The surprising benefits of a read-aloud reading group

Matilda Keynes is a PhD candidate in in the department of History and Archaeology at La Trobe, and lecturer-in-charge at the Australian Catholic University, where she coordinates the subject ‘Education in History’. Her doctoral research explores the educational implications of retrospective politics since the 1980s, focusing on history education in Australia. 

In 2018, Matilda is an Endeavour Postgraduate Research Scholar hosted at Umeå University in Sweden where she is undertaking a comparative study of Swedish-Australian uses of history in processes of transitional justice. She tweets @matildakeynes.

Nikita Vanderbyl is a PhD candidate in the department of History and Archaeology at La Trobe. Her research in Aboriginal Australian history and art history focuses on Wurundjeri artist William Barak and the trans-imperial circulation of Aboriginal material culture during the nineteenth century.

Nikita’s work has been published in Aboriginal History and The Conversation. She tweets @nikitavanderbyl.

This post is co-published today with La Trobe University’s RED Alert blog

This article first appeared on The Research Whisperer on 24 April 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of The Research Whisperer.

Recently, Erin Bartram’s piece ‘The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind’ made waves on Twitter for its honest and frankly, painful assessment of the experience of leaving academia, after the author failed to secure a tenured position.

As Australian PhD students, we discover early in our candidature that our 3.5-year program likely won’t be competitive in the global market.

For many of us, our further study is born out of a genuine passion for learning, and accompanied by naive aspirations towards an academic career. In most cases, 3.5 years of modest funding isn’t adequate to write a thesis; publish a monograph with a leading academic publisher plus multiple peer-reviewed, tier-one journal articles; present at international conferences; attract research funding; and coordinate and design undergraduate subjects. Let’s not even mention the expectations of attaining a myriad of impressive awards and bursaries.

Given the heavily-skewed ‘jobs available vs. PhD graduates’ ratio in history, it is no surprise really that the few available positions often go to those who earned their doctorates from leading R1 institutions (or equivalent) internationally. All this is happening in the context of an increasingly casualised academic workforce. About 65% of Australian university staff are now employed casually, and the vast majority of the research labour listed above must be done without job security.

This, Bartram’s piece, and the many other varieties of ‘quit lit’ that grace our Twitter feeds daily, as well as the experience of departmental restructures, and the loss of supervisors to illness, redundancy and retirement, can make for fairly low morale among doctoral students. At more than one point, it can feel overwhelming. We won’t pretend we’ve found a way to halt this compounding sense of futility. Even if we did, it would likely vary for everyone as the PhD journey is such a personal one.

What we have found, though, is the surprising morale-boosting benefits of the humble reading group.

For the past three years a group of historians and historiographers in-training here at La Trobe University have met weekly for a two-hour reading group. The official rationale is to expand our understanding of the history and structure of our discipline. The unofficial positive outcomes, however, have been countless.

In general, the typical academic reading group can be stale, awkward and often pretentious.

The usual format is for a chair to set a reading in advance, and for group members to come prepared to discuss its salient points during the meeting. Often this can lead to a certain rigidity of thought and interaction, whereby group members stick to their pre-formulated points. At worst, it can descend into the kind of posturing that we all know too well, whereby genuine thinking-together is derailed by the worst kind of adversarial, sparring matches concerning obscure points of interest to no-one.

What’s productive about our group is the method we employ. We use a read-aloud, think-aloud methodology where we take turns to read the text aloud, and pause regularly to discuss and clarify crucial points. Usually one person will have read the piece in advance in order to help mediate the discussion, but everyone else will be encountering it for the first time. This makes for a genuine intellectual and personal experience whereby thinking happens in the moment and with others. This approach has proven to be remarkably well-suited to different kinds of learners, and swiftly eradicates any of the aforementioned posturing.

There is a degree of vulnerability and a slowness that comes with reading out loud, both for the audience and for the individual reader, but also in the tentative character of thought that is produced when working through complex ideas together. This is a welcome relief from the break-necked pace of PhD life where we are expected to read and understand vast amounts of material as quickly as possible. It is also conducive to creating lasting friendships and genuine collegiality among PhD researchers who so often occupy a liminal space within academic departments, and where competition and precarity can create tense working environments.

Our group of participants grew organically from among the History department. Informal discussions over lunch led to a general consensus that our shared interest was worth exploring. The read-aloud method was inspired by a philosophy group at Melbourne University whose convenors read key segments aloud. This aligned with Matilda’s own research interests in theories of learning and university pedagogy.** The founding group members agreed upon the first readings and later, readings were decided upon among the wider group. We would recommend having at least one person whose knowledge of the field, whatever it may be, can lead the initial reading selection. Once underway however, everyone involved brought knowledge and expertise to the process of selection and interpretation.

From there, when new members showed interest in joining, we were very transparent about our approach and its benefits. We tried first and foremost to cultivate a shared investment in the methodology, which in retrospect is the core of our identity and mandate as a group, rather than the subject matter, though they are mutually conducive.

Although the method of the group is perhaps more important than the subject matter, focusing on the structures of our discipline has increased our confidence as historians and historiographers, and broadened our knowledge beyond a narrow field of inquiry. This is vital in an absurdly competitive job market, where specialised research expertise, as well as breadth, are key demands.

