Once I’d finished my coursework requirements, I found myself really missing the chance to regularly gather with fellow grad students and talk about reading. Studying for exams and writing the dissertation can be isolating experiences. Some large programs may have a few students studying or writing within similar fields, but smaller programs don’t always have this kind of ready-made specialized community. Even so, it can be refreshing to chat analytically and appreciatively about literature with others, even if that literature is outside your particular interests. Aside from just hanging around the office and asking, “Read any good books lately?” the best way I’ve found to foster this type of discussion is to start and join reading groups.
Planning your group:
Numbers are important. If you put out a call for interest and the entire department wants to sign up, you might want to split off into smaller reading groups with narrower topics. I’ve found that between three and ten members is best for good discussion that allows everyone to participate. Choose a location that is comfortable and as far from a classroom as you can get: a more informal building on campus, a café or pub, or even someone’s living room. You’ve all done your time in the classroom, and members will be more likely to show if they don’t feel like someone’s taking attendance. Choosing a day and time when people can feel more relaxed also helps, like a late afternoon after everyone’s taught for the day while still leaving time to do some writing or grading later that night.
There are a number of ways to decide what the group will read. In some reading groups I’ve joined, a group leader knows the most about the topic and just chooses all the readings. If you don’t like a particular reading, you don’t have to show up that day. There are also more diplomatic ways. In my group, I usually ask for suggestions, make a survey of all the responses, and let the group vote on what they want to read. Sometimes, if someone has a text they’re particularly excited or knowledgeable about, he or she can lead that meeting. For the most part, though, discussion seems to run itself, with perhaps a few back-up questions in case of awkward silences. In terms of book-length, everyone is usually pretty busy: shorter is better. Short story collections can work really well if the group chooses one or two to read together, letting members read around the rest of the book if they have the time. It also depends on cost. Department or university funding for reading groups is available at some schools, but not all.
When it comes to the meetings themselves, I really try to emphasize an informal atmosphere, as you can see. Not all groups I’ve been in have been like this, though, and there is something to be said for a structured group in the midst of unstructured diss-writing and exam-studying. Shoot for a middle ground: it’s not the neighborhood book club, but it’s not class, either (especially with so many teachers in the room). One thing that will come as no surprise is that grad students are more likely to show up to any event if there’s food and drink involved. Especially if you have a mix of M.A. and PhD. Students, this informal atmosphere can help everyone feel comfortable contributing to conversation and bring their own interests to the table. You can also do some more creative things like readings of plays/poems or looking at film alongside other texts to make meetings social while still discussing the material. Starting a reading group can help you re-connect with the other scholars in your department, inadvertently bringing out the many different types of reading and discussion that can often be forgotten when you’re doing independent work… while, at the same time, having fun and relaxing with good books, good food, and good people.