Image: Jean-Paul Riopelle, Conversation, 1946, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org
The joy of being a professor is getting to share what I love with a mostly rapt, albeit captive, audience. Whether the course is a requirement they begrudgingly take or an elective they happily attend, the contract of the classroom is the same. We will read the Baldwin or Ehrenreich I assign, the main purpose of which is to instruct them on how to think and write. Though my students influence the semester, I do the bulk of the steering, ensuring we hit the landmarks I have designated en route to a final destination I have, however loosely, predetermined.
At Books@Work, however, the readers are not my students. They are not there to learn where a particular author sits on the literary landscape or how adjectives are best used sparingly. They are not there to write papers; I am not there to grade them. In fact, I’m not there to teach at all.
During one of my first Books@Work sessions we read ZZ Packer’s “Brownies,” a moving story about a Brownie troop made up of little Black girls. The main characters reminded me a lot of myself; they were products of working poor families, already familiar with the contours of racism though they were only in elementary school. When we discussed the story in the session, we dwelled on what fourth grade was like for each of us. Some could relate, as I could, to being driven by race at that age. For others, this was eye-opening.
In the story, the girls are led by the toughest among them to avenge an overheard racial slur. As they march to the bathroom to confront the other troop, we see their varying reactions. Some of the girls are reluctant. In our discussion, participants empathized with this, connecting it with the powerful tides that can sweep through an organization, making dissent difficult. This led to a corresponding compassion for the older girl spearheading the ill-fated mission. As leaders of their own teams, the Books@Work participants recognized her sense of duty. They saw how it contributed to her misjudgment, turning her seemingly noble vision into an embarrassing mistake.
On its face, a story about girl scouts, about when “victims become victimizers,” as ZZ Packer explains it, would appear to have little to do with the development of executives into effective team leaders. Yet the participants focused on how the story did relate to them, both as individuals who were once nine-year-olds as well as managers and coworkers. This is perhaps the most compelling difference between the classroom and a Books@Work session: the participants play a constitutive role in determining not only what direction the conversation will go, but how it will apply to their experience as individuals and colleagues. The conversation is the point.
Unlike the classroom, the goal of a successful Books@Work session is a rich conversation whose relevance is determined by the readers themselves. Sure, I may describe a writer’s accolades or contextualize a story’s setting with historical background. I might mention if there was a war going on when the story was published or if the author was a proud Marxist, but otherwise I give up some of the control I have in the classroom. The story gives up some of its centrality too; it’s no longer there to represent the canon or model effective writing. Surprisingly, however, none of this diminishes the experience for me as professor. Instead, I get the distinct joy of sharing what I love without the parameters or obligation of instruction.