Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Leading a Reading Group

Ok, so I've mentioned in an off-hand sort of way that I might be leading a reading group for students interested in reading Notoriously Difficult Novel. (I don't want them to find this via googling, if they're looking for insights on NDN, so let's just say that NDN is a remake of The Odyssey.) It looks like this reading group is, indeed, going to happen. And I wondered whether I should blog about this experience, but I've decided I should in part so that I can call on all of you who've either run or participated in reading groups for any expertise you might be able to offer. But also, I think I want to write about this because I'm so proud that it's even happening at all.

I teach at a regional university in an urban area. The majority of the students who attend this university are in the first generation in their family to attend college. The majority of these students live at home with their families, work at least 20-25 hours per week, and many work as many as 50-60 hours per week, while maintaining outrageously high (think 15 hours or 18 hours, doing all of one's classes back to back either on MWF or on T/H) course loads. Many of these students, regardless of age, also have family responsibilities, whether those include caring for siblings and/or ailing parents (many people in this region have large families, so it's not uncommon for my students to be one of 5-8 children, and if they're on the older end of things, that often means that they have responsibilities related to their younger siblings' care) or caring for children of their own.

You can imagine what this means for "campus life" at the university. There really isn't much. Nor is there much intellectual curiosity or deep drive to brown-nose, as there might be at, say, a liberal arts college, and so something like a "reading group" as far as I'm aware is an entirely foreign concept to most of them. And I've got to say, the idea of a "reading group" would have been foreign to me as an undergraduate, too - my own background, while not quite as complicated as the backgrounds of many of my students, was such that I, too, worked a lot during college, took ridiculously high course loads, and didn't really do much intellectual work outside of the classes that I took during a given semester. Then, in graduate school, while I heard of people organizing reading groups, I never participated. I'm kind of a "lone reader" by nature - hate the idea of being responsible to a group for my reading, and hate the idea of having to read what others are reading whether I'm in the mood for it or not.

So yeah. I don't know what made me suggest a reading group last semester, because the likelihood of students wanting to do it had to be pretty small, and I don't know crap about how to run a reading group or how to be in one because I have always shunned them on principle. But they do want to do it. A LOT of them want to do it. And so now I've got to do this thing, right? And while I'm excited about it, I'm also a bit... unsure of myself. One thing is that I don't want to be "the teacher" of this book. I'm happy to help them through the book (which I think is a good thing) but I don't want to be all Dr. Crazy Lecture-y. One reason why doing this with NDN appeals to me is that I really like the idea of giving them more ownership over this text - and if this goes well, I would consider doing one of these every year - maybe even opening it up to just regular people who aren't students at my university? While I think there's value in teaching NDN in a traditional classroom setting, I just really don't know whether it's really necessary for many students to experience it in that setting - especially if they don't plan on growing up to be literary critics. If they're going to grow up and work in HR or something, really I think they just need the experience of reading the book - not of writing on it and laboring over it as I expect students in my classes to do. So I guess as I'm considering this, part of what I want to ensure is that I allow for them not to labor even though they will have to do work to interpret the text, if that makes any sense.

So anyway, we're having our first meeting next week. And I'm actually almost giddy with excitement, even though this will mean a bit more work for me and even though it's yet another time commitment. But you know what? This feels like real service to me. I'm doing this because I want to - not because a colleague begged me to do it or because it was insinuated that it would "look good" for me to do it, or because it fills in a "gap" in my service section of my cv. No, this is entirely altruistic. I haven't even told most of my colleagues about it (which I know I should, and I will get around to that, but I don't know, it's been nice not shouting about it). So anyway, I'll post periodically about how the thing goes. But for now, if you've been in a reading group or if you've run one (esp. with undergraduates) maybe you could share any tips that you have about making the thing run smoothly?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Doc:

I don't lead reading groups, but have done something similar with music: teaching a traditional dance music, Saturday afternoons, free for anybody who walks in the door. I also find it tremendously inspiring: feels like real service, just as you said.

Curious bit of synchronicity (which no doubt Stephen Daedulus would appreciate): my "playing group" people are playing for a Reading Marathon of your target novel next month.

Have big fun!

Ianqui said...

My lab meeting is usually a reading group, except we read one or two articles rather than a novel. One thing that I do is ask everyone to bring at least two questions/observations to the meeting so that they have something prepared to discuss in case it seems like conversation is shriveling up. It sometimes means you discuss things in a non-linear way, but it always works.

luolin said...

Your students sound a lot like mine.

It seems like one benefit of doing the NDN is that everyone will be bound to be confused about something, so you can always start from that.

Reading groups saved my life when I started grad school, because most of the ones I did were student-led, and I wasn't afraid to just say, "what does this part mean, anyway" the way I was in class.

D.B. said...

I think spending a substantial amount of time going around the room reading extended selections aloud might be rewarding and reinforce everyone's initial, solitary readings. It works better with some chapters than with others, but hearing any part of NDN adds an interesting dimension. I imagine it would enhance accessibility also--such was the case even when we did it in a grad seminar.

Beyond that, good luck! Oh, and--I don't know how or if you were use explicational apparatuses, but imho the less Gifford, Gilbert, et al the better. And certainly not Blamiers. That guy's a chump. I read NDN for the first time over a week last year, after deciding not to consult those things until afterward, and I'm glad for it cos I think it would have killed the joy. Hoo! Your students are very lucky.

