Challenging, unsettling and obscure! Exploring unknown intellectual lands with a reading group

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by Hooman Foroughmand Araabi

Academics often have very focused thinking, leading to a narrow range of reading. We often either read personal texts (the novel we might read before sleeping) or professional texts in our own field (the literature we come across in relation to research or teaching). Something is being missed here, as reading can make new ways of thinking, but this rarely happens if our reading choices come from what we already know.  

During my PhD, I ran a reading group for 4 years. The group was a particular space to read and think together about texts which we would not have read individually.  I gained perspectives on those texts, from our group discussions within the carefully curated spaces where we met, which I could not have achieved alone. Thinking is a social phenomenon, as its subjects and methods are both socially constructed. Back in ancient Greece, philosophies emerged from dialogues and discussion which in turn led to philosophical texts. This method of dialogue and discussion was then used over many centuries to help us understand the ensuing philosophical texts. So, why now, are discussion groups such a rare species within our contemporary academic jungles? Are we now trapping ourselves in intellectual enclaves woven from the devastated reading list leftover from our systematic literature reviews? Or are we just choosing to read texts which do not inspire or require group discussion?

It‘s understandable that, as academics, we could easily be overloaded with papers and books, some of which may be less useful than others. It has also been claimed that, in this time of social media, people read less and have fewer critical discussions. So, why then, when we can easily be overloaded and, at the same time, anyone can easily find relevant texts, would we explore unknown intellectual lands with a reading group? Well, perhaps because it can provide us with unpredicted inspiration and maybe a joy beyond any established need!  

Not exploring unknown intellectual domains whilst engaged in academia would surely be a missed opportunity. In a search for continued explorations of such domains, I started a reading group at UWE a year ago. The reading group has been, and will be, open to everyone with the intention of finding texts that challenge us, unrest us and hopefully open new ways of thinking. Meeting in the heart of Bristol, at Arnolfini art gallery, also offers us the opportunity to include film and theatre along with the texts.

The ABE reading group meets in the heart of Bristol

The reading group is a way to enjoy group thinking in an unmeasurable way (unlike REF, TEF or KEF). Yet, it has inspired my teaching and research. To be honest, this is not a surprise!  When interviewing successful urban design academic and practitioners for a research study, I found that one of the key contributors to their success was chance or accidental encounters with people, texts or job opportunities. The role of chance in discovering the unknown and progressing human knowledge has been acknowledged within philosophy of science, particularly by Paul Feyerabend. As known processes often result in known outcomes, attempts to explore the unknown are vital if we are to expand our knowledge.

The reading group will carry on in the coming academic year, and hopefully beyond, to pursue the mission. Hopefully more challenging, unsettling and obscure texts will be explored with willing fellow explorers!…

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