Forming a book group can create an online community for faculty (opinion)
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Forming a book group can create an online community for faculty (opinion)

In what seems to be the never-ending year of the pandemic, we have regularly heard the lament of exhausted and disheartened college employees. After a year of social distancing and physical isolation, we long to chat together safely in the hallway and vent in the break room with our colleagues again.

For many people, this lack of workplace community has led to poor morale. Indeed, studies show that a significant contributor to positive faculty and staff morale and job satisfaction is strong collegiality. A healthy collegiate community can provide a buffer for us to bolster each other -- whether through advice, emotional comfort or simply a friendly ear -- against adverse events and environments out of our control.

In attempting to address burnout and morale, some people have optimistically inferred that our mental states will improve once everyone returns to campus. That is probably true. But that approach implies that we must put our collegiality on hold while not on campus, and we must survive the isolation until that day comes. Unfortunately, we have no idea how long social distancing will be needed. Even as things improve, it is unlikely that there will be a specific moment when everything will return to normal. In fact, people may hesitate to gather in person for quite some time.

So how can we build community without everyone being physically together on our campuses? We can create a strong, vibrant online community for ourselves as faculty members using the new skill sets we have honed for the past year teaching online. A year into online pandemic teaching, we have devoured books and articles and attended training to ensure that we can establish a healthy and engaged learning community for our students in the online classroom using new digital tools. That said, we’ve been so busy managing everything else that we may have inadvertently pushed aside the essential task of building community for ourselves and our colleagues.

On campus, this happens naturally for many people. We gather in the hallways, make small talk waiting in line at the coffee shop and chat casually before a faculty meeting. Online, these opportunities are not as plentiful, and community building must be done more purposefully. But how can we do this, with everything else going on? My recommendation: an online faculty book club.

Perhaps you are thinking. “I cannot bear any more Zoom meetings, let alone a book club.” Hear me out. I would argue that we do not need more Zoom meetings in the way we have been doing them for a year more. And it is not Zoom or online meetings that are the problem -- it is the way we still run them. Think of the last training or meeting you attended. How many of us sat, stared blankly at the screen, listened to the speaker, maybe took a few notes or nodded in agreement but otherwise contributed very little? We do not need any more of those meetings! If we are to keep community connection strong, we need meetings with space for small groups to have off-topic conversations and that enable everyone to participate and respond.

It may be challenging to incorporate this type of activity into large group gatherings such as a formal Faculty Senate meeting or an all-campus presidential town hall. In contrast, a book club provides the perfect structure for more informal social engagement with a purpose.

Some of you may also be thinking, “I do not need extra work on my plate now.” Before pandemic times, I, too, scoffed at the notion of a book club. Nevertheless, in spring 2020, when it seemed the shift to online might continue for a couple of semesters, I sought a supportive space to learn and exchange ideas about teaching online. Luckily, a few professional society members were also looking for the same thing, and they organized a group to read a well-known book about teaching online. We met via Zoom every week to discuss a chapter and talk about what we were doing in our new online classes.

Through this group, I learned online teaching strategies, but more important, I met people I would never have had the chance to work with otherwise. They inspired me to try new ideas and affirmed some of the approaches I was already taking. They also helped me see that many issues were not institution-specific but shared among all the participants. The group was so helpful that I brought the idea back to my institution and started an identical book group there. I was unsure if the benefits would replicate at my home institution, but I was happily surprised to find out that it functioned very similarly.

The groups were structured enough that I learned something new to bring back to my online classroom each week but also informal enough to not add to my workload and allow me to engage in desperately needed collegial “hallway” conversations. For me, it was a perfect middle ground between the formality of committee meetings and the informality of nonacademic Zoom happy hours.

Some of you may wonder if we still need to invest in creating an online community for ourselves. Isn’t the pandemic ending? Won’t we go back to campus soon? I hope so! But again, we do not know when people will feel comfortable being together indoors. Plus, a solid case can be made for online book groups continuing even after we are back on our campuses.

Hosting the groups online allows participants to get together from any convenient location. In my group, I did not have to worry about fighting rush-hour traffic or working up a sweat hurrying across campus in time for the meeting; I could pop in to the discussion from my kitchen table. Significantly, this aspect may help include people who have historically not been able to participate because of transportation, location or caregiving challenges.

It also opens up the possibility for cross-institutional collaborations. It has been wonderful to regularly talk with colleagues from different backgrounds and colleges across the nation. Similarly, online book groups can help academics who are away during the summer but still want to connect with their campus community, as well as scholars on sabbatical looking for social connection and accountability.

If I’ve convinced you to try organizing an online book group, I recommend the following guidelines.

  • Let the group’s members choose the book. That will ensure people find the topic relevant and want to participate.
  • Let members decide whether or not to participate. We know from decades of research that internal motivation is best for learning, and people who want to be there will get the most out of it. If internal motivation is not enough, try to find funding for each participant to receive a hard copy of the book.
  • Organize the group so that its members share leadership. Use a shared Google Doc or worksheet, and let individuals pick a chapter and week in which they will lead the conversation. The leader for the week would be responsible for sending out a reminder email a few days ahead of the meeting and, most important, for sending out summary notes and discussion questions. Why notes? The good thing about these groups is that the reading isn’t the main point -- it’s the community building. If the leader can send out a good set of notes, even folks who do not have time to read the chapter can still participate in the discussion. And rotating leaders ensures that everyone thoroughly reads at least one chapter.
  • Keep the group small so that everyone can participate. Use breakout rooms to subdivide it if it gets bigger than six to eight people.
  • Allow time for off-topic discussions. Again, the group’s main goal is to make space for community building where it may not have existed. That means people need time to get to know each other through informal conversation.

There is no doubt that this past year has been challenging. Without the easily accessible emotional buffer of workplace comradery, morale has declined. However, we do not have to wait until we are physically back on campus to rebuild that missing sense of community. Let’s use the skills we have refined in our online classrooms to develop meetings that facilitate the genuine interaction we crave. With online book groups, we can support one another and perhaps even make our community more robust and inclusive than before.

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