Category Archives: Working-Class Culture

Sing Out! Lessons from the Extraordinary Life of Pete Seeger

Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.

Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the South, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs.

Embrace the relationship between music and social movements. Seeger believed that if you could get a crowd to join in a song, you could get a crowd to join in a movement. Like his father, Charles Seeger, who argued that “to make music is the essential thing—to listen to it is an accessory,” Pete Seeger believed that song brought the individual out of the self and into something larger: “I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in—as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Of course, Seeger could have chosen other vehicles for participation, but he believed that there was something special about songs. “Songs,” he explained, “are a way of binding people to a cause.”

It’s OK to be middle class. Seeger came from a family of “doctors, shopkeepers, and intellectuals.” His parents were also classically trained musicians who divorced when he was young. But even Seeger’s step-mother encouraged him, noticing that he had a special talent for “song leading.” Seeger went to a boarding school in Connecticut, and, later, Harvard, which he did not like. After Harvard, Seeger made the transition from scholar of working-class culture to maker/participant. The Almanacs were so named because every working-class home had two books: a bible for the next life and an almanac for this one. Seeger’s next band, The Weavers, was named for a play by German author Gerhart Hauptmann about a group of Silesian (now Poland) weavers who rebelled against the mechanization of their craft in the 1840s. Seeger, who was not from a working-class family, was a champion of workers, workers’ folk traditions, unions, the labor movement, and the dignity of work. Moreover, he was embraced by workers wherever he went, from the CIO struggles in Pittsburgh and Detroit in the 1940s, to the postal workers organizing against the hiring of non-union workers in 2014.

Make stuff with your own hands. On the other hand, perhaps, Seeger might have been a voluntary member of the working class. In the 1940s, he bought a piece of land next to the Hudson River for $1700.There he built his own log cabin. It took him several tries to get the giant stone fireplace right, but as he was finishing it he placed a few of the rocks thrown at him in the infamous Paul Robeson/Peekskill riots in the structure as a reminder. To build furniture for the house, Wilkinson writes, Seeger scavenged the wood from abandoned packing crates in New York City on his way home from singing gigs. By mastering the world with his hands, Seeger was able to connect the future of the human race to the future of the planet: “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

You have to choose sides, but you can have as many causes as you like. Seeger embraced every progressive American cause, from the labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, to environmentalism, the anti-war movement, the AIDs epidemic, and even the 2011 Occupy Movement. There were songs that explained how to negotiate and use a union to improve your life on the job (Talking Union Blues) and songs about union towns, their smog and their devotion to the CIO (Pittsburgh). There were songs about how to build stuff with your own hands (If I had a Hammer) and songs about how to keep hope in the face of racial oppression (We Shall Overcome). There were songs about heroic and legendary black workers (John Henry) and songs about women union organizers (Union Maid) and songs about how America belongs to all of us (This Land is Our Land). There were songs about the Hudson river, which he was instrumental in cleaning up (Sailing Up my Dirty Stream), and songs about the Vietnam war (Waist Deep in the Big Muddy), and even songs condemning Stalin (Big Joe Blues).

You can have a long, productive life if you do not define your success according to the market. Seeger famously testified in front of HUAC in 1955, refusing to answer any questions that violated his right to religion, free speech, and association. He has jokingly called this moment a “relief,” because the fame he was experiencing with The Weavers was overwhelming him. By contrast, for most blacklisted artists, the 1950s were a nightmare. Some betrayed their former friends and comrades, others died from the stress. Some left the country, some wrote under false names, and many languished without a steady livelihood for years. Seeger was undaunted by more than a decades’ worth of rebuff from HUAC, anti-communists who canceled his performance contracts and picketed his concerts, and TV executives who refused to let him perform on television. Seeger simply kept singing, accepting invitations from any group that would have him, year after year, until mainstream American culture finally accepted Seeger’s unique sound.

Think small. Perhaps you are a union organizer, trying to get a little more justice for your members. Perhaps you are a graduate student writing about worker struggles, or worker culture. Perhaps you have a bit of talent on an instrument, and you perform for money or just gather with friends to raise your voices in unison. Whatever you are doing, no matter how small it might seem, it matters. Seeger tells us: “Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Instead, he insists, “The world will be solved by millions of small things.”

