Teaching Spotlight – Book Club with Students

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Jaclyn Dee recently organized an informal Book Club for students in her BIOL 112 course. The Book Club was centred around Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, which brought an Indigenous lens to some of the relevant course material. “I had such a positive experience and I know the students did too.”

Keep reading to find out what motivated Jaclyn to initiate this Book Club, how it went, and what she learned along the way.

What motivated you to do this Book Club?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can get students thinking about the big picture of why they are in school in the first place and how we can get them to bring more of themselves into the classroom. Bringing in the contemporary issue of Indigenous self-governance where it intersects with molecular biology (class content) seemed like an appropriate way to leverage students’ existing interests and to underscore the impacts of the actual application of biological knowledge out in the world beyond the obvious medical ones.

Additionally, in attempting to incorporate Indigenous voices in my teaching, I have been trying to point students towards resources where Indigenous peoples are speaking for themselves rather than me speaking for them. This led me to the Native American DNA book by Prof. Kim TallBear.

I also wanted to provide a safe, friendly space for students to have informal, intellectual discussions and make personal connections. These are mostly first-year students who have done so much online learning. I’ve been worried about their ability to meet people. I actually talked to a couple of students who said they had a hard time meeting people to do things like start a study group. Hosting a common interest discussion group with snacks was a low-cost, low-barrier, low-commitment approach to just try.

Lastly, a big part of this was also selfish. I had wanted to read the book, but didn’t “have time”. Creating a reading group with students allowed me to give myself permission to set aside time to actually read the book. Getting back to campus after many weeks staring at black Zoom boxes, I hardly knew any of the students. Knowing the students a little always makes me enjoy teaching so much more. I figured that anyone who wanted to join a book club on molecular biology and social justice on their own time, without the promise of marks, would be worth knowing. Also, it’s important to me to always try to build rapport with the students. This was a convenient way to try to make those connections.

How did you implement this Book Club?

During my Land Acknowledgement in my first class, I said that I would arrange for an optional Book Club on this book so that students could see how molecular biology tied in with an important social issue. I followed up a few weeks later with an email inviting students to join and explaining that this would be an informal, optional, in-person reading and discussion group (with refreshments). I told them how they could access the book and told them the estimated time involved and that they didn’t have to commit and didn’t even have to read the book every week. They could come and just listen to each other, if they wanted to.

After the interested students came forward, I blocked the readings into little 60 page chunks and sent out a reading schedule. For our first meeting, I provided some discussion guidelines and explained that I was there to facilitate, not teach. There was a lot of social theory in this book and I have no grounding in the topic at all. I think that disclosing that I wasn’t an expert on the topic helped make this a student-focused discussion. We also did brief introductions during that first meeting. During all of our well-ventilated, in-person meetings, I asked a simple question: What about the reading for this week stood out to you? The conversation would just flow from there.

What was the result?

In my mind, this was a low-effort, high yield activity. Though only a handful of students showed up, they showed up consistently and were always raring to go. What I loved most was how they brought in their learning from other classes to dissect what they were reading in the book. I didn’t have to ask them to make those connections. They did it all on their own. There was hardly ever a lull in the conversation.

How did students respond?

After the first meeting, one student remarked that it was the highlight of their first year. Another student said that this group was eye-opening for them. Where they came from, questions and discussion were discouraged so having an instructor who invited questions was a welcome change. Having that access to me, I think, also made them feel more like they belonged in the class. They looked like they were happy and “at home” when I would see them in lecture outside of the Book Club.

What did you learn or find surprising?

I was surprised by how much of their other course material they could bring in to the discussion. It was highly interdisciplinary. We struggle to get students to bring their understanding of things like mitosis from one year to the next within biology courses. The students in the Book Club were pulling in their knowledge from psychology, WRDS, and kinesiology to deepen the discussion.

I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I had worries about time, and about people taking over the whole conversation or things getting heated, but we didn’t have those problems. I was worried that I had no background in social theory and might appear to be a fraud and I would lose students’ respect. None of these concerns caused any issues. We began and ended on time, the organization was easy, and students were super respectful of each other too. If anything, our discussions enhanced my credibility as a teacher because students heard me reflecting about my teaching and asking their opinions so often. Students light up like crazy when they can bring something from one class into another. It’s so fun to watch. I also liked having that window into the other things they are learning and getting to know their personalities.

The diversity of students was also a pleasant surprise. Based on what they shared about their backgrounds, they had surprisingly little in common other than their interest in the book.

What advice would you give someone who might want to do something similar in their course?

Make it low-barrier and make sure you establish respectful discussion guidelines. Keep it simple. Try to pick something the students can access for free.

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