Surprising Ourselves and Others: A Conversation

Surprising Ourselves and Others: A Conversation

Note: I recently had the opportunity to talk with Lela Hilton, Program Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, Inc., about the element of surprise in our respective programs. Founded by the late Earl Shorris, Clemente brings free humanities education to people living in economic distress. The foundational ideas for Clemente may be found in Shorris’ powerful 1997 article in Harper’s Magazine entitled As A Weapon in the Hands of the Restless Poor (On the Uses of a Liberal Education). I was fortunate to speak to Earl Shorris before he died about Books@Work.  He inspired me deeply and supported my then-fledgling idea of partnering with employers to reach working adults. When Clemente and Books@Work became co-grantees in the Teagle Foundation’s special initiative, Liberal Arts Beyond the Academy, Lela and I were introduced. What follows is a snippet of our ongoing dialogue, first published on the Teagle Foundation blog. We continue to be grateful to The Teagle Foundation for its generous support of Books@Work’s mission and work, and for introducing us to like-minded organizations like Clemente. And we are deeply honored to be in conversation with Clemente, whose groundbreaking work truly changes lives. – Ann Kowal Smith, Founder & Executive Director

Lela Hilton: I’ve been in a Clemente classroom for 16 years, and what continually surprises me is how deeply personal these texts are for our students, who are low-income adults and tend to have incredibly challenging lives. Granted, we choose written and visual texts to which we hope our students can relate, but we also pick texts that are probably very unfamiliar to them, both in terms of narrative style and content. English translations of ancient texts, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, demand a new way of reading and thinking about words and meaning. Our students seem to revel in the experience, almost as if they are cracking a secret code. And they say that the texts and discussions help them become proactive in dealing with very powerful issues in their lives, like domestic violence and addiction. This is not just intellectual gymnastics for them.  

AKS: How true that is for us too! In one case, when reading a mystery set in Chaucer’s England, a group of Books@Work participants made a pact not to read ahead, but rather to solve the mystery in the book together. Our participants also marvel at the relevance of the texts they read to the issues they face every day at work and in the community – whether it’s Shakespeare or Greek tragedy or a set of Hemingway stories, their personal affinity to a larger story of the human condition causes them to see their own life experiences in profound terms. The surprise we delight in most is their discovery that life experience is a powerful form of wisdom, and the relevance of the stories encourages them to freely contribute their views and perspectives.  

Eugene Delacroix's painting, Summer Diana Surprised at Her Bath by Actaeon, as an illustration of surprise.

Eugene Delacroix, Summer Diana Surprised at Her Bath by Actaeon, 1821-22, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, [Public Domain] via

LH: Clemente’s over-arching goal is to increase civic engagement among our students, and their families. Because I run a course in a small rural community, I get to see first-hand how this plays out years after students have taken the course. We have students elected to public office, starting non-profits and businesses, advocating for issues that impact their families. But what really tickles me is when I run into an employer, a judge, or a caseworker who tells me that our students are “beating them over the head” with texts they’ve read in class – Plato, Ibsen, Whitman – and that they want a copy of our syllabus so they can read the same texts. Our students draw from the texts to advocate for themselves, but one of the unintended results is often that the authority figures with whom they are negotiating are inspired and moved by how our students are relating to the texts, and see them in a new way. As a public defender recently said to me, after a meeting with a Clemente student: “I always see her struggling, in crisis, even out of control. This gave me a chance to see how deeply thoughtful and passionate she is. It changes how I relate to her, and I’m better for it. So is the system.”

AKS: Isn’t it wonderful to see people empowered by what they read and discuss? We’ve seen individuals promoted – employees who find a voice in Books@Work, and then actively change the way they contribute at work – and we’ve seen teams improve their productivity. In one case, a team of machinists began to work so effectively together through Books@Work, they began to streamline their processes, minimized late deliveries and realized a multi-million dollar cost savings for the company. The literature we use at Books@Work serves as a window into deep reflective conversations that cross hierarchies and functions, permit respectful disagreement, promote empathy, trust, openness and inclusion, and ultimately encourage creativity. It’s great to watch it play out. And nothing excites me more than when a supervisor is shocked by the quality and depth of an employee’s interpretation; we are changing people’s paradigms and perceptions of each other – and themselves. And the experience surprises our professors, who regularly bring new insights into their classrooms based on their discussions in the workplace.

LH: Oh, we could talk about this a lot. Across the board, our faculty say that Clemente changes the way they teach in their more traditional classrooms. I’d say that for many of us, this is part of how we evaluate Clemente’s impact. If our professors aren’t profoundly changed by being in a Clemente classroom, then something is wrong.

AKS: That’s a wonderful measure of success! You know, Lela, neither program started for this reason, but our professors become ambassadors who may fundamentally reshape the role of literature in the college classroom, based on their experiences with our students! By working with adults who have a vastly different set of life experiences than traditional students, professors can’t help but see texts they know through very different perspectives. For example, marveling at the outcomes of inviting personal experience into the discussion of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one professor recently shared with us:

“I come away with important reminders for my teaching in the college classroom:

Facilitate more than teach.
Meet students where they are (and find out where that is).
Empower students to interpret.
Remember questions of ethics and relevance are the most interesting.
And perhaps most important:

Make students proud of the reading they have done.”

The best surprise of all? When our groups stop distinguishing between the learner and the teacher – because they are all learning.

LH: Yes! And they start to see how powerful community inquiry can be, and that their own curiosity and passion can be the source of many good things for themselves and their families. Once these doors are open, there is no turning back…

Image: Amadeo de Souza, Cardoso, The Hawks, 1912, [Public Domain] v. Wikimedia Commons

The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See
The Power of Experience
“Creative Discomfort”: Exploring Unfamiliar Literature”

Learn More About Our Programs or Read More on The Notebook:

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.