This is the second in a series of H+ Magazine articles on local transhumanist clubs and organizations. For more about why local communities are important and how they can improve your life, see the first article, Building and Growing Transhumanist Communities.
A. Defining and Working Documents
To be officially incorporated as a club on most campuses, a group needs to have one or two documents specifying (1) how the group defines itself, and (2) how it will conduct its business (elections, officer responsibilities, etc.). When these are separated documents, they are sometimes called “defining documents” (e.g. a constitution) and “working documents” (e.g. bylaws). Think of them as your group’s tickets to reserve rooms for the campus events you want to host.
As a club founder, you probably will need to adapt or create such documents to serve your group, and keep the campus bureaucracy happy (either the student activities department or the student government).
Our advice: first, ask your student activities department or student government for an electronic template for the defining and working documents that they accept. If they only have a printed copy, then try to write your documents such that they conform to the model in all non-specific aspects. If they don’t have any model, ask them what aspects (e.g. campus policies, format, non-negotiable officer positions) are essential to getting your documents accepted by the powers that be on campus. Then ask the group most similar to the one you want to create if you can use their documents as a template. Make your documents conform to the campus model as much as possible, to ensure your efforts won’t be stalled over petty squabbles over minutia. Someone in authority might not like what your group represents – unusual but plausible, especially in a student government on a campus with a socially conservative streak – so leave them no excuses to deny your group approval.
The second most important consideration in creating your documents is the group name. You want a name that clearly identifies what your group represents, so people can recognize it, yet one that is not going to turn people off. You can use the word “Transhumanist(s)” in your name, and just socialize people to it. Or, you can take a more public relations-tailored approach, and call yourself “Humanity+ at _Institution Name_.” You also could focus on a specific aspect of transhumanism, such as “Life Extension,” but you might want to mention related ideas (e.g. transhumanism) in your defining document to keep the club open to working with institutions focused on related ideas. “Futurist Club” is a bit vague, but obvious and related. “Sci-fi/Fantasy Club” might be fun, but is a little unrepresentative of real emerging tech. A related “Humanist” club also could do transhumanist events, but you may find it hard to keep the group’s focus on transhumanist-related topics, or even include them at all. H+SN and Humanity+ reserve the right to deny affiliation with clubs.
Third in importance are the officer positions you create. Start with the non-negotiable positions at your campus (e.g. President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer), and include additional useful positions that you can fill as you gain contributors among your group membership.
It is important to try to find and persuade the best possible candidates to serve as your faculty advisor(s). If you can find someone who will serve in a more active capacity, consider yourself very fortunate. If not, take whoever you can find with gratitude, as they are at least lending you their name and support.
To find the best advisors, or at least ones who will accept you, look in departments related to emerging technologies and thought about such technologies, especially in the sciences and humanities. Some of the disciplines which are most likely to have a transhumanism-friendly faculty member are philosophy, economics, sociology, art, business, biotechnology, biology, any of the subjects covered by interdisciplinary cognitive science (psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, anthropology, linguistics, education and learning sciences), information technology, computer science, nanotechnology, physics, any science professors, and any liberal arts professors in committees on social theory or other relevant topics, including history. The U.S. Government funds research on the convergence of nanotech-biotech-info-cogno science (the NBIC convergence initiative – dealing with “converging technologies to improve human performance”), so try to contact anyone on your campus who may be receiving such funding, as they will probably not shy away from associating themselves with a transhumanist club. Be sure to ask your prospective advisors if they would be interested in creating an academic-focused working group that might host events through their department, as long as you would be interested in leading such a group. That might appeal to them more than a general club, even though it might require a bit more intellectual work. On some campuses, staff members can serve as advisors as well as faculty, so keep them in mind as well if you can’t find willing faculty members. It is ideal to have more than one advisor as a back-up sponsor.
