Fall 2014

What more noble work can there be than the manufacture of empathy. 

Mike Perry has done many things to make a living, but today he finds his hands are soft and his shoulders slumped from the work that pays the bills. “Where I come from, it is always tricky when a person with soft hands delivers a discourse on hard work,” he begins in an essay he wrote to help us kick off our Working Lives Project.

With this multi-year initiative, we propose that the humanities offer valuable angles from which to consider the human endeavor of work. We believe the subject is universally interesting, currently relevant, and worth mulling over. In Perry’s words, “perhaps the best reason to study the concept of ‘work’ is to expand our understanding of its many manifestations and permutations….[because to] understand why someone works at what they do for the reasons they do is to develop empathy.” 

We invite you to read On.

In this issue of On:


From the Director’s Desk

Five years after the official end of the recession, the economy is growing slowly. Long-term unemployment remains at an historical high. Prescriptions for reducing unemployment abound and are often at odds. From the Capitol to the kitchen table, people are struggling to understand and respond, and to make change in their own lives or for their fellow citizens. 

One of our fundamental beliefs is that the humanities offer special tools that can help us reflect deeply and act wisely, both in our private lives and as members of society. The Working Lives Project is a new WHC initiative designed to help the people of Wisconsin do just that in today’s changing world of work. 

Whatever work is for us–whether we are employed or not–work is a defining feature of our lives. It defines us as individuals and connects us as members of society. The kinds of work we do, the availability of work, and the conditions of work are always changing. The humanities offer lenses through which to question what causes things to be as they are, and to examine the meanings and lived experiences of what work is, was, or might be. How do we see ourselves as workers today? Why and how has that changed? What are our hopes for what work will look like in the future? Why is making a living different from making a life? 

For the next three years, we’ll be creating opportunities for people of all ages to reflect on what work means in their own lives and their neighbors’, and to contextualize and probe public policy debates.   The project includes online resources, radio programs, a Request for Proposals, traveling exhibits, and more. From schools and libraries to museums, colleges, churches and historical societies, our statewide partners are diverse. With them, we will cover a broad range of work-related topics.  Personal stories of people in different occupations, the value of a
liberal arts education in today’s economy, and Wisconsin’s economic and labor history are just a few. 

If you are with a local organization, I strongly encourage you to develop a Working Lives project that speaks to the interests of people in your community, and to apply for WHC grant funds to support it. On The Working Lives Project webpages you will find information about applying for a grant, announcements of all Working Lives Project activities as they are added, and some fun material to spark your thinking. We are just getting started, so check back regularly to see what’s new. Please contact WHC staff if you want to learn more about the project or apply for a grant.

At their core, the humanities are about examination of the human experience. When it comes to work, we know that we are not all welders or computer programmers, businesspeople or public servants, artists or volunteer firefighters, stay-at-home parents or retirees. We do not all have the same opportunities, challenges, beliefs, or aspirations. But we can learn from and celebrate the life and work of every person. With one another, we can study the past and consider the future. When we do that, we come closer to making Wisconsin the place we all want to live and work together. What better use for the humanities?

Dena Wortzel  | Executive Director |

Mike Perry's hands

Essay: Noble Work by Mike Perry

Viewed from a distance of twenty-five yards, my brother Jed and I are obviously sprung from the same womb. Same balding round crania, same nose, same gapped teeth, same general frame. Zoom into our hands, however, and singular distinctions emerge. At base, they are the same size. Similar smallish bone structure. But Jed’s fingers are thickened to half again the circumference of mine. The heels of his hands (what the anatomy books call the thenar and hypothenar eminences) are meatier (more eminent) than mine. His palms are scored and rough.  

Mine? Well, let’s just say they look more suited to cradling kittens than cranking a cant hook.

In the course of general social exchange, the questions “What do you do?” or “What are you?” are nearly always answered in terms of work:

            “I farm.”

            “I paint.”

            “I am a carpenter.”

            “I am a social worker.”

Answers from another angle (“I breathe deeply,” “I am a satisfied man”) will be received with skepticism and discomfort.

Where I come from, it is always tricky when a person with soft hands delivers a discourse on hard work. When I say “where I come from,” I’m talking not so much about the map as the society. Never mind that decades have passed since I last worked on a sawmill, or branded a calf, or milked a cow—those physical labors remain the standard against which I weigh all work, even as I gratefully support myself by rearranging electrons by fingertip.

I have just returned from a visit to the Wyoming ranch where I worked for five summers from the age of sixteen. It was good to visit and catch up, and resurrect old memories, but I felt more comfortable helping dig postholes than I did sitting in the visitor’s chair. When I visit a farm, nothing relieves me more than to be asked to pitch in. To throw some haybales or move some sod, or maybe rake hay. This desire is rooted in my memories of city people who would show up at our farm in light clothing and look at a pitchfork as if it was radioactive. Their apparent lack of embarrassment at being seen to just sit around made me jumpy and self-conscious on their behalf.

            And that’s a problem, too.

            My problem.

