Top Tips for Starting an Online Reading Group

| Rowan Rush-Morgan 

The widening use of online video conferencing platforms over the last academic year has allowed many PhD students to access events that they wouldn’t usually be able to attend in person. Whilst online reading groups are not new, many of us are now more aware of their benefits.  Online reading groups are a great way to approach key texts from multiple perspectives, be introduced to readings that you may not have come across before, and to connect with peers outside of your home institution. 

During the first year of my PhD and the height of lockdown, alongside two other PhD students I set up the Queer Geographies PGR Reading Group @QueerGeogPGRG. A monthly reading group with over 100 members from across the world. For us it is a space to discuss queer geographies in a welcoming environment in which no one is expected to know all the answers. 

Helping to set up an online reading group has been a hugely positive and rewarding experience, it has introduced me to wonderful new people, ideas, and texts. If you would like to do the same, here are my top tips to help you along the way.

1. Find others with a similar interest

Setting up a new reading group is much easier with others who can bring their own knowledge and ideas to the process. Asking around in your own institution is a good place to start. There are likely to be other people in the department or research group who may want to join, or can offer advice. For myself, I found that because queer geographers were fairly geographically dispersed, Twitter was an invaluable way to connect with other PhD students.  By tweeting using hashtags relating to the theme of the reading group I reached a much wider audience of those wishing to both join and help organise the reading group.  

2. Choose readings carefully

Though academic institutions provide access to a wide range of resources, not everyone will have access to the same texts. For this reason, it is best to choose readings that are already in a digital format such as articles and open source e-book chapters, rather than scanned in chapters or hard to get journal articles. This is especially important for those who use text to speech software or need to magnify text.

We found that starting the group off with a broader text had two benefits. Firstly a broader text attracted attendees from a wide range of disciplines. Secondly, a broad text initially allowed us to discern what attendees would be interested in reading in the future, and then come up with a schedule for further sessions.

3. Schedule for a time that suits the most people

The main draw of an online reading group is that anyone can join it regardless of geographic location if they have access to a program like Zoom or Teams. The Queer Geographies Postgraduate Reading Group is scheduled for late afternoon in UK time. This means that our participants who join from other countries including Finland, Norway, the USA, Brazil and South Africa, can all attend. Choosing a recurring date each month, such the first Monday of the month, has also made organising sessions much easier.

4. Advertise in a variety of places

Though social media like Twitter and Linkedin can be a great place to attract attendees, not everyone will use it. Other ways to attract attendees are academic mailing lists. Jiscmail lists research interest groups, and these can reach a great deal of PhD students at once. Professional bodies for subjects may also be willing to advertise in their newsletters and websites, and of course funding bodies may do the same.

5. Make accessibility a priority

Using a video conferencing platform alone doesn’t automatically make an event accessible. Things to consider are the use of live captioning or closed captioning, implementing defined breaks in the session, allowing participants the choice to turn their video off, and not expecting participants to speak. When setting up the Queer Geographies Reading Group, we used a sign up form that asks if participants have any access requirements. Improving accessibility will always be a work in progress, so we continue to ask in each email if anyone has any needs that have not yet been implemented. 

Whilst setting up a reading group may at first seem daunting, I have found it to be a really enjoyable process. There will be awkward silences, technical issues and questions no one knows the answer to, but that’s all part of the process. 

Rowan Rush-Morgan is a PhD researcher in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh. You can find them on Twitter @RowanRush.

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