The best way to go about asking faculty to be your advisor is to start with professors you or your initial officers know who might support your group’s theme. Ask them in person. Next, do a keyword search on Google with your college’s name and transhumanism-related words, to see if any faculty member’s names pop up (also try your college’s website). Ask those people in person. Then, write a brief, informative, friendly email to the faculty of one of the above-mentioned departments, describing the basic theme of your group in ways they can readily understand, and ask them if they would be willing to serve as an advisor to your club. Mention that you have minimal workload expectations. Also, suggest the idea of creating an academic working group if that is of interest to an advisor, as long as you would be willing to do the extra work of leading one (that might attract someone who wouldn’t be interested in a traditional student club). Change the email title and heading for each department you ask (use the member’s individual public email addresses). If you have asked members of every department and no one sent a positive response, ask staff. If no one on your campus is willing to sponsor your group, save yourself the aggravation of being unable to effectively advertise your group and host events, and instead join a related club or organization with your friends and use it to deliver transhumanist presentations, serve in a leadership position (which is good experience and good for your resume), and possibly even bring a transhumanist-related speaker to your campus.
However active your advisor(s) is, remember that the student leaders of the club (especially the President) bear ultimate responsibility for everything related to it, and ought to shoulder most of the load of the work related to the club. Keep your advisor happy, and show your appreciation for everything they do.
C. Recruiting Initial Leadership & Membership
The first place to look for initial officers for your group is among your friends on campus. Some advantages of adding friends to your officer roster is that you already get along with them, they probably agree with you on the general purpose and form of the club you want to create – and although most work will fall on the Founder and/or President, they usually can be expected to pull their own weight (unless they agree “in name only,” which is better than nothing and a bare minimum necessity).
A disadvantage to including friends among the officers is that without conscious effort to overcome it, your leadership may be a little insular and have trouble making others feel included – especially people earlier in their college experience, who might carry on the club after you graduate. Try to be open to including people from your initial recruits in leadership positions, as you should try to give everyone willing some formal officer role to empower them and create a stronger sense of belonging in your group than in other groups. Another disadvantage of including close friends in officer positions is that if you think alike in many ways, you may share the same “blind spots” and be unaware of important problems, as well as possibly lack a diverse array of capabilities to effectively solve problems. When you have the luxury of time, try to gather the perspectives and ideas of others in your group (non-leaders included) before deciding on a course of action.
Once you have officers, or are in the process of recruiting officers, you will need to do initial “outreach” to attract people to your group. Building your membership is hardest early on, but that is also the most critical time to build it.
First, create a website and email list. This will allow people to access information about your group online, and will enable you to target all your club announcements (descriptions of public events and weekly discussion topics) to a receptive audience. On your website’s main page, create a brief description of who and what your group represents, its purpose and how it aims to accomplish it, its meeting place and time, and why people should join. You should summarize what your group represents in a brief introductory sentence or phrase (e.g. “Humanity+ at College Name is a club that explores the potential of emerging technologies to expand the capabilities of human beings.”).
In the past, Yahoo! Groups has worked very well as an organizing list with a “search-able” URL and brief group description field. You might want to set one up initially, even if you only use it temporarily before switching to a school listserve and more professional website (assuming those are not readily available). You will need to set up a Yahoo! profile to be a group owner and moderator.
Again, immediately ask all your friends, and ask them to ask friends in their network, if any of them would like to be members of your group – even if they aren’t interested in serving as an officer. Try to collect as many names and email addresses as possible for your group list. A crowd helps attract a crowd, but five or fewer members on a Yahoo! group list (where your membership number is visible) will tend to look “lonely.” Pass around several paper “information sign-up sheets” – you and your officers can carry these with you everywhere – that have a column for names and a column for emails. At the top, add your name and email so people can contact you. You then can add the emails you collect to your announcement list (separate from any campus discussion list you may set up), so that those people will always have access to meeting and event information. They can tell you if and when they want to be removed from the list (in which case it is always good to say something like “Sorry to see you go, please let me know if there is anything about the group we could improve” to gather potentially useful information). Get your website and linked announcement list linked from the campus website (usually in the “student activities” / “clubs and organizations” section) as soon as possible, so that you collect new members online. At least get your group’s contact information posted there.
