ConCert Reading Group - Format

The purpose of the ConCert Reading Group is to expose students to more of the culture of our research area, and to read and discuss papers that will broaden our knowledge of the field. It also gives us a opportunity to interact with other students who share similar interests but may lie outside our day-to-day realm of activity.

This is the format agreed to by the members of the ConCert Reading Group and represents input from many of them. My role here (as Convener) is simply to record the suggestions and insights of others.

The format is described in three parts: what occurs before we meet to discuss, what occurs during the meeting, and what occurs afterward.

Before the Discussion

While reading is obviously the primary activity before the discussion, we draw the following distinction from other discussion formats. In addition to reading the paper, each member is responsible for a list of questions, comments or issues raised by the paper. Questions may touch on specific technical details or raise broad philosophical concerns — anything that will initiate discussion or improve your understanding of the paper.

No slides are drafted for the discussion. No single member is "responsible" for a given paper. That said, don't expect to show up and glean the content of the paper from the discussion. As you'll see below, we don't waste any time in summarizing the paper.


During the height of the academic semester, meeting once a week sometimes becomes a burden more than a chance to take a break from the usual run-of-the-mill. To ensure that we have enough people to make the discussion interesting, we've been experimenting with the following "quorum" system.

  1. If you plan to read the paper and attend (on the following Monday), respond to the meeting announcement (hopefully by noon Friday).1
  2. The Convener collects the emails (then pesters the stragglers) and sends an email to the group announcing the result.
  3. If the threshold is met, we meet; otherwise, we put the paper off for a week.

Obviously members that don't send mail are still welcome to attend. This is just meant to be an easy way to account for paper deadlines, vacation, &c. We hope to keep the process as lightweight as possible, while still ensuring good discussion at a predictable time. (This mechanism also provides the Convener with an excuse to give gentle reminders to the other members.)

1If you can't attend, but don't want to miss this particular discussion, you may attempt to "veto" the meeting time (but then you're required to attend the following week!).

During the Discussion

We begin each session by sharing our questions and comments, and by listing them on the whiteboard. At this point, however, we try to limit the discussion of these questions: the goal is to create an outline for the remainder of the session. By tradition, the last individual to arrive is given the honor of offering the first question.

One member leads the discussion, but the leader doesn't need to be an expert. Instead, he or she must simply make sure that the discussion stays on track. In particular, the leader is responsible:

Obviously, there is a balance between giving detailed answers to a small number of questions and cursory explanations to many. Maintaining this balance should be driven by overall goal of the discussion, to include as many people as possible.

During the meeting, everyone should be thinking about topics for the next discussion. Difficult questions raised by one paper can be a good guide to determining a paper for the following week. In order to limit the burden on the Convener, it's best to agree on a paper for the following week (or at least a list candidates) during the meeting or, if not, then sometime...

After the Discussion

Recognizing that a significant amount of thought and innovation takes place outside of a formal setting, we usually take the time to share a drink or meal after the meeting. Not only does this provide a nice bound on the length of the discussion (hunger demands it!), it gives us a chance to continue the discussion in a less structured environment.

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