Reading serious literature isn't the norm among American adults these days. But nonprofit Books@Work hopes to encourage adults to continue to read and learn after they have left formal schooling by organizing literature discussions in the workplace.
“Many adults are undereducated,” said Ann Kowal Smith, who started the organization in 2010. “It’s about getting them back into the system as lifelong learners.”
Books@Work pays college professors to lead literature seminars for employees at a rate of $500 for four one-hour sessions. The professors are also paid a stipend to account for transportation. Each hourlong weekly class, usually spanning three months, contains a discussion of three narrative texts. The seminars do not culminate in a grade, and professors don't need to mark papers or exams. The programs cost about $5,000 each and are paid by the employer.
Instructors are selected by location: once the organization decides to hold a seminar in a certain place, it contacts the local colleges to find interested professors, Smith said. Instructors participating in the program have come from private and public institutions, including American University, Cleveland State University, Beloit College, Arizona State University and Oberlin College.
Laura Baudot, an associate professor of English at Oberlin, has taught four monthlong Books@Work sessions since being introduced to the program last year. Baudot said that teaching adults in the workplace has helped her figure out how a postsecondary liberal arts education "fits into the wider world." Among the texts Baudot has taught are short stories by John Steinbeck and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (now a critically acclaimed movie). Baudot has taught the program in several companies.
"As we lose faith in the value of it for undergraduates, employers are seeking it out," Baudot said.
Books@Work has held courses in a range of industries, including manufacturing, health care, food services, technology and even higher education itself. In spring 2016, Books@Work started a seminar at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University. The college currently offers two literature courses to faculty and staff alike.
“It allows faculty and staff from all over the university to come together and read a book,” Mary Ann Dobbins, wellness coordinator at Case Western Reserve said in a video. “When you talk about a book, when you talk about themes from books with people who you don’t normally interact with, you get to really know people deep down.” Several classes have continued to meet after their sessions have concluded, without the instructor, Dobbins said.
The seminars, Smith said, are a “safe space,” encouraging employees to have important conversations about race, religion and politics. “What we find is that the books are wonderful venues or vehicles to have these conversations,” Smith said.
Since its founding, Books@Work's instructors have led discussions on nearly 600 books representing a range of genres, including classic, contemporary, Western, non-Western, fiction, nonfiction, poetry and short stories. Some texts Books@Work continues to use include Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, James McBride’s The Color of Water, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Chinua Achebe’s Dead Men’s Path.
To Smith, the “ideal books and stories” involve “interesting characters, often with a moral dilemma or an ethical dilemma.” In response, participants often “take very different views of the story,” which “lends itself to the comparison of ideas, and different perspectives,” Smith said.
Daniel Contofalsky, a program participant who worked in manufacturing, said in a video that the program helped him think about a text in a different way.
“Everyone kind of brings in their own thing,” Contofalsky said. “I know we’ve had multiple times where it’s like, here’s how I read something, and then it’s fun to, you know, talk to somebody else, and they’re like, yeah, I read it this way, and it’s like, all right, I never would have thought of it that way, but now that you say that, I see that.”
Books@Work also holds seminars for community members in Ohio, where the organization was founded, including veterans, urban parents and nonteaching staff in public schools, as well as police officers and other residents.