In Branford, a book club — or cult

Branford College Master Steven Smith hosts informal weekly “seminars” to discuss literature.
Branford College Master Steven Smith hosts informal weekly “seminars” to discuss literature. Photo by Sanjena Sathian.

On Monday nights at 9:30, Geoff Shaw ’10 grabs his copy of Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” with his notes in the margins, and his answers to discussion questions, and then heads out the door.

Shaw is not rushing to a nighttime seminar or discussion section. Instead he’s heading to the Branford College Master’s house, where for the past three Mondays he and a handful of other juniors and seniors have been discussing Roth’s novel with Branford Master and political science professor Steven Smith. There are no tests, no papers, no grades and no academic credit — just Yalies and their books.

Smith said the group formed casually with the goal of discussing works in which they all shared an interest.

“I passed the idea around to one or two of them, and they said they would be very interested,” he said. “So I just said, ‘Round up the usual suspects.’ ”

The “reading circle,” as Jacob Abolafia ’10 called it, is a low-key environment where students come together with one of their favorite professors to discuss novels they enjoy, participants said. The meetings resemble a book club, not a class — students do not raise their hands before speaking, there is no curriculum, and some, like Joyce Arnold ’10, simply do not come to the group on days when they have not done the reading. The original idea was to read Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow, and the class will continue adding names to the list as the semester progresses, Shaw said.

The group, which is made up of seven to nine students depending on the day (not everyone attends regularly, Abolafia said), includes a Rhodes scholar (Shaw), a “Jeopardy!” contestant (Leah Libresco ’11), a future member of the Israeli army (Abolafia), an actor (Anthony “Rek” Lecounte ’11 ) and — perhaps unsurprisingly — Yale Political Union members. Though the students have diverse plans and schedules, Smith’s reading group is a place for them to come together around shared academic pursuits. At the end of each session, Smith and the students determine how much to read for the next week. Shaw said Smith is flexible depending on the students’ weekly workload.

Many of the students came to know Smith their freshman year, when he taught their history and politics section in the Directed Studies program, Smith said. Their group gives them an opportunity to read books they enjoy that lie “outside the Yale curriculum,” Smith said.

Shaw, a Branford freshman counselor and one of Smith’s senior essay advisees, knew Smith both from class and through Branford before the group began and said the idea of a group like this had been “flopping around for a couple years.”

“We’re the group that’s gone from Steven Smith seminar to Steven Smith seminar,” Shaw said. “Because he’s not teaching a seminar this semester, we all feel there’s a deficit in our lives.”

Lecounte and Abolafia said the group dynamic differed from a normal class in a number of ways. Both said the environment is casual — though Abolafia, fresh from a Phi Beta Kappa dinner, arrived to Monday’s meeting in a tuxedo — in part because many of the students know each other from classes they have taken together in the past or from shared extracurriculars, such as the YPU. Lecounte said the familiar scenario in which one or two students dominate discussion section does not happen at Smith’s house.

“I would imagine the stereotype of a group like this would be, ‘Oh my God, it’s a group of section assholes,’ ” he said. “If anything, I’m running from the types of classes where people think there are section assholes.”

LeCounte said he had often found himself frustrated by discussion sections with a clear gap between those who were invested in and fascinated by the texts and those who were there “to scrape by.” Smith’s group is populated entirely by people invested in the readings, he said. Still, the Monday nights at Smith’s house are low-key, more like a group of friends chatting about a book they have all read, he said.

This “congenial” environment of discussing the book without looming midterms, papers and participation grades in particular makes the meetings enjoyable, Abolafia said, adding that the students stay away from YPU-style debate or argument, instead “bouncing readings off each other.”

“We’re reading Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, who aren’t taught right now but are important figures in 20th century American writing,” he said. “But we’re not looking at them through an academic lens — just as novels that we love.”

Arnold said the group offers “a type of learning that is hard to do in classes” because of its emphasis on more contemporary American works, something few Yale classes currently cover.

