish i was in one, and you can do it!

ZaPaper said...

I organized a grad student colloquium at my university last year--it was just within the university, but I think some of the challenges and issues were the same. I am neither a manager nor a leader, so I was surprised how successful it turned out to be. I think the main thing is lots of reminder e-mails and bothering people about scheduling.

Also important is to provide really good refreshments if at all possible. I even dipped into my own pocket sometimes to supplement the niggardly budget for such things. If the refreshments are good, the people will come. Okay, maybe this only applies to grad students. But still, it leaves people with a nice impression.

Most of my problems with the colloquium came from the broad range of interests--Chinese and Japanese, modern and pre-modern, history, literature, and art. It mean that I had to sit through a lot of sessions I would have otherwise skipped if I hadn't been running the thing. Attendance tended to fluctuate depending on the popularity of the topic (and the person presenting it!). So I guess I learned that for scheduling it's good to mix things up--so that no one gets bored or left out for so long that they forget the thing exists.

Not sure if any of that is helpful, but it's what comes to mind.

medieval woman said...

I've been part of reading groups before - both succesful and unsuccessful. There's a new one starting up here and they're having an initial meeting to generate some ideas about reading, schedule, etc. I think StyleyGeek's comment about organization sounds really workable! And ultimately, it will depend on the people involved whether it will get enough momentum going - I thinks it's a great thing to try! I hope it's a huge success!

Flavia said...

You people RAWK--thanks for all the great advice!

Styley: I particularly like the way you solicit feedback at various stages in the process, rather than shrouding it all in mystery, and I think that's likely to be a great way to get a schedule that the maximum number of people are interested and invested in.

And Zapaper: yes, refreshments are a must! I'm still drawn to the freebie food items, myself, although it's true that I no longer rationalize spending time at a (possibly boring) event by deciding that I'll be able to eat enough there to have it count as dinner; that was indeed a major calculation of my grad school life.

I'll keep y'all posted on how this thing goes, if it goes--and please do leave me any additional thoughts if you have them.

muse said...

Hi flavia,

Yup, I've done it. I ran an already established one (but made some changes) in grad school, ran a brand new one as a postdoc and am planning on organizing two here at my new U. Both will be interdisciplinary and also include other local universities because otherwise it would be too small. One on hist-book, and the other early modern.

Also, my MA students started their own reading group last year an have graciously invited me to come along. They're great.

I'd say start very small. First pick the dates. Choose a time in the evening or afternoon that works for your colleagues and a regular day that works as well. This really depends on the scene at your institution. Reading groups seem to work well here at my current institution if they're on T or Th right after classes at 4:30, but last year at my postdoc institution, they worked better later, at 5 or 7:30 so that faculty could pick up their kids from school, take them home, cook dinner, etc.

Don't think about applying for funding for the first semester you do this. Just get a bunch of local faculty together and arrange to have them give papers. This will take a fair amount of time.

You can bring a bottle of wine or two and some cheese and crackers for the first meeting. If you meet at 4:30 or 5pm, you can plan on going out for dinner afterwards, and then when you apply for funding, include the dinners in your funding request.

Then basically you need to construct a listserv of interested departments, groups and faculty members, and advertise the talks on a timely basis. Last year at postdoc U., I also printed up flyers 4-5 days before the talks and posted them around the humanities buildings, as well as handed them to departmental secretaries to place in faculty pidgeon holes.

Once you've gotten started, had the first meeting or talk, and scheduled the entire semester or year, you should definitely apply to the deans or your department (or both) for funding. Most administrations love to hear about interdisciplinary reading groups and are happy to give you a small budget. At postdoc U. we had almost no budget but we still managed to take the speakers out to dinner at a moderate restaurant. Everyone else came and happily paid their own way.

Good luck! If you have any more questions, let me know and I'll send you my e-mail address.