Starting a new reading group or network

Below is some advice on setting up a postgraduate reading group or small research network. These are some basic steps you can follow to start gathering ideas, organise your first sessions, and advertise. For further advice on running a postgraduate reading group or small research network, and for help with practicalities/advertising, please contact Dorothy Butchard (d.butchard@bham.ac.uk).

Starting a group or network can feel like a big undertaking, but remember that all you really need is a text, a room/online space, and 2-3 enthusiastic people! There isn’t any paperwork involved, or formal requirements, although I’ve included some notes on good practice below.

TLDR:

  • Phase 1 (Ideas): Decide a theme and format, identify an organising team if you want to work with others, consider your preferred audience.
  • Phase 2 (Practicalities): Plan how often you will meet, where and when, and how people will contact you. Identify whether you need funding.
  • Phase 3 (Texts): Choose texts for the first meeting, and a few beyond the first meeting if you want to.
  • Phase 4 (Advertise): Establish a web presence and advertise the first meeting(s). If your reading group is already sorted, skip to this section for links, email addresses, and general advice on spreading the word.

Phase 1: The big ideas

What’s your theme?
Choosing a cohering topic or theme for your group can be a great way of finding like-minded people to join you. At this stage it’s worth identifying what’s already out there – you can find a list of recent and active reading groups loosely based in English Literature at UoB on this site’s regular events page. You can also check advertisements and accounts on twitter and facebook, the EDACS postgrad facebook community page or EDACS Events page, and similar listings for other schools and colleges. Remember to look beyond EDACS/UoB; social media can be a good way to do this.

What is the format?
Although a reading group is a tried-and-tested approach, remember that there are many ways to prompt discussion and develop a wider research community. You could invite others to play and then contemplate tv, film, or videogames, use UoB spaces to organise film screenings followed by a discussion, or any number of other options.

Do you want to organise on your own, or with others?
Consider whether you want to organise a reading group on your own, or working with others. You may prefer to start a reading group solo, with the advantage that you can shape it in a direction that works best for your interests. On the other hand, working in a team alongside like-minded people can help to split the workload of organising, and ensures you always have a few of you to keep discussion lively. If you don’t immediately know of potential co-organisers, talk to your supervisor and other PGRs – your dream team may be out there, and this would be a good way to meet them! If you’re not sure, start the group, then invite others to co-organise as it becomes more established.

Who will come along?
Some of the most stimulating discussions are the ones that go beyond the boundaries of your established cohort. That might mean involving people from other disciplines, different stages or phases of research, and beyond the University of Birmingham. Remember that a group does not have to be “academics only”, and the best scholarly networks are often the ones that are open and welcoming to anyone who’s interested. You might also find it useful to advertise at the planning stage, to gauge interest and gather an initial email contact list.

Phase 2: Practicalities 

Inclusivity
When planning the practical elements of your reading group, please aim to o provide a safe, inclusive, and accessible space for discussion. That means moderating conversation to avoid hate speech, microaggressions, and any potential sources of distress for your participants, and ensuring that physical/online spaces are accessible to people of all abilities.

How often will you meet?
Some reading groups meet weekly; more often it will be fortnightly or monthly, or even once a term. Consider your schedule and other commitments, and remember you don’t have to schedule all your meetings in advance. You can start with one, then follow up with others once you have a sense of audience and availability.

When?
Choose a time and day that work for you – the first priority is to fit around organisers’ work and family commitments. Remember that groups outside conventional working hours (9am-5pm) can be more difficult for attendees who have caring responsibilities or commute long distances. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday afternoons/evenings have been popular with reading groups in the past; a lunchtime slot can also be a great option. After a recent bloom of reading groups in EDACS, we’ve been trialling a shared planning calendar to avoid clashes. Email Dorothy Butchard (d.butchard@bham.ac.uk) for more info.

Where?
In the age of Covid, most reading groups have moved online. If you are a postgraduate student at UoB, you may be able to use the University’s Zoom or Microsoft Teams accounts. If you plan to run your reading group in a physical space, please keep in mind the guidelines on social distancing. The options for room bookings include Westmere, the Guild, and UoB buildings such as Arts or Muirhead Tower. For updates on access to online resources, or guidance on room bookings, please email Dorothy Butchard (d.butchard@bham.ac.uk).