For his part, Smith said he sees nothing peculiar about the group’s enthusiasm for reading outside of classes.

“It’s a university,” he said. “What’s so interesting about people talking about books?”

Comments

  • Hieronymus

    Good article–I totally do NOT get the headline…

    Imagine! Students, nay, YALIES interested in… BOOKS! and… TALKING! and… talking about BOOKS! (And, one assumes, ideas and other esoteric, cultish notions).

    Sounds like the way college *ought* to be…

  • Davenport11

    This sounds really cool! I wish more professors took an interest in their students.

  • ’13

    Really, YDN? A cult? Sensationalist and inaccurate headline much?

  • Y06

    The headline writer might have read Donna Tartt’s “A Secret History,” in which a group of students get wrapped up in the influence of a professor teaching Greek. This sounds a bit like that. Good to find mentors, interlocutors, but perhaps dangerous to grow so close to one.

  • ComeOnYDN

    This represents the University at it’s best: a place where people pursue intellectual discussion with faculty. The News was really out of line to label it a “cult.” It’s a shame that more Masters don’t do things like this.

  • Disciple

    Master Smith is Socrates!!!

  • Branford11

    Master Smith’s definitely the coolest.

  • Concerned-Yalie

    Superb. In general, Yalies are too concerned with getting course credit and not at all interested in learning anything. This “secret seminar” represents the attitude that we all should have to our studies. Too bad there aren’t more of these groups.

  • cool

    This sounds cool. However, Roth (and American Pastoral specifically) is taught in Amy Hungerford’s The American Novel since 1945 class.

  • Brian Hughes, TC’00

    And there I was thinking that the single biggest selling-point of undergraduate life at Yale was the opportunity to socialize with professors. But no, such contact is apparently “cultish.”

  • Cult Is right

    The article headline is not quite as far off as it might seem from the sentimental article. These elite students were hand picked by Smith for this “secret seminar.” So now they sit with premier scholar and have their egos stroked as they pontificate about Philip Roth. Where it might be ok in other venues, this group is not as innocuous as Abolafia makes it sound. As he would totally admit.

  • anon

    Perhaps the “cult” perception, while a bit hysterical, refers to the perceived exclusivity of such a group-especially one run “invitation only” based on a master’s personal preferences. There are plenty of students out there who would likely have a lot to contribute to such a book club, but are not welcome because they do not belong to an elite in-group. And it doesn’t exactly sound like Master Smith is encouraging the presence of anyone outside his personal circle.

  • -

    I agree with #12. Cheers for elitism among the elite?

  • ASCochran PhD’07

    I remember when the secret seminar used to focus on Hannah Arendt. O Tempura, O Mory’s!

  • Jacob Abolafia ’10

    Well, I’m glad the brave soul behind the “cult is right” post has such insight into my thought. Perhaps this psychologist might care to analyze my thought under his own name, or would he charge me for that privilege?

    No, seriously. Drop me a line. The next time I engage in “not so innocuous” cultic behavior, I’ll be sure to invite you along! Although, I’d probably bore you because you already know what I’m thinking.

    Regards,
    Jacob

  • BFA!

    Go Branford!!! Master Smith is great…one of campus’ most eloquent and profound thinkers

  • Recent Alum

    Always nice to know that there are still a handful of students at Yale who are interested in genuine intellectual pursuits… you don’t get this from most articles you read in the YDN.

  • BT4Real

    Jacob,

    From a former Yale philosophy major to a present one:

    So, um, have you guys made it to Augie March yet?

    What’s the reading list?

    If you read Sabbath’s Theater, then good thing it’s private, I guess.

    What’s

  • Y11

    I agree with people who have said that this kind of interaction is one of the selling point Yale tries to make. It would be great if more Deans, Masters and other professors did similar things, and without the exclusivity. This is Yale, if you have an open book discussion group, the people who show up will be articulate and thoughtful even if they weren’t handpicked.