Books Clubs and Socratic Seminars

All of the reading this week is about how to run book clubs and Socratic seminars. I’m curious to see what these articles say because one of the things that’s helped my parents get socially active in the community they retired to was book and movie clubs. Currently they’re members of a large one where not everyone reads the book but it sets off fascinating discussions and feels like a Sunday brunch with talk of books. My mother is a member of a small woman’s book club that reads a real variety of books and two librarians are active in it. Then my parents are also part of a small movie club, which is low key and they talk over dinner and enjoy each other’s company. one idea that I found wonderful is doing a thematic book club so that everyone’s reading connected works but not the same ones since it creates new approaches and at the end of the club, each person will have a list of what they want to read next.

I started out by reading the Hoffert article from Library Journal about book clubs and the various methods that public libraries use to pull the local community in and keep them active. This article is full of thoughts about book kits and videoconferencing and helping readers move beyond the book. It makes me rather excited and curious to go out and get involved with book clubs.

One the other hand the Metzger article about using something called a Socratic seminar to help students feel more comfortable reading bothers me. The reason it does is because I studied Classics as an undergraduate and from the description of two circles inner and outer which would go back and forth between discussion. This sounds like a useful way to help students take control of their reading and learning but not Socratic. Socrates focused on the use of questions that he would use to push the discussion in specific ways so maybe this is like that but from the description it seems more like a book group. From Metzger’s description, it seems like it can be a powerful tool to teach students how to know their own opinions, think about reading and think about how they interact with each other. It seems like some lessons from this would be useful in Hoffert article which focuses on the good parts of book clubs and doesn’t mention how tricky group dynamics can be.

Then I read an article by Tredway about Socratic Seminars which is from three years before the Metzger article so hopefully it will answer some of my questions. According to Tredway the seminar is based around the reading of a common text and a pointed question asked by a teacher. There’s a mention of voting which seems strange to me, because I could see Socrates feeling confused that people are voting in a seminar. Though the voting is used to start discussion and get students defending their opinions which makes more sense. My reading of Socrates was always that it wasn’t about being right or wrong, but if you felt one way about something, be able to say clearly why. One aspect I find interesting of these Socratic seminars is the idea of there being a group who observes the discussion and then comments on it. That type of feedback is a tricky thing to give but quite important since it can be hard to see group dynamics when you’re inside of a group. These types of seminars seem tricky to begin because they require a lot of trust from the teacher to the students that they will focus on the text and from the students with each other to be polite and also truthful.

The last article I read is The Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton that I last read in my Digital Libraries class. Apparently a Jereemiad is a long literary lament on society and in this case, his is focused on the state of university libraries. Darnton begins with a Jeremiad about the price of journals and how they become harder for research libraries to buy especially in smaller topics. His plan to try and finance theses that pursue little known topics seems like a fine way to help students wish to write more by showing there will be a place that they can be read. His second Jeremiad is from when he led the Harvard University library and focuses on the exact costs of buying periodicals for that library and how their budget works. He points out how scientific journals especially put university libraries in a bind because they make great profits because scientists insist on access and need to be published to show that they’re relevant. There is a move towards open access journals but its not easy because the history and weight of the publishing world makes it difficult for them to be viable. His last Jeremiad is on the matter of Google and how they control so much information and require libraries to contribute. The idea of a national digital public library seems so much closer now thanks to Google Books but currently Google and publishers hold more power in terms of copyright. I find this article fascinating but also coming from a specific place from someone who has access to a lot of resources anyway so perhaps not the best at seeing an even larger picture.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Books Clubs and Socratic Seminars

  1. Kristel

    I think there wasn’t supposed to be inter-discussion between the inner and outer groups, in the Metzger article. The outer group would just observe the inner group’s discussion and then next week they would rotate. I understood the purpose of the outer group’s existence was to improve the student’s cognition of how they arrived at the opinions and ideas about the text they had. Perhaps this step wouldn’t be necessary in a library setting, what do you think?

    • I must have misread it. I know they commented on the discussion process and it just seemed like to me they would talk with each other. I think this process would need to be adjusted slightly for a library.

  2. Kayla

    I had been puzzled about the having the students vote thing, but your point about using voting as a way to require students to take a stance and form an opinion makes a lot of sense. I also thought, from reading the articles, that the students seemed comfortable with changing their opinions based on the evidence and arguments presented around the text. I think the freedom to do so is essential in a learning environment like this because this way, even if the students’ initial opinions might have been haphazardly formed only to respond to the vote requirement, they will still pick up on that good opinions are grounded in the text and evidence, and that there may be more than one ‘right answer’.

    • Well, I made that connection because it was something Socrates was known for. He pushed his students to stand by their opinions and prove them even if they later discovered they were wrong. It was part of why so many of his students were good orators, they knew how to be sincere. So that’s why I made that connection.

  3. jicken

    Very thoughtful comments about book clubs! The thematic notion sounds intriguing. The inner-outer circles strategy reminded me of the “fishbowl” exercise used by many group facilitators.

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