How will people contact you?
Setting up a dedicated email address for the group contact is a handy way to separate this from your work/student email, and it helps to ensure you keep track of incoming and outgoing messages. It’s also a good way to start establishing interest – you could circulate a message suggesting the reading group, and ask people to get in touch for more info.

Do you need funding?
This is a very frequent question, and the simplest answer is no – you can start a reading group or small network with no cost. However, you may need funding for extras, such as snacks/refreshments, or travel costs for invited speakers/convenors if this is something you want to do as the group evolves. A good option for expanded activities, such as conferences or speaker events, is the CAL PGR Research Development Fund. Keep an eye on deadlines, as there are usually two rounds during each academic year.

Phase 3: Choosing Texts

What kind of texts will you discuss?
This will always depend on your topics and preferences. Remember that you don’t have to choose between fiction / non-fiction / criticism – sometimes a combination can provoke fantastic discussions, and you might want to consider multiple formats/genres. One thing you should consider carefully is the wider implications of your choices. Although there has been progress in recent years, academia continues to be dominated by scholarship and structures that are overrepresentative of white, male, heteronormative voices and opinions. As you assemble potential readings, ask yourself whether your choices could help to acknowledge and challenge these ongoing structural inequalities.

How much reading will work?
Think carefully about length and viability. If you’re planning to meet frequently, shorter texts (1-10 pages) are more manageable and help people to fit in reading alongside other commitments. A monthly reading group might look at book-length works, but you can also prompt a lively conversation around chapters or extracts. Starting out with some shorter, popular, manageable texts is a good way to establish a committed cohort.

Access to texts
As reading group organiser, you should ensure your attendees have access to texts wherever possible. The simplest solution is to look for works already available online, which you can easily link to – though be mindful of paywalls and documents that may not be accessible to readers outside HE institutions. If you want to use texts that are not already open access, be prepared to scan and circulate PDFs, but be mindful of copyright guidelines. Do not post scanned pdfs or other copyrighted material on blogs or other platforms that can be freely accessed. These should be circulated by email, or on password protected webpages.

Phase 4: Tell everyone

Once you have a plan for your first events(s), you are ready to advertise. A static online space is really helpful as a way to ensure everyone has access to the information they need about your first event. The basics to include are time, place, contact details, and a link to access readings.

  • This website. Several EDACS reading groups have used pages on this blog for initial advertisements. For login details, email d.butchard@bham.ac.uk.
  • Your own website. Many reading groups/networks use their own online webspace – but do make sure you have the time and skills to maintain it, as the internet is full of desolate, untended websites advertising defunct groups! Some good basic options include WordPress, Wix, Weebly.
  • Eventbrite. The advantage of eventbrite, or similar platforms, is that you can also use it to gauge numbers. It should be free to use as long as you are not charging for events.

Spreading the word

  • Social media. Look for established UoB accounts that will retweet your plans; these are most frequently on Twitter and Facebook. ¬†@EDACS_UOB¬† is a good place to start. You could also reach out to established reading groups such as @theory_UoB, @playpause_UoB, @gothica_UoB. Suggesting a joint session is a good way to do this.
  • Mailing lists. Ideally, you want to work towards building your own email mailing list. Until you have this, ask others to circulate details. In EDACS, the Research Centres are a good place to start. You can find a full list of EDACS Research Centres here.
  • The EDACS PGR Bulletin. To advertise in the EDACS PGR bulletin, send details over to the EDACS PGR lead, Simon Smith (s.c.smith@bham.ac.uk).
  • The CAL Graduate School Newsletter. To advertise in the newsletter, send details to artsandlawgraduateschool@contacts.bham.ac.uk.
  • Undergraduate modules. This can be a good way to get the word out to undergraduate students. You can find a list of UG modules in English literature here (you may need to log in to access this). Email convenors and ask them to share details with their student cohort.
  • UoB events pages. There’s a dedicated form you can use to add events to a school shared calendar and the EDACS events page – email d.butchard@bham.ac.uk for details.