The New Front Porch: Professor Michelle Hite on Building Community with Books@Work

The New Front Porch: Professor Michelle Hite on Building Community with Books@Work

We recently had the chance to speak to Professor Michelle S. Hite about her experience as a facilitator with Books@Work. Michelle is an Assistant Professor of English at Spelman College. Her research and teaching focus on death and mourning in African American culture.

How is your role as a Books@Work facilitator different from your role in teaching in the university?

What’s markedly different is that for Books@Work, I’m not committed to student learning outcomes, and I’m not committed to the professional obligations of preparing students to be responsible for certain standards. I don’t have to sit in judgment.

So I try to draw on other models that I have for interacting with people over ideas. I grew up with a front porch where people shared ideas and that typically is the metaphor that I often work with. That’s what I’m trying to do – extend my front porch and create a space where people can share ideas. We can think about things together and see where they go. The whole point is just to build community around our thinking. What I like about Books@Work is that it gives me that opportunity to just wonder with people.

How do you prepare for your Books@Work sessions?

Typically, this is what is the same about the work that I do in both settings – I just always read with wonder. I read with a pen, and I’m asking questions of the text.

A part of what I’m trying to do is build trust with the group. I’m asking them real questions. It’s not a prompt; there’s a difference. When I ask my students [in the college classroom], questions about Beloved, for example, I’m prompting them to answer me in ways that prove that they’ve read this text. When I’m asking questions at Books@Work, I don’t have a text-focused answer. It’s just as a wife, as a mother, as a neighbor, as a community member, these are things that I’m thinking about. Sometimes, it may be a larger cultural conversation. It’s something I’m hoping we can explore together.

What kind of questions work well?

Professor Michelle Hite with students at Spelman College

When I’m working with Books@Work, I’m not necessarily asking detailed procedural questions about the text. If anything, I’m asking them questions that wonder about certain kinds of details. They’re in the debatable category because they’re open for exploration. I’m looking for ways that we can see possibilities beyond what’s just written on the page [and create] community around the text.

Because that’s what I think we’re doing. I think that through reading literature, you have an opportunity to study the human condition. A part of what I’m trying to do is [to show] that [the participants] are already doing this in other aspects of their lives. Now we’re just asking them to do it over a particular body of material. They see how important it is when you have good literature to offer you another model of thinking about how human beings behave – and it increases the chances for offering empathy, compassion, generosity and kindness, those kinds of things.

Can you describe a moment when conversation touched on a difficult topic like race, politics or religion? How do you handle those moments productively as a facilitator?

Yes, I have, and it’s interesting when that happens. A young woman in one of the sessions that I’m thinking about, she made a remark about wearing deodorant and how when you come to our country, you should do things the way that we want them to be done. And if not, then you’re being rude or you’re being disrespectful. I said something like, “Okay, I hear that. People do say that.” And the question then became the kind of confidence we have in asserting the “our” in this. How do we get to a point where we claim the space of speaking for an entire nation? Where do we think that authority comes from? Do we see that in the story? I’ll do something like that.

I see myself as a jazz artist. I think part of what it means to be a professor or facilitator is to be capable of improvisation. Some of the confidence in doing it comes from experience. You get a feel for the room, the questions, how people are engaging. What you have to do is realize, okay, how much silence do you let go? The experienced facilitator is comfortable with the silence. I call it the noise of contemplation.

I’m thinking the whole time about what my next move is going to be. In order to do that, you’ve got to listen. How can you use what [the participants] have given you? What are you going to do with that? It’s like jazz. I’m looking to be responsive, but I also know the tune.

Image: Edvard Munch, On the Veranda, 1902, National Gallery of Norway, Oslo, Norway, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.