I rediscovered short stories several years ago when I began working for a nonprofit called Books@Work. During the Thursday lunch hour, every other week for eight weeks, I discussed Steinbeck stories with employees at a manufacturing company in Lorain County, Ohio. The time commitment was minimal and thus compatible with my job, eight miles away, as an associate professor of English at Oberlin College. I had recently received tenure; I had the freedom and desire to try something new.
Books@Work has been organizing professor-led literature seminars in the workplace since 2009. It does not pitch itself as a continuing-education program—an opportunity to go back to school and learn about the Romantic poets or Jacobean drama from a professor with an engaging lecture style. The activity I was called upon to perform largely resembled what I would do in the undergraduate English classroom: pose questions; attempt to linger over a puzzling moment or detail; steer the conversation toward insights. There was one crucial difference, however. My role was to prompt participants to think about their own lives and share with each other how they related to these stories personally. This was the very thing I diligently avoided at Oberlin. The personal is the Pandora’s box in the college English classroom—opening it releases all the evils of oversharing.
I started teaching for Books@Work around the same time that Oberlin began to engage more openly in the national conversation about the imperiled liberal arts, at risk because of demographic shifts (decline in the population of high school seniors), stagnating middle-class incomes, soaring college tuition and shrinking employment opportunities. Even elite liberal-arts institutions need to promise parents more concrete goods than soul-building and intellectual exploration. “Defense of the humanities” is now a subgenre of the proliferating “defense of higher education” genre.
Getting involved with Books@Work was a through-the-looking-glass experience. I was working for a nonprofit that was successfully selling a liberal-arts-style product to mainly private-sector companies, companies that were paying for their employees to engage in the open-ended, exploratory discussions that are the trademark of the humanities classroom. What’s more, the founders of this nonprofit were enormously successful management consultants. They developed the idea of organizing professor-led literature seminars in the workplace because they believed that sitting around a table swapping reactions to stories has a potentially transformative effect on the individual employee and on the relationships among individual employees.