The surprising benefits of a read-aloud reading group (Matilda Keynes and Nikita Vanderbyl)

Photo by Mavis CW |
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 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.

This post is co-published today with The Research Whisperer blog. 


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.