Great Books Council of San Francisco
Starting a Great Books Discussion Group
by Jim Hall (firstname.lastname@example.org, 415-387-2125)
and Clifford Louie (email@example.com, 415-750-1786)
Updated 19 Apr 2017
- In August 2010, we (Jim and Cliff) started our first Great Books discussion group in San Francisco
- In 2013, we had six groups in San Francisco
- As of 2014, we have nine groups in San Francisco
HOW WE FOUND A PLACE -- THE PUBLIC LIBRARY
- In August 2010, we asked librarians at the Richmond Branch Public Library if they 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.
- We used the web site meetup.com to recruit new members.
- The first meeting attracted 16 people. Now the group consists of a core of 10 people, plus 4 who come intermittently, plus an occasional 1-2 people who come to a meeting for the first time.
- In 2012, the library became a sponsor of the group, relieving us of the following jobs:
- Print flyers, post them on a bulletin board, and put a stack of them on a table so that library patrons can take them.
- Publicize our meetings in the library's citywide monthly newspaper, circulated to 25 libraries in San Francisco.
SELECTING A FIRST READING AND FIRST BOOK
- At the first meeting, we discussed the Declaration of Independence. We chose it because people could easily download it, print it and read it before coming to the meeting.
- At the end of the meeting, the group voted on what to discuss next. Most groups voted to read Introduction to Great Books -- Series 1 as their first book.
- We suggest that you buy 20 anthologies at a time from the Great Books Foundation -- it's cheaper than having people buying their books individually.
HOW WE CONDUCT OUR MEETINGS
- Our book-discussion 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 began suggesting that the members lead discussions, and we encouraged them to take a Great Books Leader/Reader Workshop for help on becoming an adept discussion leader.
- Now several groups have 3-8 leaders.
- The advantages of having several discussion leaders in a group are:
- One person doesn't have to lead a discussion every month and become burnt out by the extra preparation effort.
- People become more committed to the group when they are also leaders.
- People are better readers and discussion participants when they have been leaders.
- In summary, if there are many leaders in the group, the group has better discussions.
SOME OBSERVATIONS FROM THE FIRST FEW MEETINGS
- At the first meeting, we reviewed Bill Baker's "The Great Books Ten Commandments" before holding the discussion.
- At subsequent meetings, rather than reading the Ten Commandments again, we started by summarizing the Shared Inquiry Method as follows:
- The goal of the group is to gain insight and understand the reading.
- The following ground rules will be followed during the discussion:
- It's OK to disagree with each other. Different interpretations increase the understanding of the reading.
- For the first hour and a half, we try to keep the discussion based on the text. Whenever we make a remark, we should be able to back it up with evidence from the text. If someone wants to cite another author, a book review, a personal opinion, or a personal story, we ask them to save it for the last half hour.
- The last half hour is a good 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 that there are certain types of "problem" people who don't follow 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.
- Reviewing the ground rules at the start of the meeting helps to minimize these issues.
- We found that it helps to provide name cards so that people can get acquainted easily.
EMAIL IS AN ESSENTIAL COMMUNICATION TOOL IN MAINTAINING A GROUP
- We send monthly emails to group members to remind them of upcoming meetings.
- The advantages are:
- Monthly email messages help to maintain contact with members, making them less likely to drop out of the group suddenly.
- In the absence of monthly reminders, members forget about upcoming meetings.
- In the monthly email messages, we attach a scanned copy of the upcoming reading, since some members choose not to buy the book.
- A scanned copy of the reading can also be sent to someone who asks about the group. This gives them an easy way to read the selection and participate for the first time without making an initial investment on a book.
- Starting a new group takes time, patience, and luck, but it can be fun and satisfying.
- Seeking help and advice from experienced Great Bookies when starting a group will shorten the learning curve.
- Given the opportunity, many people love to talk about great writing and belong to a Great Books Discussion Group. We just have to find those people.
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