An Equal Playing Field: Professor Heather Braun on Books@Work
December 5, 2018 | Maredith Sheridan
Today’s interview features Books@Work facilitator Dr. Heather Braun, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Akron, where she also serves as Honors Advisor and Internship Liaison for the department.
How have you managed to pivot from the classroom setting to facilitating literature discussions with adults in the workplace?
In both settings, it’s really important to me to make the material matter and to show readers how it’s relevant to their lives. I think Books@Work is a really effective way of doing this. You’re getting to hear honest reactions from readers who are not paying for a class in the “real world” and who are seeking that relevance, too, in what they read.
Both settings also offer readers a chance to connect with each other. That’s something I also try to do in my classes because I think it increases engagement and interest, and my students are more likely to read the material when they feel like they are a part of a kind of family that listens and supports them.
I think Books@Work provides an opportunity for as many voices as possible to be heard and validated. It may mean steering the discussion in a new direction if there’s somebody dominating or looking uncomfortable. Though my role is less visible in a Books@Work session [as opposed to the classroom], I try to translate this into the classroom, too. The questions I ask and the spaces I open up matter more than, say, my knowledge of Victorian literature. I think that has helped people speak up who might not otherwise trust what they want to say in a public setting.
Have you noticed any changes over time in your Books@Work group’s dynamics?
One group I led was especially diverse, made up of all levels of management and expertise at a VA Medical Center. By the second session, a few people told me they had seen each other in the hallway and used Books@Work as a way to start a conversation with people they didn’t know very well. Sometimes it was just simple things like, “Can you believe these stories?” or “How crazy was that character?”
In a place where everything is moving so quickly, it was reassuring to know that this group had a chance to have a conversation with someone they never would have spoken to. I noticed that people were staying longer after the sessions had ended to talk to each other and to me. Some told me that they were really grateful to have intelligent conversations with colleagues that they could have only seen in passing.
You worked with a group of medical professionals at a VA Medical Center. Was there a particular moment in a short story you read that allowed participants to discuss the specific challenges of their work?
Yes. There were some psychologists in the room, and a few were offering their interpretations of Paul, the main character in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” It’s an extremely complex story that many people reacted to on a personal level. Some people connected to the setting of the story since they’d grown up in the same neighborhood in Pittsburgh. And one person talked about how his job as a psychologist had helped him approach issues of PTSD from a position of empathy. He talked about how the character Paul was not heard or seen, and that no one was trying to connect with him in any way. He was alone. A lot of [patient veterans at the medical center] expressed feeling this way when I met them at another Books@Work session. So this discussion about how to approach someone who feels isolated was extremely helpful.
Why do you think Books@Work has value and impact in the workplace?
I have had firsthand experience with all kinds of work environments – those that feel like a big family and those that are less welcoming. I think my most positive work experiences have offered the opportunity to connect with my colleagues on a deeper and more personal level. For the ones that didn’t, I feel like Books@Work could have provided more sensitivity toward coworkers and a greater understanding of just how much we assume about people that turns out to be false when we talk to them face-to-face.
I think the greatest value of Books@Work is that it provides an open space where colleagues can meet on an equal playing field, which just doesn’t happen often. There’s a great deal of in-fighting and power hierarchies, especially in places where resources are scarce. Books@Work, to me, seems more valuable than ever. Those types of toxic work environments cannot improve without new opportunities to meet coworkers on an equal playing field where they can see each other as human beings rather than competition.
I think it can help with morale, as well. Books@Work can give people a voice they may not believe they have. It’s proof that a workplace values employees enough to give them this valuable space.
Image: René Magritte, The Secret Player, 1927, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org