Shakespeare on the Shop Floor: Literature at Work and in the Community

At the Philadelphia-area manufacturer GGBearings, employees representing every corner of the plant—from the company president to machinists, engineers, and finance staff members—have assembled in the conference room. The balanced mix of men and women varies in age, race, and background. Some are in uniform, others in business-casual dress. A few wear steel-toed shoes and have safety goggles strapped to their heads.

At first glance, the gathering might appear to be a typical factory meeting. Leading the discussion, though, is not the company president but a literature professor from Bryn Mawr College. The topic? Othello. While a four-hundred-year-old play whose main characters speak in iambic pentameter might not seem related to a twenty-first-century manufacturing plant, it turns out that Shakespeare has a lot to offer contemporary employees.

“To think that [Shakespeare] can write a book like that, that is still relevant today and can still be discussed, in a way he was so far ahead of his time,” says a GGBearings tooling machinist in his fifties. “It really opened my eyes.”

The reading program at GGBearings, run by the nonprofit Books@Work, is much more than a book club for nostalgic English majors. It is a bridge between a liberal education and the workplace. Literature offers an unparalleled lens on the human experience; it unlocks the conversations we don’t usually have at work and helps us to make sense of the world we share, individually and together. Literature matters because it challenges us and forces us to reflect on how we want to live. Classes that only analyze literary texts fail to connect literature to students’ personal experiences and rob it of its powerful ability to offer reflection, insight, and interpersonal connection. Books@Work, which delivers book and story discussions facilitated by local college professors, aims to demonstrate the impact of literature in workplaces and communities across the country and around the globe.

“Literature was written not for us in the classroom—it was written to reflect real life,” points out frequent Books@Work partner Alexis Baker, assistant professor of English at Kent State University. When she leads a Books@Work session, she says, “we’re not even talking about the book in terms of character or plot but about the [larger] issues and themes. We’re talking about the book but in a very broad, real-life kind of way.”

Company connections

Started in Ohio in 2009 with a pilot program involving food service employees at AVI Foodsystems and professors from Hiram College, Books@Work today partners with companies in health care, manufacturing, distribution, technology, and professional services, as well as a variety of nonprofit organizations. It has also worked with urban parents, facilitated discussions of short stories among Cleveland police officers and residents, and helped conduct a court-mandated life-skills class—which included literature discussions—for women to take in lieu of serving time in prison.

Books@Work has so far facilitated 360 reading groups for 6,265 participants at 60 organizations in 22 states and nine countries (including Brazil, China, Germany, and Mexico). Most sessions take place on company time, and a program usually runs for ten to twelve sessions, with the length and frequency tailored to the needs of the company. Courses use a variety of literature, ranging from the pillars of the Western canon, such as Greek tragedies and Shakespeare, to contemporary novels, short stories, poetry, and narrative nonfiction from diverse and emerging voices. Books@Work selects texts based on the interests of the group and the passions of the professor.

Managers say the program has increased employee contributions and collaboration, with confidence and communication skills built during the course spilling over into participants’ professional work. Companies use the program within teams (such as sales, project, or leadership teams) and across hierarchies and functions, with groups consisting of participants from all levels of an organization. Susan Sweeney, president of GGBearings, takes part in Books@Work by participating in both a cross-functional group and a group composed of her own leadership team. “There is a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other after exchanging personal insights and sharing stories,” she says. “One team member said that this was the most genuine form of community building and culture creation that he had ever experienced.”

The employees at GGBearings have been reading and meeting together for more than three years with professors from several local colleges and universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and Swarthmore College. Program participants gather around a table, some eating lunch as they animatedly discuss the assigned reading. The professor leading the discussion asks open-ended questions and encourages the entire group to offer layered and nuanced responses about the book or story they are reading together. Participants hear and share diverse perspectives and actively contribute to the formation of a community where they live and work. These conversations build powerful bridges between diverse groups of people who, due to company culture, hierarchy, and job roles, would not likely be in the same room together—let alone sitting at the same table—as peers.

“I don’t care if you’re the president of the corporation or the custodian, you have an equal voice in the discussion,” Baker says. “It levels the playing field. We’re just people trying to figure stuff out.”

The GGBearings tooling machinist says that he’s noticed a change in the relationship between the reading group participants, that they’ve come to better know and understand each other. A coworker he’d only known in passing he now considers a friend. “I knew her by name, but we talk a lot more than we ever would have before,” he says. “You build friendships through [these discussions], and you understand that there are people who see things a bit differently, but they open you up to so many other avenues to look at things.”

The tooling machinist describes how his colleagues broadened his understanding of Othello. The machinist saw a father mourning the theft of his daughter. But to his surprise, many of the women described the romance they saw in the play. “As a father myself, when [Brabantio’s] daughter just eloped in the middle of the night, who wouldn’t be angry?” the machinist says. “I can’t believe this stuff is hundreds of years old.”

“We’ve all gotten comfortable with each other. I know [others] are going to come at things with a different view,” says one administrative employee at a health care company. The reading program, she says, has opened her up to listening to more views: “This has definitely made me think more as somebody starts to talk that I really want to hear their opinion, so I’m just going to shut up and listen and see what they have to say.”

