Breaking an Academic Taboo: Professor Laura Baudot on Books@Work
May 30, 2017 | Maredith Sheridan
We recently had the chance to speak with Laura Baudot, an Associate Professor of English at Oberlin College who has facilitated Books@Work sessions at a private high school and an adhesive manufacturing company. Her research and teaching interests center on eighteenth-century British literature and intellectual history, but also include the history of science, visual art, print culture studies and aesthetics.
How was being a Books@Work facilitator different from your university teaching experience?
I was struck by how easy and natural it felt. But at the same time, it’s exciting and strange because our conversations violated the protocols for discussing literature in an academic setting. I was invited, encouraged even, to talk about books in ways I generally avoid in my classrooms – namely, in terms of stories or experiences from our own lives that the text brings to mind. It is not just that we use personal experiences to understand a literary work – a literary work helps us retrospectively make sense of something that happened in our lives. These conversations demanded a different kind of rigor and attention – staying present and listening for moments in the conversations where we can push an observation to larger question or problem that will involve the whole group.
You facilitated Books@Work sessions with faculty and non-teaching staff at an all-girls private high school. These are people who may not work together on a day-to-day basis. Did you feel that using a literary text was valuable for talking across those boundaries?
A literary text is usually enigmatic or difficult in some way. It demands thought, and ideally that thinking happens collaboratively. With Books@Work, there is a similar feeling of a collaborative enterprise. There is no better way to talk across boundaries, I think, than a shared question or inquiry. To answer your question less abstractly, Hidden Figures explores the courage and intellectual passion that inspired black women to push against racial and gender boundaries to become mathematicians and engineers. They challenged social expectations of their intellectual ability. They did so for their families, for the race, but also for themselves out of intellectual ambition. That resonated with people. That’s the beauty of talking about personal experiences. Paradoxically, sharing personal experiences has a universalizing effect. We discussed the difficulties we face as adult professionals: How do you not internalize social prejudice as personal insecurity? How do you avoid feeling selfish for pursuing a career passion at the expense of family togetherness? How do you excel when social status quo is invested in your failure? Everybody can relate to having had to defy social expectations of some kind.
Did the books you read – Hidden Figures at the high school and John Steinbeck’s short story collection The Long Valley with participants at an adhesive manufacturing company – encourage discussions about how people interact in the workplace?
In different ways, both books we read helped the groups explore the role that gender conventions play in the workplace. This is the explicit topic of Hidden Figures. Participants at the high school shared ideas about how to educate their female students to advance their career goals through networking and salary negotiation. Why are the same behaviors considered enterprising in men, but pushy or aggressive in women?
The Steinbeck stories lent themselves to really interesting questions about gender roles and communication. The men in the stories we read tend to be completely baffled by the women in their lives. One male participant spoke honestly about how gender expectations kept him from participating in workplace activities for fear of being judged. These moments of honesty happened in almost every session at both places.
Both groups experienced how understanding these stories leads to greater self-understanding. Individual acts of self-awareness add up to, I think, a more tolerant and cohesive workplace.
Did facilitating these Books@Work sessions change the way you think about your own teaching at Oberlin?
Oh, I have a lot to say about this. The opportunity to teach outside of the protocols of literary academic discussion was so refreshing and so useful. It makes me think that I want to experiment with breaking those taboos in my classes.
I was so excited about participating in Books@Work because there’s a lot of discussion right now about the crisis of the humanities – and, more generally, of liberal arts education. Why should people major in English or religion or something that does not have professional workplace outcomes? How do liberal arts colleges justify their enormous price tags? I was so thrilled to see that there’s an organization that just presumes that talking about books is something that is not only personally useful, but also professionally useful. It seems like people outside of academia are much more confident and certain about the value of reading and the value of storytelling than people within academia. It’s been really interesting in terms of my ongoing quest to argue for the value of the humanities to increasingly skeptical audiences within my own institution – students, administrators, colleagues in the social sciences and sciences.
Canaletto, Eton College Chapel, c. 1754, National Gallery, London, UK, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org