When we started Books@Work, a surprising number of people questioned the potential impact of professors in the workplace. “Won’t they be intimidating?” asked one skeptic. “Will people really want to read the stuff they want to teach?” worried another. “Aren’t professors too expert to be really open-minded about what adult learners would have to say?” The lack of confidence was frankly dispiriting.
Books@Work is a classroom-style learning experience without the structure and hierarchy of the classroom. The professors bring expertise and passion for the chosen text and its context, but the participants bring years of experience about the workplace and its challenges. The ideal Books@Work program gets at the intersection of the two: expertise and experience. Participants enter the discussions as peers (regardless of their job titles), and together, they approach the professors as peers – peers who bring support and guidance to reading high quality literature.
What would prevail – our ideal or the comments of our skeptics? We set out to better understand the personal impact of the books, the experience and the professors. Along the way, we busted a few myths.
MYTH #1: Professors are inaccessible.
REALITY: Professors engage and inspire, in very human ways. One young woman in a hospitality company shared with me that she felt such kinship to one professor that her fervent wish was simply to get together with her for coffee, to hang out with her and get to know her better. She was moved by the experience that was “much bigger than I thought it would be.” A high achiever in high school, a scarcity of financial resources made college unrealistic for her – she entered the workforce right after high school graduation. An avid reader and interested learner, Books@Work tapped into her desire to engage with others about books and ideas. This inspired her to take the books home to read with her children – the very outcome we desire.
MYTH #2: Professors are prone to lecture and guide a discussion by their own ideas.
REALITY: Professors can be expert facilitators, bringing an appreciated skill set to the workplace. Another participant in a health care company remarked that the professor excelled not only at encouraging thoughtful contributions from every member of the group, but at exhibiting a kind of patience in allowing the discussion to take its own course. He “let the class flow.” She continued, “You know, there are two parts to being a good leader. To be a good leader you have to be a good follower. He followed the flow of the discussion and interjected when he needed to and held back when he needed to. He didn’t try to turn a corner before it was time to turn.” Her colleague in the same program added, “I was watching and paying attention to him because sometimes when I speak in public, I talk too much. I learned a lot.”
MYTH #3: Professors will be intimidating.
REALITY: In fact, we hear the opposite – over and over again. Professors make our participants feel empowered and confident. A foodservice associate noted the genuine feeling of joy she felt at contributing an idea that the professor found meaningful and valuable. “I found myself sharing ideas I didn’t know I had, in part because I had never had the opportunity. The professors always made us feel we had something important to contribute.” In several programs, participants appreciated the professors’ input even where the book may have seemed intimidating; as one remarked, “even where I didn’t care for the book, it was interesting to see things the professor brought out that I hadn’t seen. I thought about the book differently after our conversation.”
MYTH #4: Professors’ passions will be esoteric and hard to connect with.
REALITY: Passion is contagious. A manufacturing company employee shared her enthusiasm for the professors’ interests and passions: “I really appreciated the professors, not just for their guidance and knowing that they would help you focus, but because they really keep you on task. With all of them you felt their passion. That really makes a difference.It is one thing to be a Shakespeare scholar and to know Shakespeare backwards and forwards, but to share that passion really helped some of us bring out our own passion. You had a comfortable environment to be able to say ‘this book is awesome, I’m totally a Shakespeare nerd’ and it was ok to feel that way because the professor was totally with you. That adds enthusiasm and energy to the conversation.”
With sheer delight, I can turn back to our skeptics and report that our professors have been incredibly well received. In fact, their willingness to come into the workplace and to learn from the experiences of the participants has been an overwhelmingly positive aspect of Books@Work – in every program. The power of the professors to inspire and excite makes Books@Work a unique and wonderful experience. The professor makes the difference between a do-it-yourself book club and a rich, rewarding learning experience.
Image: Thomas Eakins [Public domain], Professor William D Marks, 1886, via Wikimedia Commons.