Baker led her first Books@Work sessions at a law firm in the Midwest with a group of clerical staff, paralegals, IT support staff, and a few lawyers, including a senior partner. They challenged each other and openly debated their views, irrespective of seniority. “Everybody had a voice. It was equity, it was equality, it was democratic, it was open access in its truest form,” Baker says. “I had been teaching for sixteen years at that point, so not much surprises you, but I remember being absolutely delighted by the depths and complexity of discussion.”

Recently, Baker helped conduct a Books@Work “Big Read” at a Veterans Affairs domiciliary in Cleveland, a residential treatment facility for veterans struggling with addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic injuries. For the Big Read, Baker and seven other professors from Case Western Reserve University, Oberlin College, and other institutions led small-group discussions of Philip Levine’s “What Work Is.” The poem’s narrator describes the experience of waiting for work at a Detroit automobile plant and mistaking another waiting worker for his brother. The poem challenges the assumptions we make about our colleagues and their life experiences. The veterans “understood it from a totally different perspective than I ever could—what loyalty means, what brotherhood means,” Baker says. “I learned something.”

A facilitator mind-set

Books@Work professors—as of this writing, 300 professors from 111 institutions have led reading groups, often more than once—do not teach but, rather, they facilitate discussions of literature. Grounded in, but not limited to, the literature, these discussions encourage emotional awareness and social interaction. Because for many professors the experience of working with nontraditional learners is new, the organization coaches and supports professors in transitioning from teaching to facilitating.

For professors, the opportunity is powerful: to explore literature and its effect in the real world with a diverse set of readers. But the impact is huge. By bringing the liberal arts into the world, Books@Work communicates the value of a liberal education and underscores the role of the humanities as a mirror for the multiple ways we experience the human condition. As the liberal arts continue to suffer from the misguided perception that they are unnecessary or even frivolous, Books@Work professors help demonstrate how much we need broader rather than narrower approaches to the contemporary challenges of the workplace and the community.

Michelle Hite, assistant professor of English and director of the honors program at Spelman College, is a frequent Books@Work professor who embodies the facilitator mind-set. Through Books@Work, Hite has led discussions with manufacturing leaders, consultants, and employees in a manufacturing learning and development center in the Atlanta area. She was the first in her family to go to college but says she was “far from the first intellectual.” During quiet afternoons on her family’s front porch, her grandfather used to sit quietly thinking. Family members and visitors never found his behavior odd and, in fact, were drawn to his contemplative presence and the insights he used to offer. “He was offering them something, and I associated it with the times that I saw him thinking,” she says.
“He restored them, healed them, gave them something meaningful.”

In leading Books@Work sessions, Hite delights in finding the familiar feeling of her grandfather’s porch as she helps colleagues build community around their ideas about literature. When she teaches a class at Spelman, she presents a formal persona. When she leads a Books@Work session, however, she goes by Michelle, rather than Dr. Hite. When she’s Michelle, she’s less concerned about teaching and more focused on facilitating. Instead of analyzing the text or its context like she would with a college class, Hite helps Books@Work participants use the reading as a platform to explore humanity and engage with the stories and characters through their life experiences.

As on Hite’s grandfather’s front porch, Books@Work conversations are casual, but through the collision of different perspectives, the experience builds and deepens sustainable relationships. “The work of the facilitator,”
she explains, “is to know the story well enough that you can take for granted that you know what happens in it. So, you can be available to listen to what people are saying about it.”

And the listening is critical. Well-crafted questions create opportunities for quality reflection and listening. A good question is about making space for a variety of answers that open people up to the possibility of alternative points of view. The queries need not be complicated, but they must be varied and open-ended; the best questions have no single or correct answer.

Hite’s first Books@Work session was held with employees of EnPro Industries, a large engineered-products manufacturer based in Charlotte, North Carolina. The predominantly male group of plant leaders and manufacturing experts read Charles Johnson’s “Menagerie, a Child’s Fable.” In this provocative short story, a pet store owner goes missing, and a mischievous monkey convinces the watchdog to retrieve the keys and unlock the cages so that the animals don’t starve. Although the animals try to behave, they ultimately cannot move beyond their own singular interests. The story ends in disaster, and only one animal survives. The fable raises complicated issues of leadership and collaboration and touches on a topic of particular interest to the EnPro workers: the development and support of self-managed teams.

Hite began the discussion of “Menagerie” by asking the reading group to reflect on what the animals did well. Ready to discuss the animals’ failures, the participants were caught off guard by the question, which challenged their initial assumptions about the characters and their motives. Hite turned what might have been a moralizing discussion about the failure of cooperation into a debate on the nuanced challenges of collaboration and hierarchy, both directly and indirectly linked to the text and to the participants’ shared work experiences. Because it challenged the readers to find the positive in a seemingly negative story, her question also caused them to revisit their initial impressions. They ended up returning to the text to mine for missed details. In the end, Hite unlocked the “cages” of traditional learning to encourage personal reflection enriched by both the discussion and the text.

