Digging Little Rivulets: An Interview with Professor Bernie Jim
September 26, 2017 | Maredith Sheridan
We recently had the chance to speak to Professor Bernie Jim about his experience as a facilitator with Books@Work. Bernie has a Ph.D. in History and has worked as a SAGES Fellow and Lecturer in History at Case Western Reserve University since 2007. He leads seminars on cities, spectacle, matters of proportion and puzzles. His favorite writers are Gabriel García Márquez and Haruki Murakami.
You’ve facilitated Books@Work sessions with teams at a healthcare provider and with waiters-and-chefs-in-training at a restaurant. How does the experience compare to teaching in the university?
In some ways, it is very similar. Teaching always and forevermore is meeting people at their level of understanding about something. If you think you can just come and deliver knowledge, you’re sadly mistaken. It’s going to make for a very uncomfortable, awkward, cricket-filled experience. So I think the first step, either with Books@Work or in the classroom, is listening. You have to be open to the group and be ready to change gears and move in a different direction based on their interest and ideas. But there’s also a freedom with Books@Work because [the participants] know they’re not getting a grade from me. The motives are being open and honest.
On a personal level, Books@Work is just a really great outlet for me to engage with literature I don’t normally engage within my classroom. I can read Gabriel García Márquez again!
Why do you think the Books@Work model – the professor, the text, the participants around a table – works for so many different kinds of companies?
It’s a democratic space. And even in my own classroom, it’s important to have a democratic space. I always sit down. I like to sit in different places. I don’t want to be higher up physically than my students. After we see “Wonder Woman,” we talk about it at the café afterward. And after we hear a new release from Taylor Swift, we talk about what it means. There’s nothing privileged about my position that stops us from talking about things that are meaningful to us. That ethos resonates with Books@Work.
There’s also something about well-written fiction [that works well for discussion]. It’s multi-layered and touches on a number of different themes, and it allows you a number of jumping-off points, no matter the group.
What do you see as your role in managing those jumping-off points?
I try to dig little rivulets to possible places to go and then see where [the participants] take it. What do people respond to immediately? Like [John Steinbeck’s short story] “Johnny Bear” for example. One group talked a lot about what’s private and what’s public and your shared information. Someone had an instance in their life where that was at play – something private was shared which made them uncomfortable. And there was real humanity [in this group] because someone else immediately chimed in and said, “I had a similar experience,” and they explored that.
It’s my job to see how long you can carry an idea before things peter out or get too tangential. That’s how I see my role, to somehow bring it back to the point.
Has facilitating sessions with Books@Work sessions affected your own teaching? What have you learned from the experience?
Again, it’s a nice exercise of those listening muscles. I don’t think we can be reminded enough to listen. Especially in our profession where we constantly lecture. Really, that’s a trap. It can isolate a person. It can lead to self-deception. Exercising that listening muscle is so important, and I enjoy having that opportunity.
To go back to this notion of isolation, I love my job. I love leading seminars. I couldn’t be happier. But I’ve also worked in a bank, worked in science museums and had a number of different jobs. I like spending time with people that aren’t academics and who aren’t students. You know what I mean? It’s really nice to talk to team leads that are just as interested in talking [about a book] as any student.
Image: Toyota Hokkei, A Mountainous Landscape with a Stream, 1827, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org