This writing assignment is courtesy of my friend, Dr. Scott Warnock of Drexel University, who has raised the readership of my 1998 short story, “Zenith,” 100x by assigning it to his students in a Literature of Business course he occasionally teaches.
This is one version of the assignment he uses. Not sure what the “accompanying” articles are he refers to…probably a combo of management literature, high-stakes letter writing (resignation!), and other takes on workplace conflict. I like that the assignment is in the form of a business memo!
I’ve included a short FAQ below the assignment based on questions his students have asked through the years.
To: Members of ENGL 308
From: Prof. Scott Warnock
Date: November 14, 2018
Subj: Letter based on “Zenith”
Using direct evidence and quotes from “Zenith” and the accompanying articles, choose one of these two options:
- As Eddie Painter, write a resignation letter to Don.
- As Don, write a letter to upper management describing why Eddie Painter quit his job at Zenith (you can either support Eddie or not—but use our materials either way).
This letter should be about 600 to 750 words (no one has had trouble with minimal length requirements this term), but it could certainly be longer if you wish. Again, make sure that you refer specifically, including direct quotes, to all the texts; this is one of our core missions for the rest of the term: refine and improve the use of evidence.
As you write the letter, keep in mind that the story gives you good insight into the mindset of Eddie Painter and the workings of the plant. The accompanying articles are designed to help you think about how organizations undergo and communicate change.
FAQ – Answers from Andrew McCann
What does “PERCO” mean?
- I anonymized the names in the story – but it is largely autobiographical. PERCO is attempting to sound like a generic big company, specifically utility company. Think PECO (Pennsylvania Electric Power) or PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric).
What kinds of rings was Eddie making?
- I literally worked in a building that made “rings” – packing rings. I liked the abstract nature of using “rings” – it doesn’t matter what they were making, really. Call them widgets. But I liked the indirect connection to Lord of the Rings and the simplicity of removing “packing” from their name.
- Packing Rings are used in steam turbines to seal the turbine shaft and block steam from sneaking through, forcing it to move through the turbine blades and generate rotational force (and then power).
Did you ever work in a plant like that?
- Yes. General Electric’s (GE) Steam Turbine Manufacturing factory in Schenectady, NY. Schenectady prided itself on being the “City that lit and hauled the world.” The same factory was the setting for Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano.
Here’s a picture of Schenectady’s City Hall, complete with gold-leaf dome, built when Schenectady was booming:
What was your inspiration for writing “Zenith”?
- I worked for GE when I got out of college and had some great experiences and training. Schenectady, though, was tough – a business in decline. At one point 30,000+ people worked in the factory – acres of buildings. The largest building, Building 173, is called the “Big House” – a term used to refer to jails. And yes, there were hundreds of buildings.
In the 1950’s and 60’s it must have been a great place to work – almost like working for Google or Facebook in 2019. An old timer I worked with told me they’d had a softball field inside the factory gates, complete with lights for evening leagues. A bowling alley. Lots of social events and camaraderie. The social contract implied by such investments is tough – people build their lives around these opportunities and then business changes. Perhaps the benefits aren’t affordable anymore, the demand for product dramatically less.
I don’t see easy answers to these questions. What happens when Google is broken up as a monopoly, faces much stiffer competition, and can’t provide free chef-created meals and lavish perks anymore? What happens to Silicon Valley and San Francisco when the economy inevitably shifts? When China perfects AI computers that destroy thousands of engineering jobs? I don’t think it will be over the next ten to fifteen years. The GE Schenectady factory was opened in the 1890’s and had an 80-year run…and still exists.
I’m particularly proud of the line I gave to Gary, “I got a kid in Northern California makin’ eighty grand a year programming – that’s today’s blue collar job.” For 1996, when I wrote the story, that was fairly prescient…also the loss of apprentice programs and opportunities outside of traditional four-year college degrees (filled now, to some extent, by coding bootcamps.
Bottom line: my inspiration was trying to process the strong emotions I’d felt being involved in an environment like the one described in the story – toxic, dysfunctional, conflicted. I wasn’t Pressfield, but I was on a track to be Pressfield. And I voted myself off the island and went in a different direction with my life and career.