“I’m trying to build trust with the group. I’m asking them real questions. It’s not a prompt,” she says. “When I ask my college students questions about [Toni Morrison’s] Beloved, for example, I’m prompting them to answer me in ways that prove that they’ve read the text. When I’m asking questions at Books@Work, I don’t have a text-focused answer.”

Back on campus

If the Books@Work method makes literature more accessible in a nontraditional setting, then could approaching readings through life experience be effective in a college classroom, too? Laura Baudot, associate professor of English and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College, has built a career on literary criticism and scholarly productivity. When she started leading Books@Work sessions, the method of teaching literature proved surprising. “I knew it was going to be a different mode,” she says. She was curious, because she had, by her own admission, little experience of how nonacademic readers approach and enjoy literature. “I was interested in breaking down that fine area between literary critical approaches and personal relevance,” she says.

For one Books@Work session, she read short stories by John Steinbeck with employees at a manufacturing plant. The experience caused her to reevaluate the stories and their impact on readers. The plant employees balanced fresh, relevant perspectives with a genuine interest in more detailed literary analysis. Steinbeck’s stories, even for untrained readers, Baudot says, “raise broader social questions, but [they] also have these mysteries that you could only figure out by thinking more about a character, by engaging with the literary questions.”

The plant employees also recognized in their discussions the mix of personal interpretation and literary evaluation. “I didn’t even know you were supposed to or able to have different opinions or different interpretations of things that happen in books,” one participant says. “I know that sounds weird, but I thought it was black and white. I didn’t think that I could find my own conclusions.”

Intrigued by the richness and personal connections emerging from the Books@Work discussions, Baudot began to use the program’s discussion methods in her courses at Oberlin. While teaching James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” Baudot asked the students if they could personally relate to Gabriel, the socially awkward main character. A particularly adroit group of literature students usually dominated class discussions, but Baudot’s question created an opportunity for other students to contribute their thoughts and energy to the conversation. The students who normally shied away from literary critique came alive when asked to insert their own experience into the interpretation of the text, awakening a clear connection to a story written more than a hundred years ago.

Baudot recently created a retreat at Oberlin for sophomores to help them choose their majors. Eager for the students to explore the context of the decision in a more reflective and considered way, she asked me, as founder and executive director of Books@Work, for ideas of texts that might invite her students to reflect on their choices and on choice in general. I suggested Ken Liu’s “A Perfect Match.” The story’s theme of the balance between privacy and convenience spurred the students to examine the lengths we need to go to in order to preserve free will and choice in times of rapid technological change. The focus on the extent to which humans must fight to preserve autonomy also gave new importance to the decision at hand: picking a major with thoughtfulness, seriousness, and care.

In connecting literary works to students’ individual experiences, Baudot helps her students begin a relationship with literature that assists them in thinking about life’s biggest, hardest questions. She aims to “have taught them how reading teaches us how to have more meaningful lives,” she says. “Not to live better, not necessarily to be more moral, but to have a more meaningful existence.”

A larger conversation

Literature allows readers to live through and make sense of others’ struggles and take meaning from them. By transporting literature from a classroom lesson to a conference room conversation, its characters, messages, and themes take on relevance and connection to the challenges of everyday life. “Literature gives readers the benefit of snuggling close to the human experience, and to the human condition, without having to endure the experience themselves,” Hite says.

Not only do the stories come alive, but the readers do as well. In an inherently social learning context, well beyond the walls of the traditional college classroom, Books@Work participants build bonds that extend into the workplace and deepen organizational trust, inclusion, and collaboration, as well as enhance personal skills like critical thinking, active listening, and collaborative problem solving. And they see each other and the stories they share (from the text and from their own lives) in new ways.

When Hite leads a Books@Work session, she’s facilitating not simply as a professor but as a wife, mother, and neighbor to foster a larger cultural conversation she and the participants can explore together. “Talking to people who reflect on how a story has helped them in their home lives to be thoughtful, to be engaged and present” has reinforced her faith in the power of the humanities in the world and reminded her of the value of literature. This reading group space, she says, “is my front porch.”


Ann Kowal Smith is founder and executive director of Books@Work (www.booksatwork.org), a national nonprofit organization that humanizes the workplace, from the shop floor to the C-suite, through facilitated conversations about narrative literature. This article expands on a panel session about demonstrating the value of the humanities outside of academia, which she led at AAC&U’s 2019 annual meeting.

 

The Art of Questioning

In a Books@Work session, facilitators and participants use literary stories and characters to ask and explore questions about human nature and human relationships. On a more practical level, facilitators deploy questions to elicit deep responses from readers. Good questioning typically depends on an interplay of three categories of questions:

  • Text-based questions probe neither literary device nor plot but rather the patterns, themes, and character traits that link the text to an exploration of shared experience. These questions are not about comprehension. Examples: Did the character make the right decision? Which character was in the right?
  • Human questions connect to a more direct exploration of humanity, bridging the text and universal human experience. Examples: What makes a good leader? How can power blind us?
  • Life questions encourage participants to see and share parallels between the stories and their own personal experience, or the circumstances or challenges they face in their work. Examples: How necessary is it to love your work? Have you ever felt powerless despite your authority?

—Ann Kowal Smith

 

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