Sunday, September 11, 2011

Starting a (skeptic/atheist) Club on Campus

I just found out that there's a brand new club in Western Australia for Atheist/Agnostic (and I suppose by extension skeptical?) students. It is so brand new, in fact, that it's just a facebook page for the moment - not that there's anything wrong with that!

In fact, WA now has three skeptic-spectrum clubs, two of which are confined to facebook pages just waiting to have live breathed into it. The ECU club's lack of activity is intentional - with the president not going to uni until 2012 he can be forgiven for not doing much - but I suspect the Murdoch club president is going to want to get his hands dirty. (And who can blame him?)

The UWA club has gone from strength to strength (of which I am well pleased), and I guess you could say I helped get it to the first strength while Ash Tyndall got it to the second (and much bigger!) strength. Are you following me? Good.

So, I'm going to write down in words how wonderful starting a new club is - how getting it off the ground can happen, dare I say it, organically. How you can do it without any guild funding - but you will have to invest time into it. But you wouldn't have started a club if you weren't willing to make that sacrifice, would you?

I've given this advice many times to many people, and I'm not sure how good it is or how effective it is, but here it is for the world to see.

Four Essential Rules for Starting a Good Club
1. You need to be dedicated.
2. You need a few dedicated committee members. These can be your best friend, boyfriend, sister, whatever. Call in some favours if you have to.
3. Your members need to make the club part of their weekly routine.
3a. (Corollary) You need to do something every single week.
4. You need to obtain freshers.

Let's go through this in order:

You need to be dedicated
You need to understand that you'll be putting time in. I went a little crazy when I took on the UASS; I ended up spending six hours a week on club activities (though most of it was sitting around and chatting with friends and thus great fun). You need at least two hours a week to dedicate to doing stuff for your club - that usually consists of being a butt on a seat to attend your events until you begin getting regular followers.

You need a few dedicated committee members
Very few people start a club on their own; if you were one of them, it's time to call in favours from your friends who share your values. None of what you're going to need to be doing is hard, just time consuming. You don't want your events to consist of you sitting there smiling hopefully at everyone who goes past; you want people to see you and your friends having fun, and want to become a part of that joyous experience.

Your members need to make the club a part of their weekly routine
We are creatures of habit, and if you know that Thursdays from 1pm-3pm are spent in the tav with your club members, eating lunch, having a chat, and enjoying a beer, you'll be doing it every week won't you?

But imagine if every three or four weeks there's some event that's on at a different day or at a different place and you're never quite sure when it's happening and then you log on to facebook and you find out that, oh wait, it was today and not next week that the barbeque was on.

Your events need to be consistent and frequent. Don't fall into the trap of wanting to have it at different times so people with inconvenient uni timetables will be able to attend sometimes; you'll lose more members to inconsistency than to these sort of logistical problems.

You need to do something every single week
This is to remind people that your club exists, to keep your members involved - you don't need to be protesting a screening of Expelled or having a lecture from Kylie Sturgess to have an event. You can sit around and discuss a topic plucked out of thin air (dinosaurs! the icarus story! what exactly does threat count mean!) or talk about what happened on the episode of House last night.

You need to obtain freshers
Okay, this is something I have to admit that we had a lot of trouble with particularly. And, to be honest, how could we have known?

You might not remember your first few weeks of uni, but I have come to realise that you get used to your routine. It’s in the first few weeks of uni that the formative stage happens where you decide what you’re going to get out of uni. Most people tend to realise that they can skip most of their lectures, reading the notes or watching it online instead of making the trip to uni every single day. Still others figure out they can go to the local city/shopping area during their longer breaks, or decide to go to uni, attend lectures, and then go home as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Others, like you and me, decide to get involved with the clubs on campus. But you don’t as often see someone in second or third year taking a break from their habit of years to go to one of your events. Don’t get me wrong - you’ll have people from all years attending your club when it first begins to start up, but many of them will be the club-goer type themselves. You need to turn freshers who are passionate about atheism, skepticism, etc into club goers. This sounds manipulative, and I guess it is - but they’ll thank you for it, honest.

How do I obtain freshers, anyway?
The most important thing you can do is learn from my mistakes - I started UASS on “Atheists in the Tav”, an 18+ event which by its very nature is impossible for almost all freshers to begin attending from the day they start uni.

So do NOT, under ANY circumstances, have your first or flagship event be inaccessible to freshers. It’s fine to have the tav as a venue as long as there’s other places the freshers can go EVERY SINGLE WEEK to build up the habit of attending and the rapport with your club.

In 2010 we realised that freshers weren’t able to get into the habit of UASS, and decided to amend that by starting “Atheists in the Caf”, located in one of the guild’s cafes that was far more fresher-friendly. But the damage had been done - starting in week 4 was poisonous. We only had one or two freshers attending, and they didn’t make a habit of it. They’d already worked out their routine and UASS wasn’t part of it.

