You Should Organize a Study Group/Book Club/Online Group/Event! Tips on How to Do It

Not long after I left school, I missed certain parts of it. Not enough of it to want to go back-- every time I considered that, I remembered all I didn't want-- but enough to try to recreate the good parts for myself.

Some good parts:

  • Stimulating intellectual discussion

  • Learning from more experienced people

  • Concrete tasks to work on, structure

  • Feedback from others on those tasks

  • Meeting people with similar interests

Some bad parts:

  • Ugly power dynamics between professors/authority figures and students

  • High praise & value placed on grades & scores

  • Heavy workload that made it hard to maintain work/life balance, especially while working jobs too

  • High pressure associated with scarcity- only so many could get into top schools, only so many get A's, etc

  • Timed & graded tests

  • Not enough space/time to truly play and explore and mess up and keep playing

Since then, I've organized many different types of groups and gotten quite good at community organizing. Some of the groups I've organized throughout the years: math study groups, game engine forum/chats, psychology book clubs, programming workshops, electronics workshops, and more!

I've written one post on how I organized the workshops back in 2016, you can find it here: http://stephaniehurlburt.com/blog/2016/11/1/guide-to-running-technology-workshops

Here, I'll discuss some new developments to my thinking along with other practices that are more applicable outside of workshops. Keep in mind this is not exhaustive at all-- please let me know if you'd like elaboration on anything or more content.

I hope this inspires you to organize some groups of your own and make the most of it.

How to gather people?

If you're a newbie, the best advice I can give is to structure the group in such a way that you're okay with only 2-3 people joining. Surely you can find 2-3 others who are interested? You can gather people from work, other social gatherings, social media, friends of friends who mentioned it to people they know, or even public sites like meetup.com .

Being a newbie at organizing is tricky, because you're going to have an easier time with people you know (they'll be more forgiving of your mistakes), but strangers allow you to help more people and make a truly diverse event. Either way, don't be afraid to start small. I talked a little more on this in the workshop blog post but I want to be sure to mention this point.

Code of Conduct

This was something I didn't always have when first organizing groups years ago, and I learned over time why it's necessary.

Some aspects of a good code of conduct:

  1. Proper descriptions of inappropriate behavior. Trust me, it's a rare day that someone who acted badly thinks they're abusive, racist, sexist, or that they even did anything wrong. Even when it's obvious. Community organizing will surprise you like that. You need to find a way to describe inappropriate behavior that even someone who thinks they're in the right can agree with. For instance, someone is unlikely to admit they were sexist, but they could admit they gave unsolicited advice and didn't speak from their own experience using "I" statements. Not the best example, but hopefully you see what I'm getting at.

  2. It's about more than just preventing disasters— it’s about defining the social context of the event. Good code of conducts give people a sense of what to expect from interaction with that group, and set the tone for what kind of space it is. Asking someone on a date might feel borderline harassing at a professional gathering (depending on how senior the person is, gender ratio, etc), but is perfectly expected at a singles' mixer. Talking about a trauma you went through with strangers might feel toxic and creepily out of place in a game meetup, and welcome in a psychology book club. Context matters. Set the tone.

  3. Ways to report violations, ideally ways that work even if an organizer with power and favor did the bad thing. This is a real tough one, and I imagine one that will constantly evolve. We can look to politics for examples. These days, I keep it simple with my small and short-lived groups and opt for a "benevolent dictator" model-- all violations reported to me, I can kick anyone out for any reason (helps if I messed up with point #1, which you'll inevitably do). However, this is not a great model for longer-running groups or bigger groups, as trust me, all organizers are flawed and it does create a bad power dynamic (exactly what I'd like to avoid).

  4. Make reporting easy and obvious. One of my favorite creative examples is signs I saw at one event in the women's bathrooms about instructions on how to report sexual harassment, including words you could use to discretely report it while the harasser was still bothering you (like ordering certain drinks). But you can have more straightforward ways, just consider how violations could happen and how you'll handle it.

  5. Have mild consequences for mild violations or little corrections to members, not just "you're kicked out at any violation whatsoever."

This is an example of one I used at my latest small book club: https://pastebin.com/6kA93uPV

Here's an example of a larger one: https://www.contributor-covenant.org/

Great post with lots more detail (written by someone which much much more experience than me!) on code of conducts: https://www.ashedryden.com/blog/codes-of-conduct-101-faq

Ways to Interact

Digital Chats

Keep in mind, people don't like having an extra tab or app open. Unless your group really provides something special, and even if it does, it'll often silently die if you require this. Lately I've been liking Twitter DM chats for small, short-lived groups. I've also had a lot of success with forums like Google Groups that send members e-mail updates, because everyone checks their e-mail, and success with Slack if the group had enough interest/momentum. The Slack ones have died fast when momentum dropped, though-- that requires consistent activity and interest.

