CS Book Club: Small but Strong

CS Book Club: Small but Strong

My dad still clips articles out of the newspaper, yes the actual physical newspaper! If he finds something he thinks is relevant to me in any way, he clips it and saves it until the next time he sees me. If it is going to be a while before he sees me, he will take a picture of the clipping with his smartphone and send it to me. Here is a clipping he gave to me about 7 or 8 months ago (Pearls before Swine by Stephen Pastis):

Around this time last year my university career office sent out a call for faculty proposals: $500 to host an event for students to advance their career and professional development. These awards were typically used to bring a guest speaker to campus where, in my opinion, students listen passively to a 1-hour lecture in exchange for 5 extra credit points. While guest speakers are great and all, this was not what I had envisioned for $500 to advance my CS students professionally.

“Most CEOs read 60 books a year” (from Blinkist.com):

  • Bill Gates reads 50 books per year — and he’s not alone!
  • Elon Musk has said that he learned how to build rockets by reading books.
  • Warren Buffett became America’s most successful investor because he used his voracious reading habit to learn everything there was to know about every industry.
  • Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg started his own book club in 2015 to challenge himself and others to read a book every two weeks.

I want my students to read more. From articles I read on The Chronicle, like this one, “Enticing Students to Read” or this one “Why one University went all out on Teaching Reading,” I know I’m not alone. I want to read more. Reading for me comes in waves. Right now I’m in a reading wave (I’ve finished 10+ books this summer). Last winter I was in a reading wave. Last summer I was in a reading wave. Okay, really, I’m only in reading waves on academic breaks, but anyways, my point is I love to read, I know the benefits of reading, I want to read more, and I want my students to read more. So in August of 2018, I submitted a proposal for $500 to buy books to start “CS Book Club.” When I pitched my idea to my chair, he was on board. In fact, he immediately pulled books off the shelves in his office that he thought we should read in CS Book Club… Weapons of Math Destruction, Algorithms to Live By, and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, to name a few. My colleague next door overheard the conversation and suggested books. The director reviewing my proposal suggested books. Another colleague in a different department dropped two books off at my office he wanted me to read. You tell someone you are starting a book club and people throw books at you!! It was great!!

This past Spring I piloted CS Book Club. I advertised to students by sending an email to our CS majors mailing list. I brought books to my classes and tried to “entice” students to read more by joining my club. Students were interested. I was worried I too many students were interested. And then I held an informational meeting and only four students showed up. Oh. Okay. That’s fine. We will be small but strong.

I had a signup sheet and got those fours students to give me their email address so I could start a club mailing list. I brought the signup sheet to my classes, along with the books we decided to read (okay, the books the four students expressed interest in and the career office said they would buy), and passed the sheet around. I’d give a pitch to students in office hours and advisees in advisor meetings. Within two weeks I had 17 students sign up!! We ordered 10 copies of each book and CS Book Club was born.

Over the course of the semester, we read three books:

  1. Designing your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (~$17 on Amazon)
  2. Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (~$10 on Amazon)
  3. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (~$10 on Amazon)

Students could join CS Book Club for a book they were interested in then dip out for books they weren’t interested in. All 10 copies of the first book were picked up, 9/10 copies of the second book were picked up, and 3/10 copies of the third book were picked up. We averaged about 6 students attending book #1 meetings, 4 students attending book #2 meetings, and 3 students attending book #3 meetings. I had three die-hard students who showed up to nearly every meeting. People would ask me how book club was going, I’d say “we are small but strong.” Each meeting I let the students choose how many chapters we were going to read before our next meeting. The students set the pace. We met weekly and I was so thrilled when students kept showing up. My mantra was, “we will keep meeting if students keep showing up.” We were small but we were strong.

Students are busy. Especially students at my university who haven’t learned the art of saying “no” and tend to overextend themselves. Will I continue CS Book Club this coming year? I’m planning on it. Feedback from my students suggests three extra-curricular, “for fun” books a semester was too much. They are probably right. My strategy is to rebrand next year. The term “book club” is either too nerdy or as my dad’s comic book suggests, too lame. CS Book Club 2.0 is going to be the “CS Common Read” but I’m going to try and come up with a more marketable name (ideas?). One book per semester. Join meetings if you can. We will probably be slightly larger but hopefully just as strong.

I’d encourage you to try a flavor of CS Book Club. I bet you want to read more too. I bet that if you have students (or kids or a significant other or friends or whatever), you want them to read more too. Small but strong still has an impact. I have evidence of this from my three die-hard book clubbers. Weekly meetings talking algorithms, career, and life with a professor was much more impactful than attending a 1-hour lecture from a guest speaker one time. And my budget came in under $500 and I have all of the books sitting in my office. I have a library. These books are an investment that can continue paying dividends year after year. In fact, before breaking for the summer, I loaned three copies of Algorithms to Live By to students. They asked to borrow books to read this summer. It was great. Students are reading more.

Here’s to small but strong ways of always learning something new,


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