In 2011, we fared better - we started Atheists in the Caf from the very first week and in that same week we had a mixer - an entirely social occasion where we provided free snack food and drinks (freshers love free food). We chatted and encouraged the freshers to attend our events every week - the cafe at its regular time, and the “Talktorials” that were at the same time and same place as the mixer. We stressed that the talktorials were short, not lectures, and became lively discussions at the end of the talk.

So what am I going to do?
You’re a lucky guy because I’m going to give you a standard plan you can follow to instantly give your club a bustling social calendar.

1. Start a weekly event.
You don’t need to book a room or anything difficult like that - find a cafe or table somewhere that all students know how to get to. Like somewhere you’d hang out with your friends.

NO, they are not going to go find the park bench you and your friends sit at at the place near uni. It needs to be a place that freshers either already know where it is, or they can find by asking any random they meet. Make sure you keep in mind that you’ll be doing this year in and year out so you want somewhere that’s good for both summer and winter.

I suggest you find the most recognisable cafe/lunch spot on campus (yes, I know how much your on campus food sucks, but freshers don't know where that really sweet cafe down the road is). Then sit there for two hours at the same time every week. Try to have the same table every week, too. Make a sign. Print out the name of your club in big letters and stick it to a cereal box (to give it height), and make sure they know to look for it. Sit near an entrance or somewhere where everyone who enters has a good chance at seeing you.

Then sit there with your friends and have a chat about whatever you and your friends normally chat about - make sure you look like you're having fun, don't you dare sit on your own and look pathetically around for other people to join your lonely existence. Nobody wants to sit with a stranger who looks bored out of their mind.

Every time you get someone sitting with you, welcome them, be nice to them, etc. Make sure when they leave they're aware of the start and finish times of this event and that it's on every single week. Encourage them to come next week.

but for the love of Dawkins, don't be creepy about it.

2. Advertise it.
People are going to need to know that this event is happening. Advertising is an important step. Look into these options:
  • email to all group members
  • facebook message/event
  • posters around campus

I would far and away recommend facebook. I know it's an evil empire but people seem to use it - we noticed a huge increase in attendence when we started posting our events on facebook. Plus facebook groups are easy to create and invite people into.

If clubs regularly advertise on posters around campus, figure out how to get some. We were lucky in that all posters on our campus are put up by the guild rather than by the clubs themselves, so to get posters all you need to do is print some off and leave them outside someone's office. If it requires effort, I'd still recommend you go to the effort at least at the beginning of semester so people are aware you exist.

3. Expand and diversify
You should begin to get a regular group of people (this can take a semester or two, so don't worry - the important thing is to stick with it and keep doing it so that way people know there's a regular thing they can go along to).

Once this begins to happen, you're in the clear. Start doing things more in line with your vision - if you want to conform to the rather standard "have lectures" mold, that's surprisingly easy to do. All you need to do is have a 20 minute talk every week about something interesting. I managed to find somebody else who was willing to give talks, along with myself, and together we gave talks every single week and this encouraged other members to do talks on their own subjects.

You just need to find a subject - ANYTHING, you don't have to be an expert - and spend an hour on wikipedia, make up some slides, and lead a discussion. I did a talk on the Barney and Betty Hill UFO abduction that was almost entirely wikipedia-sourced, one on Parasites I essentially lifted from a Cracked article, and one on Power Balance that I lifted from a video by TV's Richard Saunders and some newspaper articles. You don't have to have a unique talk when most people who are attending might not have heard about this - just research something, learn something, and tell everyone. Remember to be humble and accept that other people might have done more research than you or actually know something about what you're talking about and let them talk if they want to.

4. Other strategies
One thing you can do - which can be kind of risky - is to try and elect new faces into high positions in your committee. If you elect a fresher as president, vice president, or treasurer, they're going to feel invested in your club and want to come along to events (and of course help out). Just make sure you have back ups (your friends from before!) who will be willing to take over the duties if one (or more) of your new committee members goes missing.

A good way to convince people to be on your committee is to say it looks good on a resume.

So, now I've told you all this, what you need to do is start having events. At first, they'll be kind of lackluster and you'll wonder if it will ever kick off, but you're investing time in creating a community that people will want to come back to, so stay at it. I have done that for two different clubs and the investment comes back tenfold in the end.

We went from being a club only in name to being the most active freethought university club in Australia in the space of two years.

It's not as hard as you'd think, as long as you're willing to invest your precious time.

And goodness gracious me, I have made my best friends thanks to this club.

And, what's more, I offer you - dear reader - my friendship and support and advice should you need it. My skype is madgech, or you can reach me at or - I'm always happy to help you out if you have any questions or anything.

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