At this point, you and your officers should reach agreement on a (discussion/planning) meeting day and time that you all can attend, which should be convenient for most people on campus. If it isn’t an academic working group, that generally means it will take place on a weekday in the late afternoon or evening after most classes are out (at commuter campuses, the best time may be at lunch or in the early afternoon). Once you have found a good time, try to stick with it all year, at least for general discussion meetings. Start with the best location you can find, but be open to moving to a better one once you become officially recognized by your college and can reserve a room.
Now advertise your group, its website, and its meeting time/day/location like crazy. If your campus allows you to post fliers with that information (and an attractive, eye-catching picture) before you have official approval as a recognized club, do so. If not, you might be able to get around the limitation initially by writing out that information in chalk in several heavily trafficked areas, if your campus allows “chalking” (be considerate and do it where the rain will wash it away). Posters also would be nice, but may require approval.
If you have a faculty adviser – or any faculty members who seemed receptive to your group proposal – ask them if they would be willing to make an announcement about your group’s existence, website and meeting day/time/place at the end of their classes. If you are lucky, some faculty members may announce your group to their classes once every academic term. An alternative way of doing this is for you to be invited to speak to one or more class for a minute (usually at the end of the class), like a candidate for a student political office. It has the advantage of introducing you in person (with your info sign-up sheets!), but of course you can’t personally attend many classes.
Also ask leaders of related clubs and organizations on campus if you can deliver a brief announcement of the formation of your club and its meeting time and place. You won’t get new leaders from other clubs, generally, but you may get new members, or at least people on your announcement list who may attend your events, as well as mention the group to people in their friend networks.
As soon as you have the opportunity (usually after getting official recognition as a campus group), start staffing information tables with your information sign-up sheets, materials printed out from relevant websites, and a list of possible discussion and event topics. If you have relevant books or materials sent by Humanity+ and related organizations, include those on your information table for people to look at or take with them (especially any fliers, pamphlets, buttons, stickers, or pens). Try to have at least two people staffing the information table at all times, to avoid looking lonely. Information tables are especially important at student activity fairs at the start of the year (and sometimes the start of each academic period), as well as at the events you hold.
Finally, after all the above efforts are underway, and either before or after your group becomes officially recognized, you might consider writing an editorial to the campus newspaper announcing the creation of your group, and commenting intelligently on any relevant activities or events on your campus (e.g. things favorably related to what your group represents; or if you are very careful, some things opposed to what your group represents – but try to stay positive to attract people). If and when you feel prepared for the challenge, you also could appear on a transhumanist-friendly college radio program (which may reach a receptive audience), but unless the program theme dovetails well with the focus of your group, you may not attract many members through it. You also may want to wait until your group is better established to appear on live radio in order to be able to reference more things you (as a leader) have done and your group has done.
D. Cultivating New Leaders
Notice all active members who will be on campus the following year, and try to give them officer responsibilities before another campus group recruits them into its officer core. Start new leaders on non-critical tasks, and gradually work up to critical ones that train them to run the group. Try to persuade at least a president and ideally people for the other critical officer positions to take over the year before you and the other officers graduate, so that you are available to counsel (not direct) the new leaders. Retaining the same advisor(s) can be very helpful in this process, if they take an active role. Usually groups fall apart after the founder graduates, but if you manage to pull off a successful transition, your group can continue bringing events to your campus and holding discussion meetings that attract a core network after you have moved on to your career or to another campus. Balance support and helpful advice with space for new leaders to make (hopefully non-critical) mistakes they can learn from, always praise them publically for good work, and never embarrass or chastise them in front of other members. The goal should be to help them feel empowered and develop a strong sense of ownership of the group – which applies to all active members but especially new leaders.
If you are interested in starting a student transhumanist group, contact the Humanity+ Student Network at firstname.lastname@example.org! All students interested in transhumanism can register with the Student Network for free here.
This article was adapted by Tom McCabe for H+ Magazine, from the Humanity+ Student Advocate Guide.