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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

Title

Joining a Reading Group

A short list of benefits for graduate students who are looking for camaraderie and direction.

April 14, 2020
 
 

One thing that I vastly underestimated upon beginning my graduate studies was the role that informal reading groups would play. Banding with others who are interested in the same subjects in which I am invested has paid off in more ways than one. Below, I outline these benefits -- which range from connecting scholars with similar interests to providing those outside of coursework with additional structure in their studies -- and suggest a number of ways that readers might identify and join groups that appeal to them.

At the current moment, I am a member of two distinct reading groups. Although their content and makeup are quite different, they’re nevertheless organized in much the same way, and both have greatly impacted the shape of my own studies. The first reading group I joined was created by a handful of librarians at my campus two years ago. It’s organized around digital humanities, and it draws in about a dozen librarians, graduate students and faculty members from around the university -- coming from various disciplines, including literary studies, information technology, history and library sciences. Group meetings occur once a month and last about an hour, centering around the discussion of a previously agreed-upon article from a recent academic journal.

The other group I joined is centered around queer texts. This group, which was started by a graduate student located at a different university than my own, brings together graduate students as well as a handful of individuals who currently work outside academia but are nevertheless invested in queer studies -- all of whom are based in the New York City area. Although we also meet once a month, this latter group’s sessions tend to extend over a longer period of time, as each meeting is organized around a novel-length work and frequently includes a film viewing as well.

The Benefits of Joining a Reading Group

Although "GradHacker" has explored many of the benefits that joining a writing group affords -- both in terms of grad students who are hoping to write synchronously and together as well as those writing independently of one another, checking in with the larger group from time to time -- reading groups are a much less discussed form of camaraderie and productivity enhancement. Below, I’ve listed some of the most helpful aspects that I’ve encountered in becoming a part of the reading groups listed above.

Stay Connected

It’s easy to feel as though your studies occur within a vacuum. Now more than ever -- as our campuses have shut down in efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, and our coursework, writing, research and teaching practices now occur remotely -- many of us grad students can go several days on end without interacting with a single other academic. Joining a reading group, however, can immediately introduce you to others who are invested where you are.

In joining the digital humanities reading group, I met librarians, faculty members, other graduate students -- all from different departments around my campus -- whose studies looked similar to my own. Before attending my first reading group, I hadn’t encountered any of these other scholars, and had I not begun attending the group’s meetings, it’s highly likely that I would have graduated from my program having never met them. Through interacting with the others in this group, I gained a better grasp of what was happening in my own field across my very own campus.

Stay Grounded

While joining my campus’s digital humanities reading group helped me to feel more connected to nearby scholars, becoming a part of the queer reading group helped me to feel better connected to queer studies at large. Rather than learning from and within the microcosm that was happening at my own university, I began to develop a better idea of what those in the wider world were interested in. Not only did I develop a better sense of where those on other campuses were headed, but I also found a unique benefit in the queer reading group in that those outside academia altogether challenged ideas that had been widely adopted by the scholars I’d read and interacted with and that I’d begun taking for granted. The reading group forced me to re-examine certain assumptions I had and to take account of a wider array of perspectives.

Stay Motivated

As I previewed above, one of the most helpful things about joining a reading group reflects what many have observed in reference to participating in a writing group, namely, the structure provided through a communal commitment to the group. This is extremely beneficial for me; I can often get so absorbed in my own work that I look up and realize that I’ve turned so far down one trajectory, I have no idea what the lay of the land looks like anymore. My experience in both of these reading groups is that they have helped me stay abreast of other conversations going on within my discipline that I might have otherwise missed. Not only do these groups help to remedy my oversights, but they also keep me committed to doing so. One article, or even one book, is -- of course -- a fairly small commitment, and yet I can recall a number of instances in which the texts we’ve read in my reading groups have later appeared in my own writing or pedagogy.

Finding a Reading Group

In this post, my insights are limited to only my own experiences in the two reading groups of which I am currently a member. And while the groups to which I belong may not coincide with your own interests, there is an unlimited number of groups out there -- already in existence -- that might appeal to you. In closing, I’ve included a number of suggestions for how you might identify and join a group that’s right for you.

Begin by asking around your department and your campus library. There are often established reading groups that will be more than happy to take on new members. A library is an especially great place to inquire, as library staff often have the best grasp on what’s going on around campus, who’s interested in what and what the best availability might be for interested members.

In looking off campus, turn to Twitter. This can be an especially helpful platform at present, as academics look to stay connected while working remotely from one another. Just last month, I responded to a fellow grad student (one I only know through the Twitterverse) who is beginning a reading group on reproductive technology and who had tweeted in order to gauge interest. Digitally born reading groups like this one can be particularly useful at the present moment, as connecting over geographic distances shifts from being an option to a necessity.

Taking a page out of this Academic Twitter user’s handbook, if you are unable to find a reading group that appeals to your own particular interests, create your own. You might look to social media, or you might start more locally. Was there a course in your graduate studies that you found particularly helpful or appealing? See if your former classmates care to continue the conversation through a reading group that explores similar texts and themes; you might even be able to enlist the instructor to assist in identifying worthwhile texts. Another option is to take advantage of a productive experience you had on a conference panel by proposing to other panelists or those in the room to stay in touch and informed with one another’s work through an informal reading group.

The benefits are numerous; the effort necessary to join often minimal. What kind of a reading group will you be looking for?

Jon Heggestad is a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University. Follow him at @jonheggestad on Twitter.

Opening image sourced from Unsplash user Alexis Brown.

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