Creating Virtual Intellectual Communities with Summer Tales

by Nicholas Allred, Jennifer Coffman, Judit Ward

With much of campus life and instruction set to become virtual this fall, libraries as well as the rest of the university are figuring out how to offer rewarding programming and instruction over digital platforms. Books can be picked up, databases accessed remotely, but how does one create the sense of an intellectual community in a way that’s not only socially distant, but suitable for an online platform? How can we host events and programs that aren’t just pale imitations of in-person activities, but are designed from the start around the limitations and possibilities of platforms like Canvas — “born virtual,” so to speak?

The Summer Tales virtual reading club, a collaboration between New Brunswick Libraries and the Division of Continuing Studies, has explored some of the possibilities this summer. In the 2019-20 academic year — simpler times! — our team at the Chang Science Library (librarian Judit Ward, graduate assistant Jennifer Coffman, and graduate specialist Nicholas Allred) had piloted a recreational reading initiative called Books We Read, a hybrid program encompassing a Books We Read LibGuide and reading suggestions alongside in-person events. Once the pandemic hit in March, we ramped up the online aspect starting with a Books We Read Online LibGuide, highlighting digital collections for pleasure reading and suggesting books for the current moment — from the uncanny relevance of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year to the escapism of contemporary fantasy and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. When the Division of Continuing Studies approached us about implementing a summer reading club, we were eager to put what we had learned into practice.

The core of the Summer Tales program was an ongoing discussion of three short stories: Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Sleeping and Waking,” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Is Here?” The shorter the better, we reasoned: students hungry for more could easily find recommendations from us and from each other, but the main texts would be bite-sized enough for anyone to participate, regardless of busy schedules or reading pace. The texts were chosen for relatability as well. Each dealt with themes likely to be familiar to college students: awkward conversations at parties, late-night existential angst, and the peculiar feeling of returning to one’s childhood home as an adult. We hoped that these texts could be engaging on any number of levels: that they would be easy to talk about and impossible to exhaust.

Discussions would take two forms: a text forum on Canvas with new topics rolled out weekly, and a live video conference session for each story. Students could choose how and how much they wanted to participate. The Canvas site had dozens of participants (56 by the end of the summer), and we soon discovered that different students engaged in different ways: some weighed in regularly on each topic and responded to their peers, while our analytics showed that others who didn’t post were nonetheless avidly following the discussion — a total of 6,150 page views, not counting staff! At first, coming from a teaching paradigm, we wondered what we could do to bring these “lurkers” into the conversation. We came to realize, however, that part of the beauty of this online recreational reading program was the different levels of engagement it could offer. Students who wanted a seminar- or book club-style discussion could enjoy one, while those who simply wanted to read along and listen to the thoughts of their peers could do so without feeling like eavesdroppers. The asynchronous nature of the discussions also worked around busy schedules: students could post whenever they liked, from wherever they liked. No curated Zoom background necessary! The result was often long, thoughtful posts that participants had clearly spent time on in a way that one simply can’t in a synchronous setting.

There’s an immediacy to a live conversation that a forum can’t replicate, of course, and so to satisfy that need we had videoconferences for each story as well. It was difficult to get the same turnout for a specific day and time as we had for our asynchronous forums, but the core group who came were eager to participate (saving us the embarrassment of our fear of having to talk to ourselves)! While these were sometimes small gatherings, our largest event of the summer was a videoconference on our last story — more on that later.

Students really connected with the stories: many related their own personal experience to the situations that the stories depicted. For instance, the first selection, about an awkward teenage boy who tries to chat up “girls” at a party without realizing that they are in fact aliens, brought up memories of first crushes and adolescent angst. Participants talked about what was similar or different in their own experience of high school: trying (sometimes failing) to impress others while simultaneously coming into one’s own identity by fits and starts. In the live discussion, we pivoted from the fumbling narrator to the “girls” he talks with but fails to understand: how their own experience as aliens trapped in strange and ill-fitting human bodies also captures an aspect of teenage experience.

The final live event of the summer was, fittingly, a kind of headliner: a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s most acclaimed writers and recently a Visiting Distinguished Professor at Rutgers. The event drew interest befitting Oates’ profile: hundreds of registrations and approximately two hundred attendees. Anticipating the possibility of such high turnout, we made two decisions that proved key to the event’s success. First, we asked attendees to submit their questions for Oates at registration, so that we could collate them and incorporate representative questions into our interview. This way we could be sure to cover the topics of widest interest without the unwieldiness of “calling” on people in an enormous virtual “room” and exposing ourselves to more technical problems. Second, at the suggestion of our partners at the Division of Continuing Studies, we had Oates read an excerpt from the short story we selected for Summer Tales. This proved especially key with so many attendees present who hadn’t been following along all summer: by beginning with the short story and questions about it we were able to let the conversation develop organically from a particular piece of writing to more general thoughts about the craft, without leaving audience members unfamiliar with the story in the dark. Special thanks for making the event a success are due to Jennifer Valera, Krystal-Ann Ladao, and Kylie Corda of the Division of Continuing Studies, as well as Dee Magnoni of New Brunswick Libraries and Carl Sposato for technical support — not to mention Joyce Carol Oates herself!

All in all, the Summer Tales program helped us learn how to make the lemons of an online-only environment into lemonade. Virtual programming isn’t quite the same as the in-person kind that we’ve come to miss: along with its limitations come distinct opportunities, like the ability to take one’s time crafting responses in an online discussion or the chance to attend a two-hundred-person event and be guaranteed a front-row seat. We look forward to carrying this experience forward in the fall — if you’re looking for a good read then watch this space for Tales We Read!

Judit Hajnal Ward