Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Thoughts on facilitating a book group

Fall yellow with library stained glass
I've been reflecting on the different ways I've been involved with books and groups lately.  For the classes on "Soto Zen" I wasn't very comfortable putting myself in a position of being the authority.  When an instructor, I work best more as a facilitator.  I count on the wisdom of the group, and don't expect that I will have all the answers.  Still, as the leader in a situation like this, they look to me to talk the most.  Something I had to learn from this series was how to create more specific open-ended questions than I am used to, though I still wanted to resist my mentors' tendencies to ask questions intended to solicit specific answers.  I also resisted the suggestion that I have some summary statements ready, as this would assume I knew just what would be pulled out of the class discussion.   To me, a successful class happened when participants pulled something out of the material that had passed me by.

St. John's College, Santa Fe
I primarily want to talk about facilitation of a book group, but before that I want to touch on my experience with my fellow alumni and our seminar discussions.  Seminar is our collegiate word for our book groups fashioned after our particular college experience.

Unlike other book groups, we aren't expected to bring in background information on the author, on the history of the times, or especially other people's interpretations on the work.  Almost as a rule, we skip the Introduction.  We expect the book or selection to speak to us on its own merits.   We generally begin with a question that arises from the text, and discussion ensues from there.  We're quite all right with a weighty silence as we digest the question and our thoughts on how we can pull responses from the text and our interaction with it.  Unlike our college experience, some of us may bring in background historical information, just for fun, and to elucidate the text.  For example, we just read Frankenstein, and I found it useful to find out when grave-robbing for medical experiments was at its height. We don't make efforts to make sure everybody has a chance to speak, or to head someone off at the pass who is talking too much. We are a leaderless group, and after the opening question, more questions may arise and no conclusions may be reached.  There can be moments where we are awed by the results of our collective inquiry.

I bring aspects of this sensibility to my facilitation of book groups.  Over time, regular attendees begin to get it as I guide them to raise questions that explore what we can get out of this book, what it teaches about the world and ourselves, and move beyond the impulse merely to allow the book to entertain and inform.  A book really comes alive when we can interact with it, explore implications, argue with it, and learn a deeper knowledge within ourselves.

Sometimes the books we read urge us to look at our own experiences and family histories and share them with others.  Sometimes the books need to be figured out, and sometimes those books have no correct answers.  If we all just say, "I liked this," "I loved that," or "I hated it," there isn't much discussion to be had.

If I have the time, I will look into historical background, author biographies, and other related information that occurs to me.  I'll have that available if it comes up during the conversation.  Even better, I'll simply have a computer with me if we want to look up some factoid.  A tablet or smartphone could do just as well, but a laptop at least will have a screen large enough to share images.  Rarely will I kick off a book group with a monologue of information.  It's much more interesting to volunteer the information as a need for it arises.

I'll usually begin a group with a round robin, asking people to say their names, and what they hope to talk about from the book.  Even with that question, people will still say how they loved or hated the book, but enough will have questions or themes they want to explore.  When people get excited and start talking at once, or a couple have a side conversation, I'll raise a finger and ask for one conversation at a time.  If there is enough time, I'll ask for another round robin, asking for reflection, or if there's something anybody didn't get a chance to say.  Sometimes, a book has so much depth to figure out, I'll ask an opening question just like at St. John's, but then also ask for a round robin reflection about twenty minutes before closing.

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