Thursday, March 03, 2011

Face to face #scireadr

Screenshot hasn't exactly set the internet on fire. That's fine, it wasn't meant to. It was only ever part of our strategy to encourage students to engage with long-form literature. Part two is the Book Group. We held the first meeting yesterday. To protect the confidentiality of individuals, I won't be going into details here, but I have some general thoughts I would like to publish.

Attendance was ... sparse. There are many possible reasons for that. Some are local and particular, such as the fact the meeting was on a Wednesday evening when students have had no timetabled teaching in the afternoon so may not have been on campus. In addition, it is the last week of first half modules for first year students, so assessment deadlines were bunched up. Other possible reasons are more general, and discussed below.

We had a good discussion about Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, the book up for discussion. To my surprise, it received a good kicking. The general feeling was that Bryson had been overambitious with the scope of this book, and in the eyes of those present, had fallen short, coming up with a book of lists. We discussed issues of authority and authenticity, and whether as a non-scientist, Bryson was the right person to write this book. The consensus was that he was not sufficiently critical of the science or the scientists he discusses, and falls short on that count. A more serious criticism was that the characters portrayed came across as two-dimensional and unengaging, presumably due to Bryson's lack of authority in science. Although I stood up for his portrayal of the Revd. William Buckland, people felt that Bryson had done a particularly poor job on Darwin and missed a big opportunity in the process.

After an hour or so, the discussion became more general, ranging across student fees, over-assessment, and how to run a book group. There was a feeling that society/societies had been overrun by more flexible personal networks - the cult of the individual. Much emphasis is placed on volunteering for reward. None of this helps in maintaining non-core organizations such as student or learned societies where the workload is great and the rewards uncertain. It was felt that going to a book group needed to become a habit, since no-one had participated in one before. The conflict here is that the frequency of a habit-forming schedule (e.g. once a month) is likely to be too great a commitment for most students. This is the core of the SciReadr experiment - can it extend student's knowledge without cracking the assessment whip? Clearly this is a long term project which has a long way to go. We hope to arrange another meeting in the summer term.

These are my personal views of the meeting, if you were there and saw things a different way, please leave a comment.


  1. So the students are critical in their reading afterall?

  2. Well this was rather a small sample size. There's never been any doubts that those that read are critical. It's more about numbers.

  3. Well, I enjoined the group even though numbers were disappointing. I think the idea has legs and the suggestion to run one in the 2nd week of the autumn term I thought was a really good one - catch them while they're keen. Also, as suggested - a shorter book might help. My favourite book from the reading list (for what it's worth) when I were a lad at UoL was Oliver Sachs' The man who mistook his wife for a hat. Is it still on?

  4. I'd like to do one in the summer term if at all possible and another one in the autumn. Oliver Sachs: