August 13, 2018
Erin Ulrich
Image of Laura Baudot
Professor Laura Baudot Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Laura Baudot’s work with Cleveland-based nonprofit Books@Work has given her insight into why people read outside of the classroom.

Laura Baudot was first introduced to Books@Work, a Cleveland-based nonprofit, in 2016 and has since become an ardent advocate of the organization’s mission to improve workplace cultures through professor-led book discussions. Through Books@Work, Baudot has facilitated conversations at a private all-girls high school, an adhesive manufacturing company, and a veterans hospital—all of which have, in her words, “sparked a very productive sense of disorientation.”

The ethos of Books@Work is encapsulated in the idea that books have the potential to mobilize conversations around issues such as race, gender, and the human experience in deeper ways than typically occur in the workplace. Essentially, the books are a gateway into what often organically become shared spaces of reflection on personal experience. Books@Work programming is frequently integrated into company wellness initiatives and the organization prides itself on bringing together individuals “from the front line to the C-suite.”

Baudot first gravitated toward Books@Work programs when reflecting on her own reading practices outside of the classroom. “I wanted to know why fiction matters to people. I wanted to bring in the question of human relevance because it’s important in my own reading life. I don’t only read in academic ways; I also read to find answers to ethical questions and to reflect on my own experiences,” she says.

Under the guidance of President Carmen Twillie Ambar, Oberlin has recently made strides to exhibit how a liberal arts degree can prepare students for career readiness in a plethora of increasingly competitive workplace environments. Baudot concurs that the humanities can chart the course for liberal arts’ survival in a daunting economic landscape in which the future of higher education remains uncertain.

“Trends in higher education indicate increasing valorization of social sciences and STEM fields, as well as increased focus on preprofessional training. So, it was really interesting for Books@Work to be premised on the idea that reading stories and talking about them can improve an employee’s performance and improve workplace culture."

Baudot’s fresh take on the value of reading outside the halls of ivy offers a glimmer of hope for those within them. According to her, programs like Books@Work testify to the potential of the humanities to build career readiness, transform individuals’ capacity for empathy and open-mindedness, and evince Oberlin’s commitment to preparing its students for the real world.

In an interview with Inside HigherEd this past spring, Baudot describes her “ongoing quest to argue for the value of the humanities to an increasingly skeptical audience.” In Introduction to the Advanced Study of Literature, a mandatory course for English majors designed to introduce students to the formal studies of literary theory and critique, she has demonstrated an increased interest in “openness and curiosity” about her students’ personal perspectives. She says that this approach has recalibrated the way students interact not just with works of literature, but with each other.

A student in her class once remarked about a character in a compromising situation, “I can kind of understand the position of this person in the story.” From that point on, Baudot says the nature of the conversation shifted: “It became less about signaling one’s progressive politics and more about working through a complex interpersonal dynamic.”  

From plant workers who read on their Kindles after they clock out to English majors trying to determine how many times per sentence it’s appropriate to mention Foucault, Baudot is certain that the significance of reading is far from ephemeral.

“I think Books@Work has given me a new appreciation for how much people care about reading and how much value they place on the idea of literary quality. I know teachers often say in a sort of pious way, ‘I really learn from my students.’ But, it was true. I really learned to think about the characters in different ways from the Books@Work participants.”

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