Most importantly, though, the reading group has become a vital and sustaining source of camaraderie during the many ‘tough times’ a PhD can throw up (sometimes referred to as the Valley of Shit on the Thesis Whisperer blog).

By creating a recurring space of collaboration beyond a visit to the cafe or pub, we’ve been able to forge an enduring sense of disciplinary and collegial identity via the thrill of engaging genuinely and collaboratively with a piece of writing.

This has been a highlight of our degrees so far and one we would recommend to fellow graduate research students.

** Indicative references for these include:

  • Women’s Ways of Knowing. Belenky et al.
  • The Power of Mindful Learning. EJ Langer
  • Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts. WG Perry
  • Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. WG Perry
  • New Students New Learning Styles. C Shroeder
  • Pedagogy of the Distressed. J Tompkins
  • Clinchy BM, ‘Issues of gender in teaching and learning’, Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, Vol. 1, 1990, pp. 52-67.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to all the members of the Theory and Philosophy of History Reading Group at La Trobe University.

What does it mean to bear responsibility for that which has never been my fault, or my deed?

In the first few pages of Terra Nullius (2005) – Swedish author and provocateur Sven Lindqvist’s book on Aboriginal dispossession in Australia – the author recounts a memory from his youth. In the summer of 1951, the young Lindqvist disembarked from the fishing vessel on which he was employed, at the Trondheimfjord in Norway on-route to Iceland. Amongst the Norwegians, Lindqvist and his Icelandic crew members were welcome visitors, and the mood in the early-summer evening was jovial as they shared refreshments together. That is until he was revealed to be Swedish. Silence ensued. Faded smiles. The ‘great-grandmother’ eventually intervened in the silence; “Swedish, eh?”, she asked. “Well what about the 1942 transits?” Lindqvist replied tongue-in-cheek; “I was ten in 1942. They didn’t ask me.” But with each passing moment, Lindqvist became increasingly uncomfortable. The great-grandmother eventually responded; “But big enough to share the booty.”

This is a recurring theme in Lindqvist’s writings, at least in the major English translations to which I am referring. He asks repeatedly; what does it mean to be responsible for past actions, in-actions and wrong-doings? What if that past is something I have no memory of? That which has never been my fault, or my deed?

I first read Lindqvist as an undergraduate in then Professor Robert Manne’s capstone course ‘Politics in the Twentieth Century’. I was fortunate to be taught by Manne in his final semester of teaching at La Trobe University. It was a formative experience which disrupted my worldview and instigated a change of life path (I decided to pursue further studies in history rather than law).  At the heart of Manne’s teaching about the history of the twentieth century as imagined through some of its foremost thinkers (Hobsbawm, Kundera, Arendt, Orwell, Levi etc.), was a moral question about the extent and nature of personal and collective culpability for the many destructive events that have come to characterise the twentieth century.

The beginnings of Lindqvist’s attention to difficult histories and questions of ethical responsibility are clear in his first publication The Myth of Wu-Tao Tzu (1967). The young Lindqvist lived in China for two years during the 1960s, not out of political commitment but rather dedicating himself to the study of calligraphy and language, seeking respite from the consumerism of the West. The myth that gives the book its title is that of an artist who painted a landscape so sublime that upon completion he stepped into it, disappearing forever. The book follows Lindqvist’s quest for truth and beauty in art, mysticism and simplicity through China, India and Afghanistan, but which is sidelined by the overwhelming impoverishment, harsh labour conditions and corruption that the young, idealised Lindqvist encounters and which spark his political awakening. The book descends into an angry, self-defeating kind of polemic, where he denounces his faith in art and its capacity for inspiring truth and beauty in life, as well as his own literary style. He subsequently announces his commitment to political writing. Lindqvist’s early encounters with Western imperialism in India and China, are the beginnings of his sustained attention to the legacies of European colonialism, racism and extermination, which culminate in a remarkable trilogy of books published during the 1990s; Desert Divers (1990) Exterminate All the Brutes (1992) and A History of Bombing (1999).

Lindqvist’s best known and most acclaimed book is Exterminate All the Brutes. The book was inspired by the young Lindqvist’s reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where he was struck by Kurtz’s apparent foresight in his proclamation to ‘exterminate all the brutes’. He takes Conrad’s insight into the racist and exterminatory logic of Western imperialism, as a premonition of the Holocaust, and in tracing this complex intellectual history, argues that in exterminating the Jews and other minorities, the Germans were enacting the same imperialist logic that had been pervasive throughout Europe in the previous century

I am reminded of Lindqvist’s dilemma this week, 10-years after Kevin Rudd’s National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples. In particular, I am drawn back to Manne’s classroom wherein Lindqvist’s ascription of historical responsibility was keenly embraced by my classmates with respect to the exterminatory policies of the European powers in Africa, but had much less purchase in discussions of Australia’s own violent and destructive policies. Now, that may well correspond to some extent with the comparatively poor standard of research and argument in Terra Nullius as opposed to Exterminate All the Brutes. However, the question remains, as Danielle Celermajer has thoughtfully phrased;

“How to illuminate the wrong that lies at the feet of all us who silently or implicitly consent to a world where particular acts of grave wrongdoing are rendered normal and even invisible?”