Today’s interview features Books@Work facilitator Dr. Heather Braun, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Akron, where she also serves as Honors Advisor and Internship Liaison for the department.
“How have you managed to pivot from the classroom setting to facilitating literature discussions with adults in the workplace?”
In both settings, it’s really important to me to make the material matter and to show readers how it’s relevant to their lives. I think Books@Work is a really effective way of doing this. You’re getting to hear honest reactions from readers who are not paying for a class in the “real world” and who are seeking that relevance, too, in what they read.
Both settings also offer readers a chance to connect with each other. That’s something I also try to do in my classes because I think it increases engagement and interest, and my students are more likely to read the material when they feel like they are a part of a kind of family that listens and supports them.
At Books@Work, we use literature to generate meaningful conversation, bridge divides and encourage human connection. This Thanksgiving week, we invite you to grab a friend or family member to read and discuss O. Henry’s classic story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” together.
Can a hairdresser from 1958 teach an alpha male manager in an industrial factory something about leadership today? She can if he’s willing to listen – not just to her, but to his colleagues’ comments about her. A story about a woman and a boy in 1950s Harlem inspired a group of white men in an industrial company in rural Western New York State to begin to trust each other’s attitudes about work.
I facilitated a conversation about Langston Hughes’s short story “Thank You, Ma’am” for Books@Work with a group of a manufacturing plant’s employees. The group included floor employees and members of upper management. In Hughes’s story, a boy attempts to snatch a woman’s purse. The woman deftly wrestles him to the ground, brings him home, feeds him and, just as deftly, schools him. This very short story reveals a back story about the woman – Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones – who, in trusting the boy, teaches him to trust, and to respect himself and others.
At Books@Work, we believe in the transformative power of conversation. A good conversation offers “a hospitable environment for creative thought.” Interacting with each other on a deeper level helps to dismantle exclusionary cultures and biases. We all know it’s tough to have difficult conversations at work – but they are critical to conflict resolution and trust-building.
We use narratives – fiction, nonfiction, poems and plays – to kickstart these conversations. We write frequently about the benefits of these discussions. But what exactly does a conversation around a literary text look like in action?
When Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition in June, interviewer Steve Inskeep posed a question about the uncertain future of artificial intelligence in the workplace: “Are you. . . scared by the prospects of AI getting out of control?”
“I don’t really worry about machines thinking like people,” Cook replied. “I worry about people thinking like machines.” The real cause for concern, he added, is the potential “absence of humanity” and “deep thought” in the corporate world.
Cook’s response immediately reminded me of Ken Liu’s “The Regular,” a short story that we have used in Books@Work programs and discussed together as a team. The premise is simple: police detectives in a not-so-distant future have been outfitted with devices that regulate their decision-making functions. If the regulator detects too much emotion behind a decision, it will nudge the brain to be more logical, no matter the consequences. In other words, what happens when people think like machines?
Happy Friday! We’ve compiled our favorite articles and essays from the last month for you to browse and enjoy over the weekend.
What makes a team exceed expectations? Brett Steenbarger, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University, argues for three tested and research-driven strategies that enable teams to function at the highest level in creativity, innovation and productivity. In addition to “distraction-free concentration” and opportunities for mentorship, Steenbarger’s Forbes piece highlights the importance of psychological safety – for groups and individuals. So what does that look like?
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.
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 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.