At Books@Work, we are daily witnesses to the power of conversation. As our own colleague Karen Nestor wrote earlier this year, good discussion is “an incubator for the kinds of innovative ideas that transform our lives” and allow us to reveal our truest selves. Walt Whitman once proclaimed in a poem, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Conversation draws out the multitudes within us – and putting two texts into conversation can lead to even greater revelations.
In honor of Independence Day, we’re featuring two American poems in conversation: Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ poetic response “I, Too.” Whitman’s poem appeared in the iconic 1860 collection Leaves of Grass, and Hughes’ poem was published over 60 years later in The Weary Blues at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Both poets provide their take on America. What does America mean to you?
We are thrilled to feature an interview today with Jon Schmitz, the Archivist and Historian for the Chautauqua Institution and a six-time Books@Work participant.
Tell us a little about yourself. What kind of work do you do on a day-to-day basis at Chautauqua?
I am responsible for acquiring, preserving and providing access to the records that document the Chautauqua Institution and Movement. I answer inquiries from the public, assist researchers, support staff and various Institution programs. I offer advice and support regarding archival practice to groups both on and off the grounds. I teach classes in archival practice which are open to the public and oversee educational internships. I also organize a lecture series and speak about Chautauqua’s history at the Institution, in the local area and around the country.
As is my custom, I recently devoured a new podcast from Gimlet Media called The Habitat during a long and un-airconditioned road trip to Florida.
The Habitat follows a simulated mission-to-Mars research project called HI-SEAS. As space travel to Mars becomes more likely, researchers are tasked with perfecting equipment like “the dome,” a semi-portable living structure about the size of a two-car garage that would house six astronauts. But HI-SEAS is designed to test “a far more critical piece of equipment: humans.”
For a year, six “human guinea pigs” agree to spend every waking and sleeping moment together in a dome on a Hawaiian volcano, a stand-in for the red planet. HI-SEAS seeks to determine what these conditions will do to their astronauts. Poring through 200 hours of the crew’s audio diaries, The Habitat host Lyn Levy shadows the experiment from day one. “It’s like the premise of a space age reality show,” she says.
The news is an adventure these days: cyber insecurity, racially-motivated violence, sexual imposition, the redirection of public funds for personal gains – the list goes on and on. Confronted with these varied and frequent stories, can we help but wonder if we aren’t experiencing a serious collapse in our collective moral judgment?
Philosopher and entrepreneur Damon Horowitz argues that our technologically-driven society has provided us with so much power that we have neglected the processes we need to deal with that power – to weigh its strengths and its weaknesses, differentiate between right and wrong and ultimately make effective decisions. In his compelling TED talk, “We Need a Moral Operating System”, he demonstrates that “we have stronger opinions about our handheld devices than about the moral framework we should use to guide our decisions.”
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.
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?
In a recent blog post, we invited readers to explore Billy Collins’ poem “Genius,” a profound reflection on what exactly makes someone intelligent and how our concept of genius changes over time. “Why do we find it so hard to agree upon who or what deserves the word?” we asked.
The word genius often conjures images of historical figures who embody traditional intelligence. Think of Albert Einstein, a man with an innate understanding of physics and logic and figures. Or maybe it’s Emily Dickinson with her mastery of language, her keenness of thought and her prolific poetry.
According to developmental psychologist and Harvard Professor of Cognition and Education Howard Gardner, Einstein and Dickinson represent what he calls logical and linguistic intelligence, both of which are valorized by IQ tests and held up as societal pinnacles of education. If you’re logically and linguistically intelligent, Gardner explains, you probably succeeded in school, and others will likely perceive you as smart.
But there are six other forms of intelligence that Gardner has identified and categorized in his research.
One needn’t look too hard to find evidence that diverse workplaces are more innovative and tend attract a broader pool of new potential hires. And recent McKinsey research demonstrates that companies with diverse workforces perform better financially as well.
But, in a recent Books@Work session, a participant’s comment left me thinking about the inadequacies of diversity by itself. “Proximity is not inclusion” he said, referring to a story by Chinua Achebe, “Dead Men’s Path.” Reflecting on the story’s depiction of a spectacular failure of communication, he challenged the assembled group: If we can’t find ways to share our discomfort, challenge our assumptions, and open our apertures to the ideas and experiences of others, can we truly capitalize on diversity and move forward together?
The sudden flash of insight that comes in an aha moment brings a sense of satisfaction that humans have valued since mythic times, when Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” after discovering a solution to a real-world problem. Such moments change individual lives and also provide breakthroughs in the world of work. St. Paul reinvented his life when he was knocked off his horse. Sir Isaac Newton theorized gravity when he saw an apple fall. Tchaikovsky said, “Generally, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. . . It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.”
So how do we create the perfect conditions for these flashes of creativity in the workplace?