In Person Gatherings

Talked about a bit in the workshop blog post (linked to in the Introduction). I've used mostly the same ideas, and since then also realized how many community spaces Seattle has-- for instance, an extra room in my local coffee shop they reserve for free, or a long table in another that I can also be sure no one sits at during the meetup time. Check out your local coffee shops, bookstores, library, any low-cost space (for instance, I wouldn't recommend a restaurant unless you could cover the bill yourself) for community spaces. Tech companies or coworking spaces like WeWork also host events for free, often just requesting they get to pitch your attendees on whatever they're offering (hiring positions, getting memberships, etc).

Location is a socioeconomic issue and matters. Whenever possible, inconvenience the people with money and make it convenient for those in poorer areas.

Video Calls

I usually send out a link that anyone can click on to join, typically using Hangouts. However, people who are more professional than me tend to prefer Zoom and I'd recommend it from my experience. Also check out the software of choice of digital conferences-- things get trickier the bigger your audience. I've seen one organizer do a smaller Hangouts group that was streamed with live chat, but it's nice when audience members can participate more than that.

Structure

Possibly the most interesting topic!

Book Clubs

I've found 100 pages every two weeks is a manageable amount and it seems the internet agrees with me. This is about 2 hours of focused reading, which you would think could be done in a shorter time, but keep in mind people (including me) often need to get in the right headspace and feel at peace enough to read the book, which may only happen on one lucky Saturday morning in those two weeks.

I set guidelines upfront that the topics should stay around the book-- for instance, quoting passages, asking questions about a concept the book introduces, mentioning related resources, or sharing experiences related to the book. Fiction will be different than non-fiction, I've mostly done nonfiction psychology texts.

Set an example. If you're contributing thoughtfully in the way you want others to, other thoughtful contributions that mirror yours will fall in.

I like a mix of chat and video calls for this format, so remote people can join.

A note on moderating discussions:

Since this is heavily discussion-based, I keep in mind lessons I've learned in other areas of life. From seminars in college, I learned-- 1/3 of your speaking should be questions, 1/3 should be rephrasing/underlining what others have said, and 1/3 should be your own contributions. From group therapy sessions, I learned taking breaks in discussion and allowing silence is so important for peace and inclusion. I also learned the power of "I" statements, not giving unsolicited advice to others, and avoiding sensitive topics. I love moderating discussions and examining what makes a healthy discussion, and I think I'm going to incorporate more discussions in different kinds of groups.

Study Groups

I've experienced both great failures and great successes with study groups, mostly focused on mathematics.

The bad ones were ones where it started to resemble the bad parts of school-- too much work and structure, and elitism/talking down to newbies. It's surprisingly hard to squash the latter as an organizer, you want to prevent those issues before they come up.

I came to learn that it's important to:

  • Let people still participate even if they fall behind, and if you do keep a schedule read the book club rules, make it easy to keep up with even if life is busy

  • Be careful about requiring previous knowledge, even on advanced texts. I'd caution against it. Let people self-select out or in.

  • On that note, schedules aren't necessary at all. I've run study groups that are pretty broad (say, mathematics themed) and just brought a bunch of library books for all to grab

  • Bring supplies and copies of the books, keep in mind not everyone has much money. In the past I even brought gift cards I'd discretely distribute before the study group started to those who needed it, so they could buy their own books for next time

  • Keep watch on members tutoring each other. Unsolicited, and sometimes even solicited, tutoring can very quickly turn condescending and overbearing during a time that's supposed to be a pleasant hobby activity. Setting the appropriate tone is the way to go to prevent this.

  • Let people talk casually about their lives and be generally social (unlike the book club), but make sure there's still an area that's peaceful/relatively quiet or an expectation that it's okay not to join in on the discussion (I often explicitly said this). Moderate what the social expectations are, what the context is

I tend to like in person gatherings at coffee shops (no reservations made, just showed up) for this format.

Workshops

See workshop post.

General networking groups

Every time I've organized something like this it's never had much structure, though that's normal for this type of group-- people often make meetups or conferences with talks that transition to general networking.

I typically do a slack group or e-mail forum with any theme apparent in the title and code of conduct very visible-- especially important whenever the group is mostly unstructured/unthemed discussion and interaction. One thing I've found that's important is that I actually have the bandwidth/energy to check in regularly to moderate. As a result, many of these types of groups have died over the years (though some have also died because of implicit or explicit code of conduct violations from members that were too bad for the group to come back from). Nonetheless, I keep coming back to this format because I find it very rewarding when done well.

I tend not to like in person for this format because I am not a fan of an audience being talked to. I'd prefer something more collaborative that didn't imply weird power dynamics about who is special enough to get to be the speaker and who has to just be a mute.

Small groups grabbing meals are very common and tend to work well. You've got to keep an eye on making sure the attendees are from diverse backgrounds and some are out of your network. The problem with these small groups, of course, is a lot more people would love to join.

Another kind is general networking surrounding something more passive, like demo booths set up. I actually really like this concept as a way to allow more people to come to the event while not elevating anyone to be a speaker or panelist. I think in the future I may experiment with larger moderated discussions too.


And those are some thoughts on organizing from years of experience and trial and error— as I said, do let me know if you have questions or would like more detail on anything. Don't forget that you can start small and mess up and try again. It doesn't have to be that hard or time consuming to organize a small group. Go forth!

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