Book Clubs as a Best Practice
By Peter Roeth
"Books are not just for reading – they are for sharing and talking about." –Laura Bush
While not all book clubs are as idealistic (or controversial) as Oprah’s, reading books collectively holds incredible value for Student Affairs personnel. At my institution, the Residence Life department has made book clubs part of our professional development for the last few years. I realize not everyone is a reader, nor are all Student Development personnel “in it for life,” nor is the chosen book always thrilling and life changing, but there is benefit from a group of people reading the same material and meeting for discussion and the sharing of ideas. Perhaps this is one way “iron sharpens iron” both personally and professionally.
In light of budget restrictions and costly conferences, book clubs can offer an inexpensive alternative to professional growth. Honing one’s current knowledge, learning about a new subject, and expanding perspectives are all potential benefits gained from book groups. To further add to professional and personal development, book reviews and published articles can be natural outgrowths of reading together. Collaborative researching and writing could itself be a goal of book clubs, perhaps resulting in partnerships between Student Affairs personnel and faculty members. Another idea to enhance book groups is to contact the author. This obviously depends on the book chosen, but many of us have connections through alma maters or organizations that allow for access to authors so we can hear more about the topic. Although these are intended ideas and results, much of the outcome depends on the quality of the book club.
There is no magic formula for a perfect book club – the one in which all members are passionately engaged in the subject leaving no space for awkward silences. However, there are practices that a book group can implement for greater likelihood of success. First, be intentional and prudent in attempting to pick a good book. Beach and Yussen (2011) state that choosing a book should be egalitarian and collaborative, allowing input from all members. Perhaps self-evidently, the chosen book should be not only easily discussable but also an engaging read. Second, establishing ground rules or protocols helps clarify expectations and set the agenda (McArdle & Trott, 2009). Clarifying norms such as who will moderate and when, how conversation will flow, and the length of meeting time is necessary to avoid misguided assumptions. Lastly, Trott and Goldbert (2012) highlight Ellen Slezak’s suggestions to keep the discussion moving: (1) change leaders regularly to keep anyone from controlling the conversation, (2) be open to suggestions from members, (3) focus talk on the book and its topics and not on trivial subjects, and (4) listen to everyone because the most thoughtful observations can come from surprising people. While it is likely that not every book club meeting will be a success, keep adjusting and implementing different approaches until your group reaches a comfortable and satisfying atmosphere for productive dialogue, as it often takes time for participants to find their voices and feel safe enough to be vulnerable in this setting.
In contemplating a book club, another consideration needs to be whether or not participation is mandatory. The professional book clubs in which I have taken part have included both required and voluntary formats, each with its own advantages. The mandatory groups offered multiple book options, but as with anything required, there is the potential for apathy towards the reading or subject matter when a person feels she does not have voice in the decision (as those who have taught first year introduction courses will readily testify!). While voluntary participation creates buy-in, our non-participating colleagues who elect to opt out will miss the lively conversation, learning, and deepening of relationships (or networking), which is often part of book clubs. Perhaps a concession could be voluntary participants presenting the topic with discussion to the rest of the team during a professional development meeting, as my most recent book club did. Another option to consider would be offering several book choices with different leaders, with the hopes to placate the angst of required participation. In the end, knowing the workload and personalities of your staff members will help successfully strike the mandatory-voluntary balance.
The reason I advocate for book groups so strongly is because they not only foster deeper understanding of our field but also invite us to know one another better. It is my opinion that some of the best conversations occur over a cup of coffee or tea. In those types of settings – away from the cold and institutionalized conference into a coffee shop or someone’s living room – discussion flows more freely. It is my experience that when we share our thoughts, disagreements, and hopes related to an author’s ideas, we also share something deeper – our connections with and understandings of each other. Beach and Yussen (2011) point out that meeting in homes “seemed to enhance the intimacy and comfort of the discussions” (p. 122). I think it contributes to a closer team committed to serving students the best way possible. As many of us have experienced, we are better at our jobs when we are not functioning in isolation.
Thus, whether your department boasts three personnel or twenty, reading together and gathering to discuss pertinent topics is beneficial and can promote both professional and team growth. Your book club may not be as glamorous or romanticized as those Oprah hosts, but it can still be thoughtful, engaging, and developmental.
Peter Roeth is a Resident Director and Supervisor for First Year and Mentoring Areas at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Beach, R., & Yussen, S. (2011). Practices of productive adult book clubs. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(2), 121-131. doi:10.1002/JAAL.00015
McArdle, M., & Trott, B. (2009). Book group therapy: A survey reveals some truths about why some book groups work and others may need some time on the couch. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(2), 122-125.
Trott, B., & Goldberg, M. (2012). Extracurricular reading. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51(3), 231-234.