Some principles for running a reading group.

However well-prepared I think I am, it’s always a bit of a shock coming back to school after the summer holidays.

In my case, my voice went on strike on Thursday afternoon and my feet are making mutters of protest that are becoming progressively harder to ignore. It therefore served as a significant boost to my spirits yesterday when, while I was standing in the bleary-eyed queue at the coffee machine in the canteen, I was accosted by a couple of my sixth form politics students who both wanted to know whether I would be carrying on with the reading group this year.

I was able to reassure them that we would be meeting as usual, and it prompted me to write a little about it here as it has been one of the most reliably enjoyable things that I have done while at my current school. I started it last year, initially as a result of my unease about how little independent reading the would-be Oxbridge candidates that I had been mentoring in the previous year group had done, but it has become one of those rare undertakings that become more ambitious in their aims and scope as time goes on rather than less.

So below are a few key principles that I have developed over the course of last year, and which will inform my running of the group as we start this one. They probably won’t cover any and all of the possibilities and pitfalls involved, so I’ll have to cover them this time next year, if my ability to type doesn’t go the same way as my voice.

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1. Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised about who will come.

As I said previously, this was initially conceived and presented as, if not intended solely for Oxbridge applicants, then primarily for those who were seriously considering studying History, Politics or related subjects at university. Certainly, many of the students who come are interested in these things, but as the year progressed some of the most consistent attenders and enthusiastic members of the group were a sixth-form student who dropped Politics entirely to focus on her science courses, but who not only continued to turn up to my Politics lessons, but who was also one of the students asking about whether the club will continue this year. Another was the Year 11 boy who wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do A Level wise, but was quite clear in his wish to turn up on a weekly basis and read about the history of the Middle East. As evidence of love of the subjects involved for their own sakes, it hardly gets better than this, and it has made me much more ambitious in my thinking about who the group is for.

2. Let them choose individual books, their enthusiasm for them will often be contagious.

One of the first things I decided was that I didn’t want everyone to read the same text simultaneously, in the manner of a traditional book group. This was because one of my primary aims for the group was for the students to develop their individual historical or political interests; or explore existing ones, beyond the curriculum. Reading along with a prescribed set-text would seriously get in the way of this, as well as eroding the distinction, which I was hell-bent on maintaining, between the club and some kind of additional study session. Therefore, it is normal practice for each student to take a different book home and we start each session by going round the table, every student submitting something interesting that they have read in the previous week. While not having everyone on the same page, so to speak, has involved a trade-off in that we can’t collectively discuss a single issue in depth, I think there is also merit in a conversation that can pinball between the causes of the American Revolution, the consequences of the Arab Spring and what exactly Early Modern people wore as underwear. One of the key developments that has given me confidence in this policy is seeing how one student’s contributions about their book will often see it snatched up by another as soon as they have finished reading it.

3. Go for the weird, wonderful, controversial and wide-ranging works that they wouldn’t normally get to cover in the classroom.

Anyone who has had the dubious privilege of shadowing me around a bookshop that does a three-for-two offer on new history books will be aware that I am powerless to resist the lure of a shiny new paperback promising a different take on an old historical question or to uncover a previously un-mined stream of historical enquiry. It was not solely this magpie tendency that led me to focus on comparatively new historical works, it was also because I wanted the students to be excited by the variety and ambition of current scholarship.

This was also a consideration in my refusal to be constrained by perceived difficulty and certainly not by the length of the works chosen, I was confident that the students could tackle the kinds of books laid out temptingly in Waterstones for the interested lay reader and they have proved me right by tackling Chernow’s brilliant but sizeable biography of Alexander Hamilton, Frankopan’s ‘Silk Roads’ and other equally ambitious projects with every evidence of enjoyment. One of the things that allows this to happen is that, unlike in their classrooms there is no looming deadline after which they must have completed a set amount of reading. The student reading Chernow’s ‘Hamilton’ has taken most of the year to do so, but I would argue that she has got as much out of the experience as those who have rattled through a good selection of my bookshelf in quick succession.

The final consideration that influenced my choice of reading materials was that I wanted it to be as wide-ranging as possible in its subject matter, particularly avoiding subjects covered in exam rubrics or recommended reading lists for the courses they were covering. This was mainly because I was keen to avoid the trap of the reading group becoming a supplementary history lesson, but also because I wanted the students to get an idea of the vast fields of fascinating historical enquiry that we could never hope to cover in the short time we are given with them. So I decided to populate the bookshelves with medieval queens, Sogdian merchants, 1950’s housewives and 17th century witch-hunters, rather than more familiar fare. While initially some of the students played it safe, though I’m sure reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘The Romanovs’ did none of them any harm (and having only a single copy allowed those who didn’t get it first to read outside of their comfort zone while they were waiting for it). But as noted earlier, the enthusiasm displayed by students who sampled less familiar themes was communicable, a result achieved with little effort on my part beyond presenting them with a range of interesting books and giving them an entirely free choice.

4. Do your own reading as well, both because they will accept few excuses and because you’ll enjoy it.

In the interests of setting an example, I knew from the start that I would also have to take part in the process of reading and discussing at the start of each session. This wasn’t exactly a hardship, but it did mean that I had to do something about my awful habit of keeping several books on the go at once, so if nothing else, organising this club served to reduce the teetering pile of intermittently neglected books on my bedside table! Having to sit down on a weekly basis and discuss my reading with the students served as a spur to resurrect my reading habits, that had fallen off slightly under the pressures of marking, reading for the courses I teach and minor issues like keeping my flat in a habitable condition.

5. Make sure you have a back-up

It happens, the majority of the group are either in the sixth form or Year 11, so inevitably a coursework deadline or a mock exam occasionally got in the way and the student in question hadn’t had the opportunity to pick up their book in the course of the week. The result of this was that the discussion of the reading could be curtailed, or had to be carried by those happy few students who hadn’t chosen three coursework subjects. To deal with this, I took to bringing in an article each session for everyone to read if conversation flagged. This proved so effective that I made a habit of it for its own sake. While I was determined that the focus should not shift to a system of weekly ‘required reading’ that would leave less room for the students to pursue their own interests, having an article to hand did provide an important safety valve and a prod to flagging conversation. (It also meant that I was able to uncover some gems from the archive of the London Review of Books – notable for the hilarity it provoked was this article about the history of menageries, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n24/mary-wellesley/no-looking-at-my-elephant )

6. Persist through the awkwardness of being a conversational umpire

While none of the students who are the regular attendees of the club can be described as shy about expressing their views, I did initially have the problem, common to class discussions, of having every observation directed at me rather than at the other students, which did mean that there was a certain amount of awkward redirection of the conversation on my part. I have heard many solutions proposed for this problem, but I have yet to find anything that works quite so well as persistence and time. In this case, as the students became progressively more comfortable with each other, and as their reading gave them increased confidence in their expertise, I ended up acting much more frequently as a participant in the discussion, rather than its director. I imagine that there may be some steps back on this front as I recruit some members from the new lower sixth, though if, as seems likely, some of the upper sixth will return, I will be able to delegate some of the conversational heavy lifting to them as well.

7. Always make sure that tea and biscuits are available. 

It’s possible that there is quite a bit of self-interest behind this one, and it certainly has a bolstering effect on my blood-sugar levels at the end of along day. It does however, have a larger point, turns out that there is little that can convince students that what they are taking part in something altogether more rarefied than the supplementary study clinics or revision sessions that they are used to, than buying a set of mugs from Ikea, allowing access to the staff room kettle and making sure that there is a plate of HobNobs available. (I wouldn’t recommend bringing in fig-rolls though, that really didn’t go down well.)

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