We value work inconsistently, choosing to ignore—or overlook, or leave unremarked—the fact that vast swathes of the nation’s earning power are underpinned by unpaid and underpaid work. We hail the grand captain of industry while overlooking the person who empties his paper shredder, we nod reverently at the successful farmer down at the café while back home his wife is tending fires fueling the entire operation.

When I shake hands with someone and feel the thick scuff of calluses, I think of the people who raised me and adopt a reflexive humility and admiration. But even this can swerve quickly into self-serving condescension, as if by applying the “noble” tag to physical labor—perhaps, say, by writing a brief essay on the subject—we excuse ourselves to let anyone but us do it.

Where I come from, you admire hard physical labor. I like that I am imbued with that. It is essentially grounding. But there is also the danger of developing a reverse snobbery against anyone with soft hands. There is the tendency to conflate admiration for hard physical labor with disdain for intellectual and artistic pursuits. To sneer at book-learnin’, no matter that some PhD genius designed the turbo on your pickup truck. It is out of this consciousness that I tend to refer to myself not as a writer or an author but as a self-employed typist, which is fine and self-deprecating to a point, but when extrapolated without limits undermines those who work hard with their hearts and minds—and I’m not just talking about your received artists: I mean to include people who show up and do the figurative heavy lifting required to spackle the gaps between labor and capital, up to and including—dare I say it—dedicated and much-maligned government workers.

            And city people.

No matter how I struggle over the form and content of the essay at hand, I will be hard-pressed to elicit an empathetic nod from my brother the logger—his skull x-rays still featuring the hairline split laid there by the butt end of a widowmaker, his throat scarred by the sapling that ran him through like a spear in a freak logging accident (as if there weren’t enough standard logging accidents), and of course the clicks, lumps and strains bound to infiltrate any body employed for decades in the most elemental sort of hard work. And yet it is interesting how the ultimate manifestation of the respective physical damage work has exacted from the two of us—his a kinetic toll of fractures, falls, lacerations, and general knockabout; mine the creaks, kinks and impingements accumulated from decades of slumping in place—is that we both walk like aging loggers.

            Both of us shaped by our work.

The soft hands. It always comes back to that.  Sometimes if I spend a few days straight running a shovel, or splitting wood, or helping the neighbor hay, at night I will feel my hands swelling with the work. And when the blisters shift to callus, it feels good. When I sit down to type with those hands, I don’t pretend to be a laborer, but I can hope that whatever words I generate will be inflected by the experience.

 And maybe that’s it: perhaps the best reason to study the concept of “work” is to expand our understanding of its many manifestations and permutations. In my case, to pry the term away from the pitchfork handle. To focus less on the position and the paycheck and more on the drive and the need.

To understand why someone works at what they do for the reasons they do is to develop empathy.

And what more noble work can there be than the manufacture of empathy.

— Mike Perry is a self-employed writer who lives in rural Wisconsin and can be found online at

 WorkingLives-100pxWorking Warriors: Military Life Beyond Combat

Historic image of military workers

What does it mean to work in the military? Civilians’ notions of military life often come from movies or the media, filled with images of combat. Is that what everyday life is really like for servicemen and women? Our partners at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum created a travelling exhibit that may surprise you. You can see it at one of its stops  for the creation of Working Warriors: Military Life Beyond Combat, as part of the WHC’s Working Lives Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities Standing Together initiative. For tour dates and locations, check the WHC calendar on our website.


Sharing Work Stories on the Radio

People in Wisconsin find so many ways to make a living. Thanks to our partnership with Wisconsin Public Radio for the Wisconsin Life series, you can hear from a woman who fishes professionally, a man who builds guitars, and a working trapper. Listen on the radio to the first part of the story, then hear even more from these folks about themselves and their work on the WHC site. A total of ten new radio essays are part of The Working Lives series!


Grants Available for Your Working Lives Project

You can help people in your community examine what work is, was, or might be. What did work look like in your community 100 years ago?  What values inform our choices about how we make a living and a life? From history to literature to discussion of public policy, we’re ready to help your community reflect on the experience of work here and now, or across time and in other places.

We encourage libraries, historical societies, museums, schools, churches, and other community groups throughout Wisconsin to develop public humanities programs and to apply for WHC grant support

Here you can find descriptions of past grant-funded projects on work-related topics, and you will be directed to our grant guidelines, application forms, and deadlines. Talk to Mark Livengood, Grant Program Director, to get help planning your project and polishing your application, 608-265-5595 or


Recently Funded Projects

For each dot on the map, imagine people coming together for a great humanities conversation, sharing their ideas and learning from scholars and neighbors. Every dot represents a project made possible by a WHC grant.


Map showing where WHC grants have been given


About the Images

Cover: Stacking Grain Sheaves, a painting by Julien Dupre in the collection of the Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, used with permission.

Hands: Author Mike Perry’s hands, photo taken by Anneliese

Military Workers: This historic photo of Helen Brey and James Farrell reapairing tires during World War II is part of the Dorothy Dannies Alexander Collection of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and included in the traveling exhibition “Working Warriors: Military Life Beyond Combat.”