October 23, 2020

Through the Eyes of Others: The Impact of Collaborative Reading

 Why and how do you read? To seek news and information? For escapism and pleasure? 

The relationship between reader and text was the subject of lifelong research by preeminent education scholar Louise Rosenblatt.  Rosenblatt termed the reading process a transaction. It can be utilitarian, where the text provides specific information to be carried away. Or it can be sensory, where the text invites an experiential response through the senses. In practical terms, she explains, “someone else can read the newspaper or a scientific work for us and summarize it acceptably. No one, however, can read a poem for us.” 
At Reflection Point (formerly Books@Work), we encourage the sensory, experiential response. We gather groups of colleagues in a setting where all bring their individual life experiences, emotions and sensibilities to create a new relationship with a story.  It is a collaborative approach that moves beyond the single reader experiencing a text to include a group of readers, each of whom approaches the same text but brings divergent contexts to understanding and absorbing it. When we encounter other readers who have a wildly different experience with a text, we learn not only from the text itself but from the others. Powered by a well-facilitated discussion, we step into others’ shoes to see the text reflected through their eyes, ultimately training ourselves to see the broader world through others’ experiences. 
This is one of the most magical – and practical – elements of Reflection Point. 
A recent story brings this to life. In sharing her reaction to Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, a participant said she was disturbed by the actions of a young male character because he laughed at a time of great stress. When she shared her reaction with the group, another participant said he really identified with the character, because he too had found himself laughing at inopportune times. He invited his colleague to explore why the character bothered her so much:  
“I really have to open my mind and think: Just because I would feel that way in a certain situation doesn’t mean that somebody else will feel the same way. This made me try to see things through the position of this young boy who is clearly different from me and accept that as being just his way of doing things.” 
As she continued to discuss her views with the group, she realized that her older son tended to smile at odd times when his mirth seemed out of place. Her discussion of the story and her own reactions with other readers encouraged her to revisit “the judgements that I make about other people’s behaviors based on the way that I would behave.” 
Her story suggests that the collaborative approach offers an enriching hybrid of Rosenblatt’s utilitarian and sensory approaches. It permits a reader to “live” a literary experience, but then to view it again through the eyes of other readers, to expand the potential impact of the text. The learnings come as much from the others and our own surprises as from the text itself. Rosenblatt’s bilateral “transaction” between text and reader becomes a multilateral transformative experience that enriches both the text and those who share it. 
With practice, this collaborative reading develops valuable skills to navigate the complexities of the workplace and the world, to see everyday issues through other eyes as well. Another participant noted: “The discussions that we had for all three books really helped all of us see them in a different light from what we read on our own. And you take those conversations and you bring them back into your work environment, you look at something and, then you discuss something with your team, and you [realize], ‘Oh, okay, I could look at it this way also.’”
Later in her career, Rosenblatt reflected: “For years, I have extolled the potentialities of literature for aiding us to understand ourselves and others, for widening our horizons to include temperaments and cultures different from our own, for helping us to clarify our conflicts in values, for illuminating our world.” 
This collaborative approach to reading helps create a truly inclusive work environment, where diverse skills, insights and experiences are valued.  Sharing literature through the Reflection Point model can, in fact, inspire collective creativity and catalyze the kind of team performance that enriches organizations.  

Image Credit:
Vincent van Gogh via WikiArt

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