Concert Reading Group - Format

The purpose of the Concert Reading Group is to expose students to more of the culture of our research area, and to read and discuss papers that will broaden our knowledge of the field. It also gives us a opportunity to interact with other students who share similar interests but may lie outside our day-to-day realm of activity. We try to cover a variety of papers of the following (non-exhaustive) types sorts categories varieties:

This is the format agreed to by the members of the Concert Reading Group and represents input from many of them. My role here (as Convener*) is simply to record the suggestions and insights of others.

The format is described in four parts: how we select papers, what occurs before we meet to discuss, what occurs during the meeting, and what occurs afterward. Each Concert reading group session involves three roles, the Convener, the Leader, and the Guide.

Before the Discussion

While reading is obviously the primary activity before the discussion, we draw the following distinction from other discussion formats. In addition to reading the paper, each member is responsible for a list of questions, comments or issues raised by the paper. Questions may touch on specific technical details or raise broad concerns philosophical anything that will initiate discussion or improve your understanding of the paper. Asking questions does not require expertise, and asking to learn something is a productive way to contribute to the discussion.

No slides are drafted for the discussion. No single member is "responsible" for a given paper, but the Convener selects a Guide, a student that has some familiarity with the subject area and can ensure that general questions can be answered (younger students are encouraged to be Guides, but older students will often fill this role). That said, don't expect to show up and glean the content of the paper from the discussion. As you'll see below, we don't waste any time in summarizing the paper.

Quorum During the height of the academic semester (and the summer months when many students are away), meeting once a week sometimes becomes a burden more than a chance to take a break from the usual run-of-the-mill. To ensure that we have enough people to make the discussion interesting, we have worked out the following "quorum" system:

  1. On the Thursday before the RG, the Convener sends a "Quorum Call" email.
  2. If you plan to read and attend (the following Wednesday), respond to the meeting announcement (hopefully by the weekend).1
  3. The Convener collects the emails and sends an email to the group announcing the result.
  4. If the threshold is met, we meet; otherwise, we put the paper off for a week.

Obviously members that don't send mail are still welcome to attend. This is just meant to be an easy way to account for paper deadlines, vacation... We hope to keep the process as lightweight as possible, while still ensuring good discussion at a predictable time. (This mechanism also provides the Convener with an excuse to give gentle reminders to the other members.)

1If you can't attend, but don't want to miss this particular discussion, you may attempt to "veto" the meeting time (but then you're required to attend the following week!)

During the Discussion

We begin each Wednesday afternoon session by "going around the table," sharing our questions and comments and listing them on the whiteboard. At this point, however, we try to limit the discussion of these questions: the goal is to create an outline for the remainder of the session. By tradition, the last individual to arrive is given the honor of offering the first question.

The Guide and the Leader are the primary roles during the discussion, and should be two different people.

Obviously, there is a balance between giving detailed answers to a small number of questions and cursory explanations to many. Maintaining this balance should be driven by overall goal of the discussion, to include as many people as possible; to this end, priority may be given to more basic questions to ensure that no one gets completely lost.

During the meeting, everyone should be thinking about topics for the next discussion. Difficult questions raised by one paper can be a good guide to determining a paper for the following week.

After the Discussion

Recognizing that a significant amount of thought and innovation takes place outside of a formal setting, we usually take the time to share a drink or meal after the meeting. Not only does this provide a nice bound on the length of the discussion (hunger demands it!), it gives us a chance to continue the discussion in a less structured environment.

Revisiting the format

We want to make sure we explicitly talk about the format at the beginning of a year (to explain it to new students) and the end of the year (to see if we want to change it). Changing of the guard in terms of conveners has also been a good time to revisit the format of our discussions, but the idea that current students "buy in" to what we're doing is more important than any specifics.

* Conveners:
Dan Spoonhower (2004-2005)
William Lovas (2005-2006)
Dan Licata (2006-2007)
Dan Lee (2007-2008)
Rob Simmons (2008-2009)
Chris Martens (2010-)