Each month we offer you a chance to read mindfully, using literature to challenge your assumptions about the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. Grab a friend, family member or colleague to read, share and discuss together.
Director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of numerous award-winning short stories and nonfiction pieces. His “enthralling and skillful” debut novel Remember Me Like This was named a 2014 New York Times Notable Book of the Year. “Encounters with Unexpected Animals,” a portrait of a father at odds with his son’s girlfriend, was originally published in Esquire and later appeared in the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology.
As you read Johnston’s story, consider the many forms of power and how they do – or do not – lead to a false sense of security.
In the recent March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C., organized by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, student leader Emma González took to the stage to deliver a speech. After a short opening statement, she stopped speaking altogether and gazed ahead into an eager crowd of thousands. She spent the next six minutes in complete silence as the disoriented crowd cheered and clapped to fill the void. Despite where you fall on the political spectrum, González’s speech (or lack thereof) embodied a powerful truth: uncomfortable silence is an incubator for introspection – whether we like it or not.
Words and gestures and body language mean different things to different cultures – as does silence. “Anglophones tend to be most uncomfortable with long gaps in a discussion,” writes Lennox Morrison in a fascinating piece for BBC. “Even among sign language speakers, studies show that typically we leave just a fraction of a second between taking turns to talk.” A 2015 study of Japanese communication found that Japanese people in business meetings “were happy with silences of 8.2 seconds – nearly twice as long as in Americans’ meetings.” Another study comparing silence in Japanese and Finnish culture found that in Finland, “silence is tolerated and in certain social scenes it is preferred to idle or small talk.”
So how can we use silence as a learning tool in the workplace?
In our our Weekend Reading post last week, we highlighted a fascinating article by Marcelo Gleiser, Dartmouth professor of philosophy, physics and astronomy, on teaching at the intersection of two increasingly distinct academic “cultures” – the sciences and the humanities. At a time when universities are shrinking their humanistic offerings in favor of science and technology, Gleiser comments on the weakness of an education that favors one over the other.
“We all stand to lose from this gulf between the sciences and the humanities,” Gleiser writes. “The sciences run the risk of being decontextualized from their moral and social consequences, pursuing technologies that should be regulated and scrutinized. . . On the other hand, the humanities run the risk of becoming disconnected from the pace of scientific discoveries and myopic to how they are effectively transforming the world we live in.”
So how science fiction help to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities?
Happy Friday! We’ve compiled our favorite articles and essays from the last month for you to browse and enjoy this weekend.
In NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture, theoretical physicist, author and Dartmouth College professor Marcelo Gleiser explores “the growing gap between the sciences and the humanities” – how it harms us, how we enable it and what we can do to bridge the divide. With a course called “Understanding the Universe: From Atoms to the Big Bang,” Gleiser hopes to portray “the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences as different and complementary ways of knowing the world and why we matter” – a lesson that is just as crucial in the workplace as it is in the classroom. So how can we convince others to help bridge the gap?
Books@Work participants tell us over and over that the sessions are a “great way to get to know your colleagues, your peers, on a totally different level” as well as “de-stress.” They highlight that the program “brings us all together in a different way.” Because I have such a varied work history – in food service, office jobs, caring for handicapped adults – I resonate with our participants when they tell us how valuable getting to know your colleagues is and how they look forward to moments of refreshment in the midst of a busy and demanding day.
Because of this, it has been a special pleasure to participate in Books@Work myself. I first participated in 2014, with the classified staff of a Cleveland-area school. I was struck by how, at first, it was difficult for people to express their thoughts. It seemed like they were all searching for a “right” answer and participants were hesitant to hazard their opinion. But after a few weeks, people started to trust that they had something meaningful to say and that the group was interested in their ideas. After people found their voices, the conversations became more engaging. When we read John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” we disagreed about our interpretations, and some people told really personal stories. In the end we respected the unique perspective of each person in the room. The opportunity to share and reflect gave those staff members a chance to see each other as people instead of a job title, like bus driver or teacher’s aide.
Knowing the benefits, why not participate in Books@Work as a staff?
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a flood of women have come forward to shed light on another serious challenge they face at work: the “boys’ club” culture that exists across many industries. It permeates traders in the stock market, chefs in the restaurant industry and programmers in Silicon Valley. It’s in the advertising industry, where 180 female executives have launched a new initiative to bridge a glaring gender gap. And it’s in the music industry, where one female songwriter says that opportunities for women to develop are few and far between.
Recently at the 90th Academy Awards, Best Actress winner Frances McDormand concluded her acceptance speech with a directive for Hollywood executives: “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.” Hiring more women is a crucial first step. But the authentic inclusion of women necessitates taking a hard look at a general corporate culture that makes 81% of women feel some form of exclusion at work.
Each month we offer you a chance to read mindfully, using literature to consider your reactions to and assumptions about the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. Grab a friend, family member or colleague to read, share and discuss together.
Winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle’s 2016 John Leonard Prize, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut short story collection Night at the Fiestas explores complicated race and class dynamics, with characters who “protect, betray, wound, undermine, bolster, define, and, ultimately, save each other.” The New York Times called the collection, which includes today’s story “Jubilee,” a “legitimate masterpiece.” Quade’s other work has appeared in various literary magazines, and she is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Stanford University.
In “Jubilee,” a young woman finds her biases toward her father’s boss and his family challenged. What does it take to change our minds about someone we’ve previously judged?
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.”
As a child and an unstoppable reader, I was irresistibly drawn to strong and headstrong female characters. Whether Harriet M. Welsch (of Harriet the Spy fame), Claudia Kincaid (From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or Anne Shirley (of the infamous Anne of Green Gables), these young women felt like friends and soulmates: impetuous, energetic and, at times, a little noisy. Their stories invited me to reflect on my own experiences and, in particular, on the young woman I was and wanted to be.
Literature enthusiasts have long extolled the virtue of narrative to engage and delight individuals in this very way. Salman Rushdie once wrote, “Man is the storytelling animal. . . his stories are his identity, his meaning and his lifeblood.” But both the hard sciences and the social sciences confirm what a good book makes us feel: narrative powers the connections between individuals. In his inimitable way, narrative scholar Jerome Bruner describes, “Our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us.” And the business world is catching on, with new energy for the strategic value of stories and storytelling in internal and external communications.
But does narrative’s power to connect run deeper than the way we tell our brand story or the way in which we persuade others to a cause?