Faculty-Staff Book Club Discusses Texts 'on' Work 'at' Work

Barry Schwartz

Staff and faculty members discussed the theme of work in small groups during the year and in a full-group session led by Barry Schwartz at a potluck event earlier this month.

For the third chapter of the annual Swarthmore faculty-staff book club, organizers offered something novel.

The more than 50 members of the College community who participated in the club received a rare opportunity: the chance to dive deeply into the primary text with its author.

Barry Schwartz, Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action, led a discussion on his own Why We Work.

“It adds another dimension to the experience when you are able to hear from the author,” says Pamela Shropshire, associate director of the Aydelotte Foundation, which sponsored the club.

“The prospect of being able to ask him about his work, or even critique it, was motivational for some readers,” adds Carina Yervasi, associate professor of French and a co-facilitator of one of the reading groups.

Professor of History Allison Dorsey proposed the book club in 2014, in anticipation of a visit by Toni Morrison. Participants got to discuss Morrison’s work with her in a classroom session for the College community.

The organizers of this year’s book club went a step further, arranging for Schwartz to facilitate a reading group. Their interest dovetailed with Schwartz’s retirement from the College, as well as overall interest in work as a theme.

Each reading group tackled two other books of their choosing, including a graphic adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working, the short stories collection Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, and Three Strikes: The Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century.

Groups met three times throughout the spring semester, in sessions facilitators treated more as a conversation than a class. The book club once again attracted faculty and staff from all corners of the College, forging new connections and fostering fresh insights.

“Community building is a byproduct of the club, but for me it’s the primary reason to do it,” says Jen Moore, administrative assistant in the History Department, who helped to organize the club and facilitated a reading group. “Finding areas of common interests with people you might not have otherwise met is a really cool thing, and this is a way to make that happen.”

“Reading together can be a way to create an opening or an opening up to people through the experience of listening to how others read the same text,” adds Yervasi. “I would hope that the diversity of opinions is a strength of the groups rather than a weakness.”

Last year, the book club focused on food, a broad and universal topic. But nothing is more relatable than discussing work while at work, and that presented challenges.

“There were moments when many readers, probably all of us, really wanted to ‘go there’ about their job in relation to the reading,” says Yervasi. “But most people really wanted to engage with the text.”

The four reading groups converged for a potluck earlier this month. They discussed the books and related issues — including the shared economy model of Uber and Lyft and how to apply takeaways of Why We Work to Swarthmore — in small groups and in a larger session that included Schwartz.

Participants left the potluck – which concluded this year's book club – nourished in body and mind.

“I’m an advocate for programming like the book club because it empowers participants to share and create knowledge together,” says Shropshire. “This is integral to our liberal arts mission.”