Stimulating Departmental Dialogue with a Pedagogy Book Club
The most valuable resources in any academic department, ones that often go untapped, are the accumulated experience, insight, and ideas of the faculty. Ordinarily faculty members are so focused on the day-to-day operations of teaching their classes and fulfilling their various departmental obligations that they do not find the time or the space to cultivate a reflective attitude regarding these activities, or to share their perspectives with their colleagues. One simple way of creating a forum conducive to these kinds of exchanges is the establishment of a pedagogy book club. The accessibility and open-endedness of the book club format makes this approach an ideal strategy for encouraging faculty participation, while the book club’s focus on a single text has the capacity to bring a wide variety of diverse points of view into a single dialogue. Our department has been holding pedagogy book club meetings on a regular basis for several years now, and we have found it to be an effective way of stimulating professional inquiry and provoking conversations that are engaging, provocative, and even transformational.
The most attractive feature of the book club arrangement is its simplicity and its cost-effectiveness. Whereas professional development opportunities can often consume large portions of a departmental budget, an initial investment of a couple hundred dollars for 10 or so copies of a particular book can be sufficient to get a book club started. In our department, we provided faculty members with copies of the book in return for their commitment to participate in the book club sessions. This small expenditure, therefore, became an incentive for faculty members to contribute their points of view to the common goals of stimulating dialogue and promoting a culture of reflection. The real incentive to participate, however, turned out to be the natural desire on the part of faculty members to express their own responses to the reading and to be part of a discussion about how the daily activities of our department intersect with the perspective articulated by the book’s author.
The choice of book is less consequential than the committed participation of the readers. Any book can become a starting point for conversations that tend to veer away from the particular concerns raised by the text and toward the preoccupations of the faculty themselves. These conversations can therefore provide a window into the mind-set of the faculty. Concerns that faculty might be reluctant to raise in regard to particular departmental policies can be safely expressed within the more theoretical territory of the book club conversation. The discussion about which book to read can itself be an important part of this conversation. We have read classic texts such as Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, teaching memoirs such as Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, and books that are focused on specific teaching skills such as the composition manual They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. This variety of texts has allowed our faculty to consider their own teaching practices within multiple frames of reference, but we have also learned from the books that were suggested, but not officially adopted, for inclusion in the book club reading list. Books are such powerful tools for thought that even simply listing titles of proposed readings provokes animated and constructive conversations.
In the same way that student engagement with reading assignments can be optimized through a skillful arrangement of pre-reading, active reading, and post-reading strategies, book club sessions tend to be the most productive when the person facilitating the meetings adopts a similar approach. Taking a few simple measures in advance of the book club sessions can help ensure an optimal engagement level among participants. One of the most important of such precautions is to ensure an adequate amount of time between the announcement of the book selection and the commencement of meetings so that everyone has time to read the book. Considering the density of many faculty members’ teaching, administrative, and research obligations, it is necessary to make the book club process as low-impact as possible to ensure that commitment to participating in the book club is not perceived as prohibitively onerous. In my experience, this means granting at least a month or two for participants to read the book. Another useful strategy to employ in advance of the meetings is for the book club facilitator to provide pre-reading questions that can help direct readers’ attention to critical motifs or passages from the book, encourage them to identify specific controversies or questions raised by the text and to consider personal responses to these issues, and to consider connections between observations raised in the book and ongoing topics of concern within the college or department.
As for the sessions themselves, we have typically found that two 90-minute sessions, spread out over a staggered schedule to accommodate faculty members’ differing availability, are sufficient to foster a robust and in-depth discussion. Although the accessibility of online platforms makes it possible to hold these book club sessions over the Internet, the immediacy of face-to-face sessions makes it worthwhile to schedule at least some meetings in an on-ground format. One participant who is uniquely familiar with the book under discussion may volunteer to act as facilitator for these sessions, but it is also possible to organize the sessions around questions and commentary that have been prepared in advance by a number of different participants. It is important to keep in mind that the whole point of the book club arrangement is to promote dialogue, to give voice to different points of view, and to engage in open-ended conversations about professional development topics that for one reason or another do not arise in the general course of departmental routine. The success of these sessions is not determined by how insightful or clever participants are in reading the book, but by the extent to which the book becomes a springboard for participants to voice their own perspectives regarding how the ideas in the book intersect with their classroom practice, departmental involvement, and professional self-understanding.
It is important to ensure that this conversation continues beyond the end of the final book club meeting. The book club is not an end in itself; it should be a starting point for new ideas, new approaches, and new perspectives moving forward. For this reason, it is useful to invite one of the book club participants to act as secretary, keeping a record of the various points of view expressed during the meeting. This record can be condensed into bullet points as minutes, which may provide faculty members who were not able to participate directly in the meetings with some access to the conversation that has taken place. At a future meeting, or in a post-hoc email exchange, participants might be asked to propose plans of action that might take advantage of the insights represented by these bullet points. Conspicuous themes emerging from the book club sessions can be raised as points for discussion at future meetings, particularly salient quotations from the book can be posted in a public place to provoke responses, and faculty members can be asked to reflect on how their participation in the book club conversation has impacted their ideas about how and what they teach.
As academics, we all preach the power of literacy to shape consciousness and the capacity of books to change lives. In our daily routine, however, the importance of reading for reading’s sake usually takes a back seat to more immediate concerns. Organizing a pedagogy book club is one way to incentivize faculty to use reading as an instrument of professional development while simultaneously promoting a departmental culture of inquiry, dialogue, and collegiality.
Randy Laist is associate professor and curriculum director of college English for Goodwin College.