How to be a Reading Group Leader
As a reading group leader, your role is the general oversight, coordination, and facilitation of your group, both intellectually and logistically. You should make sure to gather input from your group in determining how to proceed with the subject matter, and evenly distribute the logistical work among participants (see below).
URGE is designed to make participation straightforward and non-time-intensive, while at the same time maintaining the reading groups as mostly self-sufficient entities. If delegating properly, you should find that you are spending only slightly more time on your group on an ongoing basis than is the average participant in it. Leaders will have to spend a bit of extra time at first, though, since establishing the task assignments, choosing the papers, etc. takes some work before the group can get started.
Please read through the sections below to learn more about your responsibilities as the leader of your group.
One of your main responsibilities as a group leader is to select documents for your group to read. Some of the points in this section are kind of basic, but it's probably better to say too much than too little. General advice:
- If possible, use references from professors (you can email and ask them for recommended readings!), course readings, theses, and other papers to find good readings. Logically, if a given paper has lots of citations and recommendations or was written by a well-respected author, it's likely to be more significant than one which does/was not.
- Not all of your readings need to be academic papers. Most of them should be, but it's perfectly ok to use excerpts from books and theses for some of the readings if you wish.
- Choose readings that will be academically accessible to students with the prerequisites requested in the group description you submitted. Do not assign papers that will require more background than was requested by the prerequisites. Sometimes people forget how much they know about a subject -- you may have to remind yourself that your participants may not know as much about the area as you do.
- Aim for a length between 8 and 40 pages. Typical paper lengths can vary a lot between fields, but in general shorter ones will not have enough material to talk about for an hour, and longer ones will be too time-consuming to read. If you wish to assign a very long reading, try to find the most important sections of it, and only assign those sections. This is especially true for readings from theses and book chapters. It is also acceptable to assign 2 short papers.
- Make sure to select papers that provide good overall coverage of your subject area. If your subject is number theory, but you choose five papers that are all about RSA, you're doing it wrong. Select papers that are about lots of different things within your group's focus area.
- Try to make sure that most of the readings either discuss a particularly important result in your field, or are survey papers or review papers that have broad emphases. Again, the point is to give participants a good overall view of your subject area, and make sure that they don't get lost in random details and unimportant results.
- Use tutorial papers if they exist in your area. The best ones will present a technique, explain the underlying theory and why it works, and then demonstrate a few examples and applications. Depending on your focus area, something like this may or may not exist, but they're very nice for discussions when available.
- Make sure that your readings thoroughly explain their methods, if applicable. If you're well-versed in your area but you don't feel that a given paper used enough detail for you to fully understand it / implement it / replicate its result / etc., it might not be a good choice.
- Ask your group participants for feedback on the papers selected and if they have any suggestions for future papers.
Use your own judgment and experience in your field to decide how applicable each of these recommendations is for your area. Conventions and standards in literature can vary substantially across different fields.
Be sure to adapt your paper selections to the preferences of your group when warranted. If group members want to focus a bit more than planned on a particular area, you should be comfortable finding an appropriate document for it and replacing something else that they aren't as interested in.
Aside from selecting your group's readings, you are also responsible for facilitating discussions. Again, at the risk of being overly basic, try to:
- Ask/make/force everyone to ask 2 questions at the beginning and write them on a white board if available. These questions form an outline for the discussion. Everyone then has a stake in the discussion, wants their questions answered, must read carefully enough to have questions. This is the secret to making reading groups work. You can also ask your participants to post their questions on the wiki before the meeting time.
- At the beginning, the first question should just ask for the big picture and summary of the reading material. This is to make sure that everyone understands the overall structure.
- Cut off discussions that seem to be wandering or not gaining much progress
- In general, discussions will never have more than 50% of people say anything at all. In our experience, we'd done much better than that.
- Make sure your group is able to discuss the entire reading within the scheduled meeting time if possible, and don't stay later unless everyone is OK with it. Don't go through it too quickly, though, or you might have trouble filling time.
- Encourage everyone to talk.
- Steer discussion toward the material rather than random distractions or irrelevant comments.
- Always promote questions, especially the kind that lead to further discussion and insights.
- Generally maintain lexical order in the discussion. Go from the beginning to the end of the reading. Try to avoid skipping arbitrarily between pages. However, it's definitely ok to use the last part of discussion to go back to particular details or to talk about broader subjects -- you shouldn't feel completely bound by page numbers.
- Prevent awkward silent periods by bringing up new topics for discussion.
- Ensure that no particular group member dominates the discussion. This includes you, of course.
- Have a laptop available for reference when papers refer to things your group isn't familiar with. Use it to look them up for background information when necessary during discussions.
- If you believe a discussion could benefit from the participation and insight of a professor, research scientist, etc., you are welcome to invite them.
You should delegate each of the following tasks to a different participant or group of participants. Don't just do them yourself!
- Ordering and retrieving food: Assign this to a group of at least two participants, more if possible. They will be in charge of dealing with food/drinks/utensils such that they are there at the start of the meeting and dropping off the receipts with the URGE exec treasurer for reimbursement (there will be a drop-off box set up, though we are currently working on setting up an easier system). Make sure that the participants handling this task consider it acceptable to wait a little while before being reimbursed, since SAO takes 1-2 weeks to process the reimbursements. The treasurer may be contacted via e-mail if there is an issue with the reimbursement.
- Scheduling meetings: Assign this task to one participant. This participant is responsible for scheduling meetings, setting time/location of meetings, updating the wiki as needed, and sending reminder emails. This participant also needs to contact URGE exec (rg-staff@) when room reservations need to be made or changed, so our reservation signatory can take care of it.
- Taking notes: Assign a different participant for each of the five meetings to take meeting notes. This participant is responsible for taking notes on the meeting, taking attendance, summarizing the reading material and discussion topics, highlighting points of contention and confusion, pointing out unanswered questions to perhaps revisit in the future, and also noting down any and all suggestions that participants have about improving the reading group program and experience. These notes should be fairly high-level in scope but informative and easy to read; we are not looking for a transcript of the discussion. By the end of the night of the meeting, this participant should record the notes on the group's wiki page, and URGE exec will occasionally monitor these discussion notes to gauge how groups are doing.
If you have more than eight participants in your group, assign the extra participants to provide further help with the food-related tasks. We tried our best to keep the logistical tasks organized yet distributed. Some of these tasks can also be rotated, but it is up to you if you would like to keep track of that kind of thing.
We strongly encourage participants not to miss meetings, because so much depends on them! That said, dinner-ordering is assigned to more than one participant for a reason... If someone does need to miss a meeting and he had a task assigned to them for the meeting in question, please re-assign it to someone else and give the absent person a different task to compensate for it.
Managing Your Group's Wiki Page
- Editing Group Page: Your group pages have already been created here: Current Reading Groups. Go to your respective pages and fill in the information (for help on how to edit a page, go to Wiki Usage.
- Managing Group Page: This should be delegated to participants -- see above.