Advice

The Dangers of Faculty Book Club

Warning: Reading books with your colleagues can make you mad

September 22, 2016

Hadley Hooper for The Chronicle
Question: Some colleagues in our general field (liberal arts) are starting a faculty book club to read and share books of general intellectual interest. Possible topics include climate change, world poverty, and the Middle East. Sounds like a great idea, especially in our smallish college town. But trouble is already afoot and we haven’t even chosen our first book.

One member is insisting that we call ourselves a "reading forum," not a "book club," because book clubs sound like "kaffeeklatsches" and "knitting societies." Another member doesn’t want to deal with the "antifeminist stereotypes adhering to a book club." A third invitee declined to participate, snapping that all book clubs and reading groups are "nests of vipers and should be shunned by anyone with any intellectual seriousness."

Do you think we are dead in the water? And why should people get so fired up about a book club?

Answer: Ms. Mentor has always marveled at the weird fears that academics have — of each other. These are people with intellectual bona fides — decades in school! major degrees! — and yet so many shrink from spontaneous intellectual interaction with their own tribe.

What is so scary about a book club?

Ms. Mentor understands that people who watched Murder, She Wrote at an impressionable age might have atavistic, visceral fears. When small-town booklover types get together, won’t someone get murdered?

But few ordinary Americans suffer from that fear. More than five million brave souls belong to book clubs Clever publishers provide handy study questions in the back, for novels that seem especially suited to women’s book clubs. There are even men’s book clubs in which men brag about being, well, men who read books.

Nonacademic book clubs are polite and sociable. Many of them meet at members’ houses, with snacks and wine. Pinterest has more than 1,000 photos of book-club food.

Some clubs are intense about doing the homework: You can, in effect, flunk. Or at least be ostracized. But others are like "The Guilt-Free Book Club" Ms. Mentor knows. Conversation sometimes focuses on why the members didn’t finish the book ("Too slow" or "I hated the main character"). There isn’t a rigid club goal except the enjoyment of reading and the company of readers.

Nonacademic book clubs often meet at public libraries, some of which provide tips about logistics, suggestions for icebreaking questions, and ways to handle the verbose and the silent. Many of the ideas would be useful in the college classroom — especially since Ph.D.s tend to get little guidance in how to lead or share discussions.

That may be why book clubs for academics seem scary. Among academicians, who are the best-read people in America, there can be "concerns" that "need to be addressed" before a group is formed. Someone is sure to argue about definitions, titles, and ground rules. Ms. Mentor’s classics consultant proposed a term for the fear of book clubs: bibliohetairaphobia. But what is it that makes bibliohetaira-phobics tremble? Aren’t we all in this profession in order to learn?

Ms. Mentor believes that a superb book club, reading group, or faculty forum could be organized around one big book, such as War and Peace. Everyone could finally read that book they’d been intending to "get to" since they were 12. Then they could all contribute their expertise. At least one historiographer could dissect Tolstoy’s theories of history (Brilliant? Hogwash?). The social scientists could note Natasha’s "loss of voice," diagnose post-traumatic stress syndrome in the soldiers, or analyze Helene’s adultery as a form of social protest. Russian experts could grade the translations; literary scholars could argue about its genre (Epic? Soap opera?). Political scientists would note the class struggles (Are the serfs noble savages or victims?). Film scholars could compare the various movie versions (Is it really better in Russian? Or in the Woody Allen version, Love and Death?).

Everyone would have to defend their interpretations from the charge of "presentism" — judging the past by the standards of the present.

It could be exhilarating.

It might be egalitarian, too, in that no one would be a thorough expert on War and Peace. No one would be able to berate and bully others with his/her superior knowledge.

It would not be like, for instance, the reading forums sometimes proposed by eager junior scholars — along the lines of "an in-depth study of the writings and philosophy of Edouard Trimalchio, forgotten Enlightenment theologian and ornithologist. Members of the seminar will read his magisterial … and discuss why it is unjustly neglected by … We will be meeting weekly."

Ms. Mentor has invented Edouard Trimalchio, but the announcement is only slightly adapted from one that crossed her desk in recent weeks. The would-be leader is the world’s expert on Edouard Trimalchio, and — almost certainly — the only one who cares. Such a club would last a week, Ms. Mentor estimates. Only one presenter would be able to show off. There would be no sharing of egos.

Academics are people who’ve spent their lives battling to be No. 1. They’ve gotten the top grades, the scholarships, the honors, and the awards. Along the way most have also become confident public speakers, but some can be insufferable. At social gatherings they gather in knots and take turns lecturing each other. Often — even when discussing the weather — they’ll count off the points on their fingers: "First, there’s the humidity." They listen reluctantly, impatiently, pawing the ground.

Classroom experience enhances the sense that one is the Top Knower. One lectures, or one makes snap judgments of student comments ("You’ve failed to consider X"). Too many faculty members have learned to go negative, to be Critic in Chief. Your argument will always lack rigor.

And so a book club — like any other venue featuring academics — can be a site of duels for power and position. Professor A wants it known that he is the one who knows what Chomsky really meant. Professor B, trained in the adversarial mode, cannot begin her response with "And." She has to start with "But."

But what if you’re Professor C, untenured and at the assistant-professor rank, and you challenge the interpretation of this month’s book-group text by a senior professor? The senior prof may welcome the interaction — or may feel that you’re an obstreperous urchin who doesn’t know your place. You have to read the scene. Tread carefully.

Age does not bring serenity, either. One group of retirees in an Ivy League college town started out reading philosophical texts with respect and careful turn-taking. Now they have a loud bell to ring if someone is monopolizing the conversation. Sometimes they fight for control of the bell.

Taking turns is hard, and some clubs have rituals. No one speaks until everyone has spoken; no one gets to talk for more than three minutes. Or there may be rules that everyone has to sign.

Ms. Mentor was most amused, or horrified, by a "Book Group Rules of Engagement" that one of her moles passed along. She wonders what inspired rules like these:

  • Be open to what others have to say. Avoid personal attack, criticism, and name-calling.
  • Our book club is a collaborative exploration of ideas and their consequences, not a debating society.
  • Ask questions for clarification and understanding, not for personal advantage.
  • Be careful not to dominate.
  • Enjoy yourself!

From such material, Ms. Mentor knows, academic novels spring. Ideal reading for your book club.

Question: I am so totally aware that October is Exploding Head Syndrome Month in academe. I know I should prepare mind-boggling to-do lists on all social media; post reminders all over my apartment; and stew and fret. But may I just opt for adequacy?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Of course Ms. Mentor welcomes suggestions of books for academic book clubs and reading groups. Many groups focus on books to make us better teachers. Others share readings on growing fields, such as disability studies. Ms. Mentor hopes there are academic book groups reading academic novels — and acting them out.

Ms. Mentor thanks those who have inquired about the health of her ivory tower in the Great Louisiana Flood of 2016. Her tower is dry, but she grieves about the devastating losses in Baton Rouge.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, rants, and gossip. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, details are muddied, and anonymity is guaranteed. If you wish to join a pseudonymous book club on the Internet and rave about your true feelings, Ms. Mentor gives you permission to do so.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her Chronicle email address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.