Note: With sadness, we say goodbye to Rachel Burstein, our Academic Director. Rachel is based in California and has a young child. As her daughter gets older, Rachel has decided to pursue opportunities that do not necessitate monthly trips to work with the team in Cleveland. As she leaves at the end of the month, she passes the Program and Curriculum baton to Jessica Isaac, our new teammate and author of last week’s post on reading Chaucer. In her tenure with Books@Work, Rachel has been instrumental in broadening our professor community, capturing our learnings on the most effective books and practices to bring to the humanities to non-traditional spaces and in communicating our goals and stories. She wrote frequently on this blog and in other venues, and we hope to persuade her to continue to write and share her observations with us. In this post, she reflects on special aspects of the Books@Work experience and revisits insights she has previously shared in this space. Please join us in thanking Rachel for her thoughtful and energetic contributions to the growth and development of Books@Work.
The students I remember most fondly from my teaching days aren’t those who earned perfect quiz scores or those who came to class with detailed notes on the week’s reading. They weren’t the students who burst into my office seeking feedback on papers they’d drafted.
The students I remember most fondly were the skeptical ones. The ones who told me that studying history was a waste of time, challenging me to convince them otherwise. The students who weren’t content to take my word for it, who came into class ready to tell me I was wrong, the students who wondered if there was another way to tell the story. The students who didn’t take a textbook or a primary source at face value, but who interrogated it, who asked why the author told his story in the way that he did.
The students I remember most fondly were the ones who understood that history was messy – who liked that messiness, who saw history as a process that was never done, but that evolved and changed. The students that I remember most fondly were the ones who wanted to do history, who recognized that history wasn’t simply telling stories, but understanding which stories to tell and how to tell them, layering story upon story until a narrative approximating truth emerged.
Encouraging that skepticism, that engagement, that willingness to disagree, that interest in breaking down assumptions, is at the very heart of what we do at Books@Work. A woman suggests that the gender of an anonymous narrator might be different than what his fellow participants believed, radically changing the group members’ understanding of a short story. A man decides that he’s not quite sure about a professor’s take on the factors contributing to a race riot, taking it upon himself to research the topic.
These moments don’t come on their own. They are nurtured and earned by professors.
Professors who take participants seriously, as readers and people, regardless of rank, regardless of whether they’ve had on-the-job opportunities for learning in the past. Professors who come to the seminar table as learners as well as teachers. Professors who guide participants to new discoveries. Professors who understand the importance of listening. Professors who are committed to both their craft and their community. Professors who often bring their campuses and institutions along with them to a larger social consciousness. Intellectuals who suggest new approaches, who offer new ways of seeing the world. Professors who care – about the participants in their seminars, about the books they read, about the ideas they discuss. Professors who care about making a difference in their world.
Working with these professors over the past year – and hearing stories of the incredible participants who’ve pushed them to be the teachers that they are – has been awe-inspiring. As I leave Books@Work, it is the commitment, energy, engagement and genuine interest of both participants and professors that I will miss the most, and that I will keep with me.
Image: August Macke, Farewell, 1914, Sammlung Haubrich [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.