Organizing a Reading Seminar

By Asher Auel

In the Fall semester of 2006, a small group of graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania embarked on the time-honored tradition of organizing a reading seminar.  Independent of any course or professor, we decided to read through Cornell and Silverman’s “Arithmetic Geometry” to understand the proof of Faltings’ theorem (the Mordell conjecture).  While it was great fun for the semester, we learned some lessons that we’d like to pass on to those of you who wish to start up a reading seminar on your own.

Have an organizational meeting.  Even if you know all the people involved, set a time and place for an “organizational meeting” and inform the rest of the graduate students in the department.  You may be surprised by who else is interested.  At the meeting, discuss the primary and secondary texts you’ll be following.  Work out a rough time line, reading schedule, and itinerary of talks.

Be clear on the structure of the talks.  Do you want the talks to be formal?  informal?  more like discussions?  or do you even want talks at all?  It may seem like a good idea to just meet to discuss the week’s reading, though I would argue that having someone prepare a talk each week will bring the most out of everyone attending.

Prepare your talks.  How should one prepare a talk for a reading seminar?  The most important thing to remember is that you’re all there to learn the material together, not to show off to each other, or to “get it down right” at the board.  In general, it’s not a good idea to present anything verbatim from the reading.  Rather than worry about including every detail of a proof, concentrate on getting across the flow of ideas.  Rather than outline a general construction, give examples in some illuminating cases.  Provide additional background information, history, and context.  Your job as speaker for the week is to supplement the reading, not regurgitate it at the board.  For example, in one talk I focused on a single commutative diagram (that Milne had left to the reader as an “unfortunately complicated exercise”), which led me to discover a book by Brian Conrad, essentially devoted to this exercise.  Avoid the mental trap of thinking that you need to “cover” all of the material in your reading. Again, your fellow seminar goers will have done the reading, it’s up to you to explain it, tease out the ideas, and enrich everyone’s understanding.

Maintain notes on who talks and when.  I would even recommend setting up a quick web-site to record the date and location of the meetings and talks, and to keep it updated.  During the seminar, this will help everyone keep track of the schedule.  Afterward, this will help keep a permanent reminder of what you’ve accomplished.

Finally, ask your department to confer some kind of official recognition.  You may be able to get course/seminar credit in exchange for getting a professor to sign off on your reading schedule.  Your seminar may be listed on the departmental calender of events.  It never hurts to ask, unless you’re trying to run a secret seminar, but that’s the subject for another post.

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