Reading Groups Are Hard

January 8, 2009

In September we were all eager and hopeful little students. They stood up and told us how important we were to the department. They told us how much fun we would have, and how much they looked forward to our insightful contributions to human knowledge. They advised us, “Get Involved! Join the student society! Start reading groups with your new peers! Network!” 

Well, I listened. I started three reading groups, in fact. These groups are no longer active.

They fibbed. It was a happy and comforting piece of advice, meant to make us feel good about our new intellectual environment without any expectation that we would follow it. 

It’s hard to find a meeting time for a group that allows all the keen to participate. It’s hard to motivate people to keep up with readings without any external incentive. It’s hard to balance a regular hunk of reading with shifting priorities and irregular deadlines. It’s hard to stay one step ahead, choosing insightful readings when you know no more about a topic than anyone else.

Ignore Their banalities. There is little correlation between involvement in a graduate student society and success. Reading groups are hard and rare. Without a proper context and culture, energetic networking remains awkward even in an intellectual environment like ours. 

Paul Buchheit claims, “Limited Life Experiences + Overgeneralization = Advice.” The advice we were given follows a different and also common equation: “Idealized View of the World + Lack of Thought = Advice.”

In this case, the idealized view of grad school involves lots of stimulating conversation with a variety of brilliant intellects. The reality is that most of our time is spent on independent learning. This isn’t a value judgement—I’m personally happier than ever. I just want to point out the discrepancy.

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5 Responses to “Reading Groups Are Hard”

  1. Greg Wilson Says:

    I’d put some of the “blame” on having three reading groups instead of one. Analogy: what would you think of a startup that tried to develop and launch three new products simultaneously?

  2. Jorge Says:

    I was going to say the same thing as Greg. Yes, reading groups are hard — often you have your hands full just managing one.

  3. Neil Says:

    My reading group lagged, too, and I only had the one. Even the occasional donut wasn’t enough motivation to get more than 4-5 people out.

    In my experience, the best reading groups are those which faculty attend. The presence of an ‘adult’ in the room seems to make things more professional.

  4. zak Says:

    hey… this isn’t the post I came here to read…

    As far as reading groups go, the theory kids seem to have figured it out: http://www.cs.toronto.edu/~siavosh/tss.html

    … but it’s lecture-style – you can only count on one person having read the paper. Maybe that’s a better model? At any rate, I’d be all for starting fp up again.

  5. aran Says:

    @Greg: The startup analogy doesn’t hold because startups are full-time and reading groups aren’t. There was a decent-enough binary distinction between weeks with enough time for extras and weeks without.

    @Greg,@Jorge: The personal time commitment is only part of the issue and I would argue a small part. The bigger problem was attendance and motivation of attendees. I will concede that I would probably have done a better job focused on one reading group.

    @Neil: “Adult participation” is a tacit incentive, since the respect of “adults” has value. I should have sought faculty buy-in at the outset. Good advice.

    @Zak: The second line of the linked page indicates a failed reading group.


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