How We Will Work: Stories from Wisconsin


Here on Humanities Booyah, we curate a mix of voices and ideas. Our interests are eclectic. We are just as interested in hearing from museum directors with tips for reaching out to new audiences as we are in learning about nearly-forgotten Wisconsin authors and their once-famous books.

Our all-time most popular article, however, stands out for being different. “In My Experience: The Work of a Medical Transcriptionist” is a personal story shared with us by a woman named Sue in Menomonee Falls. We had just launched our Working Lives Project when Sue contacted us in response to hearing our director, Dena Wortzel, challenge us to reflect on the unseen work — and workers — all around us.  Sue knew too well what being unseen can mean.

Sue explained her work: “A medical transcriptionist transcribes in medical terms what a doctor or clinician is dictating after a patient visit, surgery, test results, postmortem examination, pathology, etc. The medical language has a form all its own, complete with synonyms, antonyms and all the rules of the English language.  Missing one comma can change the entire diagnosis.  The doctors themselves often do not know how to spell these words.  It is the medical transcriptionist’s job to correctly and perfectly document this information while understanding mispronunciations and accents.

With the advent of new technology, Sue explained, the conditions of her job changed: Medical trascriptionists  who used to come to work at the doctors’ offices were sent home with computers.  Sue wrote: “No longer would we have human interaction.  No longer did I drive, nor dress for work.  We were no longer visible to doctors and they assumed we no longer existed.  They thought the computer was recognizing their speech, and in fact, some programs were doing that.  No longer were we asked to office parties, dinners, meetings.  We were silent, invisible, forgotten.  I felt ugly because I worked in pajamas. There was no need for makeup.  My work buddies were my pet birds.  The only time anyone knew we existed was if a mistake was made.”

The interest that Sue’s story has generated reminds us how personal stories touch us on so many levels. From Sue, not only did we learn about a ‘hidden’ job, we also struck a chord that resonates for many of us about the uncertainty of the future. Where will I fit in?  Will my skills be valued? Can I make a living, and a life, that suits me as technology and the workplace change?

What does the future of your work look like?

Humanities approach to the subject of workWe asked five creative and thoughtful people — novelists Michelle Wildgen and Nickolas Butler, journalist Jessie Garcia, entrepreneur and blogger Penelope Trunk, and filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein — how they imagine the future of their work. Their projections are very different from Sue’s reality. Does the nature of their work make them immune to changes? Are they naive? Privileged? Optimistic? Are they opting out? Or copping out? 

“Journalism is very much in flux, as is the future of publishing, so being an author and journalist has a lot of question marks. I really don’t know what to expect but I believe the world will always have a place for writers.” 

Jessie Garcia is the author of “My Life with the Green & Gold: Tales from 20 Years of Sportscasting.” She was one of the first female TV sportscasters in the Midwest. She also teaches journalism at UW-Milwaukee and is a member of our ShopTalk discussion program. You can read her full “In the Breakroom” interview here.

“I continue to expand what we do to [new] technology, different forms of media, new platforms, and to support it with new income streams. I think about the future 24/7, to be honest.”

Brad Lichtenstein is an award-winning filmmaker and president of 371 Productions. His film, “As Goes Janesville,” follows the lives of workers laid off from well-paying jobs at the GM plant and explores questions about the future of the American middle class. You can read his full “In the Breakroom” interview here

“I am not sure what it means to make a living and make a life. Humans are pre-programmed to want 20% more money than we have. Really. A ton of research says that no matter how much money we have we think if we had 20% more we’d be fine. Then we get that 20% and it starts again.” 

Penelope Trunk is the co-founder of Quistic, an online company that offers courses about how to manage your career. It is her fourth startup. She is also a writer and her career advice has run in 200 newspapers. You can read her full “In the Breakroom” interview here.

“I hope [the future] doesn’t look too different. I like my mix of jobs, and while I would rather skew the balance more in favor of writing novels, I would always keep a few different irons in the fire. I don’t think I could only write all day.”  

Michelle Wildgen is the author of three novels, including “You’re Not You,” recently made into a film starring Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum. She is also the executive editor at Tin House magazine and co-runs the Madison Writers’ Studio. You can read her full “In the Breakroom” interview here.

“I don’t know. I’m very fortunate. I’m just having fun right now. Thinking about new ideas, new characters, new moral conundrums.” 

Nickolas Butler is the author of the novel “Shotgun Lovesongs” and a collection of short stories entitled, “Beneath the Bonfire.” Along the way, he has worked as a Burger King maintenance man, a tutor, a telemarketer, a hot-dog vendor, an innkeeper (twice), an office manager, a coffee roaster, a liquor store clerk, and an author escort. His itinerant work includes potato harvester, grape picker, and Christmas tree axe-man.  You can read his full “In the Breakroom” interview here

Working Lives Project logoThe Working Lives Project is a humanities approach to the subject of work. As the tagline, Making a Living and Making a Life, suggests, we are interested in how work shapes our human experience and how we take and make meaning from our work. The past, present and future of work are all explored by our ShopTalk presenters in more than 40 different talks, all free to any public group in Wisconsin. Book a ShopTalk presenter at


Looking Ahead


The WHC’s mission is to use history, culture and conversation to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin. How do we measure our efforts to make that difference? One way is by taking seriously the evaluations we receive back from our grant recipients. It’s through assessing the true impact of programs that give project organizers, the community and funders tangible ways to talk about why the humanities matter.

Last week our Grant Program Director shared 5 questions for assessing the success of a public humanities project. If you missed that article, you can find it here. Next up, a story about a WHC grant recipient who is making a huge impact in a Milwaukee neighborhood. But it didn’t happen on the first try. Stay tuned to learn about the evolution of an academic/community program that is built on strong partnerships. 

Thanks for reading, caring, sharing, and letting us know what you think! 

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