Anonymous said...

1) Long ago I did a non-academic reading group with NDN with a group of young professionals (ie, lawyers, journalists, tech-heads) who were all alumni of the same non-ivy-but-ambitious-private-university. We had a fucker of a time plowing through it. I mention this not to be discouraging but to cheer on your students -- if they feel flummoxed or discouraged in reading it, that has a lot less to do with who they are than how difficult (but still worthwhile) the damn book is.

2) You've been developing a very platonic definition of "pure service" lately, with this post, and with your not-blogging-for-tenure post. Care to say more?

Dr. Crazy said...

Ah... yes,the platonic ideal of service thing has been a bit of a recurring thing lately, hasn't it? I'll probably write a bit more about this at some point, but for the time being, I suppose I'll just say that all of this is coming from being terribly irritated by all of the non-pure service that typifies my job. My dream is to get tenure, to quit all bullshit things I'm on, and to only do service that feels "real" to me. Can this happen? Only time will tell....

And yes, NDN is not for the faint of heart. Which was why I suggested the reading group. I think one definitely needs moral support to get through it - I know I did both the first and the second times through, and even now I don't just hang around and read it on my own for fun - it's a work book, totally.

Thanks for the comments everyone else. I'll definitely use your "come in with a question" suggestion, Ianqui - I do a similar thing in my lit classes, and it does help things along. Also, I do agree about the reading aloud... I'm wondering whether this might justify my buying the complete version of NDN on CD.... I've been wanting to for quite some time....

Anonymous said...

I have been asked to lead a reading group before with students who decide they are going to read a book and want a leader. It's really a wonderful experience. And for me it's been a lot of fodder when colleagues start talking about "how lazy/uninspired/unambitious/uninterested undergrads are." I wonder if your colleagues will be surprised about this.

I brought in a list of topics/questions that really interested me, just in case the discussion died. But just like teaching, the important thing is to get them talking. Since NDN is what it is, perhaps you could talk about the questions or confusions you have in order to model that it is okay to have questions/be confused -- and that you're not "the one who knows."

My own experience with a student-developed group was one of the most gratifying experiences I ever had. I wonder what it might foster for you if you thought of it as a book club rather than a possible teaching moment.

Have a great time!

helenesch said...

I don't have any practical suggestions for how to run this (though the ones other have offered sound really good), but I just wanted to say how awesome it is that you've inspired this kind of interest and enthusiasm in your students. I read the heading of your post earlier today (haven't actually had time today to read blogs until just now) and was thinking that this "reading group" you mentioned was for graduate students. And yet I read your blog enough to know that you don't teach grad students! But I hear "reading group" and that's what I think...

Even if your students were more "traditional" undergrads, this would be amazing, and it's even more so given the sorts of students you teach. This *should* be the sort of "service" that counts the most, but your reasons for not considering it as such (and for not having mentioned it to colleagues) make sense to me. Then it would become something you're doing for the job, as opposed to for the students (and for your own sense of accomplishment--you're actually making a difference in people's lives here, which I think is so important).

Anonymous said...

A bottle of Bushmills, prefereably the 25 year-old stuff. It's good for reading aloud, clears the throat, loosens the vocal chords ... you know, sets the mood ...

Seriously ... okay, I am serious about the Bushmills ... but on another serious note, reading NDN aloud is a really good idea. It gets people to pay attention to the sound of it, and offers a palpable encounter with the voice(s) of NDN. And when the Bushmills works its magic ...

Dr. Crazy said...

Ah, Second Line, while I love the Bushmills suggestion, I have a feeling that this isn't going to be that kind of reading group - a) I think we'll be meeting in the afternoons, b) some of the participants will not be of legal drinking age, and c) given the area of the country, every single person will have to be driving to wherever it is that we meet. I suspect it will be more of a "let's get tea" kind of a group (much to my chagrin, and let the author of NDN turn over in his grave, although did you know he didn't like the hard stuff? Preferred wine - once Nora made him quit absinthe that is :) )

I'm thinking more about the reading aloud thing - I think I may modify one of the earlier suggestions about having people bring in questions - I think what I may do instead is have them bring in one or two questions, but also one 5-10-line passage that they'd like to discuss, and this will give us material for the reading aloud portion of things. (I should say that I read aloud All. The. Time. in the classes that I teach for just the reasons that everybody is giving for doing so - I'm just trying to make sure that I'm not the one doing all of the reading (in class I don't like to call students out to read aloud with texts that are terribly difficult because I feel like it's setting them up to look foolish, which I don't like doing - in this group, though, I do think that everybody will be on board with the reading aloud thing, as it's a really close group of students who all know each other pretty well.)

Anonymous said...

If they get bogged down, there's a great essay at The Irascible Professor to reinspire them. The author claims that only those folks who read Notoriously Difficult Novel can consider themselves real English majors:

http://irascibleprofessor.com/comments-12-06-06.htm

Anonymous said...

Absinthe! Now that's what I call a reading group.

I guess it was NDN's author's irrascible protege, the quiet one, who tipped the Bushmills. Him and Tom Waits.