Updated: 9 Dec 2014
STARTING A GREAT BOOKS DISCUSSION GROUP
by Jim Hall (email@example.com, 415-387-2125)
and Clifford Louie (firstname.lastname@example.org, 415-750-1786)
In August 2010, we [Jim and Cliff] started our first Great Books Discussion Group in San Francisco .
In 2013, we had six groups.
In 2014, we currently have nine groups.
HOW WE FOUND A PLACE -- THE PUBLIC LIBRARY
In August 2010, we asked the Richmond Branch Public Library if it would like to have a Great Books Discussion Group. They said yes.
At first, we did our own publicity. We printed flyers and distributed them at the library and nearby businesses (coffee houses, laundromats, restaurants, etc.). We also told friends about the group.
Note: We used the website meetup.com to recruit new members.
The first meeting attracted 16 people. Right now the group consists of a core of 10 people, 4 people who come intermittently, and an occasional 1-2 people who come to the meetings for the first time.
In 2012, the library became a sponsor of the group. This meant that instead of us, the library would:
Print flyers, post them on the bulletin board, and put a stack of them on a table so their patrons could take them.
Publicize our meetings in its citywide monthly newspaper that is circulated to 25 libraries in San Francisco.
WHAT FIRST READING AND FIRST BOOK TO USE
At the first meeting, we discussed the Declaration of Independence. We chose this reading because people could easily download it from their computers and read it before coming to the meeting.
At the end of the meeting, we voted on a book. Most groups voted to read Introduction to Great Books -- Series 1 as their first book.
We suggest that you buy 20 books from the Great Books Foundation at one time. The cost is cheaper than having people buying the book individually.
HOW WE CONDUCT OUR MEETINGS -- Our meetings consist of four parts:
Business matters and announcements
Brief summary of the Shared Inquiry method
Discussion of the reading
Optional coffee or dinner after a meeting
WE HAVE SEVERAL DISCUSSION LEADERS IN A GROUP
When we started, we asked experienced Great Books people to lead our first few meetings.
After ten months, we encouraged members to become discussion leaders. We had them take a Great Books Leader/Reader Workshop to do so.
Now we have several groups with 3-8 leaders.
The advantages of having several discussion leaders in a group are:
One person doesn't have to lead discussion every month and become burnt out.
People become more committed to the group when they are also leaders.
People become better readers and participants when they become leaders.
As a consequence, with more leaders in the group, the group has better discussions.
SOME OBSERVATIONS OF THE FIRST FEW MEETINGS
At the first meeting, we went over Bill Baker's "The Great Books Ten Commandments" before starting the discussion.
At subsequent meetings, rather than reading the Ten Commandments, we summarized the Shared Inquiry Method by stating the goal of the group and six ground rules:
The goal of the group is to gain insight and understand the reading.
The Ground Rules:
It is OK to disagree with each other. Different interpretations increase the understanding of the reading.
For the first 1-1/2 hours, we try to keep the discussion based on the text. Whenever we say something, we should be able to back it up with evidence from the text. If you would like to cite any authors, book reviews, personal opinions, and personal stories, we ask you to save them for the last 1/2 hour of the discussion when we open up the discussion.
In the last 1/2 hour, now is the time to cite other authors, personal opinions, etc.
We try to listen and be courteous to each other.
Most of all, we try to have fun.
We found there are several types of "problem" people who do not comply with the Shared Inquiry method:
Those who try to be the "alpha" of the group and dominate the discussion.
Those who think they have the "right answer" and try to force it down our throats.
Those who have a need to cite outside references during the first part of the discussion.
Note: If you go over the ground rules at the beginning of the meeting, you will minimize these problems.
Last thing, we found that it is useful to provide name cards at the meeting so the members can easily get to know each other.
EMAIL IS AN ESSENTIAL COMMUNICATION TOOL IN MAINTAINING A GROUP
Every month we send emails to members of the group to remind them of upcoming meetings.
The advantages are:
Monthly emails help you to maintain contact with members so they don't suddenly drop out of the group.
We found that members need reminders of upcoming meetings or else they forget about coming to the meetings.
We include a scanned copy of the upcoming reading in the email because a few members choose not to buy the book.
Note: Another advantage of emailing a scanned copy of the reading is that you could send it to new people who inquire about the group. This allows them to read the reading before coming to the meeting.
Starting a new group takes time, patience, and luck. However, it can be fun and satisfying.
It is important to get help and advice from experienced Great Bookies when starting a group. It will shorten your learning curve.
We found that, if given the opportunity, many people love to talk about great writing and belong to a Great Books Discussion Group. We just have to find these people.
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Page Last Updated: December 15, 2014