Kathy M. Newman

Out of a Different Furnace

When I first saw a print ad for Scott Cooper’s latest film, Out of the Furnace, I was excited that someone had made a film of Thomas Bell’s 1942 novel, Out of This Furnace.  While the film, set in Braddock, focused on a local steelworker, and written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, has much in common with the novel, the differences reflect not just different historical moments but also different ideas about working-class life.

Cooper claims that he didn’t know about the novel when he came up with the title for the film.  Once he learned about it, he kept his title despite the possibility of confusion, because, he explains, both the community and Christian Bale’s character “come out of the furnace.” Other than the usual images of decaying buildings and abandoned plants that have become iconic in documentaries and fictional films set in deindustrialized places, we see little explicit evidence of how Braddock has been shaped by the rise and decline steelmaking.  Bale’s character, Russell Baze, is represented as embodying the positive values fostered in working-class communities.  He “comes out of the furnace” with a firm commitment to family and an inner strength that serves as the film’s load-bearing beam. But in the novel, what emerges from the furnace is not just tough individuals or a strong sense of community, but something far more important: a union.

The pivotal moment in the film, when its narrative shifts from tracing the slow decline in the lives of two working-class white men in a declining steel town into a tale of revenge, is a fairly quiet scene at the police station, when Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker) explains the challenges that he and New Jersey police face in tracking down the menacing Appalachian drug boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Barnes doesn’t have jurisdiction, and in rural western New Jersey, there’s a long history of suspicion of and resistance to law enforcement.  Regardless of whether this claim is realistic, the explanation highlights the limited power of institutions. Working-class men are, the film seems to suggest, on their own, and the last third of the film follows Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) as they pursue DeGroat on their own.  Once they track him down, law enforcement steps in, only to reveal its inadequacy again.  As DEA agents in full gear march toward the now-abandoned drug house, DeGroat is shooting up somewhere else.  In the end, Russell insists on doing the job himself, luring DeGroat to Braddock, tracking him through an abandoned mill, and finally shooting him with a deer hunting rifle.

Law enforcement isn’t the only institution that doesn’t work in this film. Corporations care only about getting cheaper steel, while the U.S. Army ignores both the economic and emotional needs of soldiers like Rodney, and unions are not even mentioned.  The only institution that works at all is the local bar, and even there, the only help available is corrupt and ineffective. The bar owner’s loans support Rodney’s gambling, and the fights he arranges accomplish nothing except getting himself and Rodney killed, which sets up the revenge plot at the end of the film.  The idea that institutions are ineffective in supporting working-class people is not new.  As John Russo and I argued in writing about local responses to deindustrialization a decade ago, that explains why working-class people don’t trust institutions. Jennifer Silva finds a similar attitude in her recent study of young working-class people, and a recent entry in the New York Times’s series on inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz notes that people have lost “faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them.”

In a way, of course, that do-it-yourself attitude reflects working-class culture.  Psychologist David Greene highlighted the centrality of self-reliance in an essay on the “matrix” of working-class identity: “Whatever one needed, whatever the situation or task called for, you could make do. . . . If you needed it or wanted it, it was up to you to find it, fix it or build it.”  Cooper makes a point of this in a scene where Russell engages some low-level drug dealers by way of an admiring conversation about their restoration of a classic car. That self-reliance is also central to Russell’s character. Early on, when he learns that his brother owes money to the bar owner, Russell steps in to pay off Rodney’s debt.  We also see it when Russell is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction; one of his first acts is fixing up the house he and his brother have inherited from their father.

We’re a long way from Out of This Furnace, which celebrates not only the resilience and family commitments of steelworkers but also the potential power of collectivityAfter describing how steelworkers and their families survived poverty, mill accidents, and illness through internal strength and mutual support, Bell ends his novel with the formation of the Steelworkers Organizing Collaborative in the late 30s.  Writing in 1942, he couldn’t have known how much unions would improve the lives of steelworkers, nor could he have predicted the demise of the industry or the union’s inability, ultimately, to protect workers and their communities, like Braddock, from the ravages of deindustrialization.  By the time Cooper conjures up the story of the Baze brothers, not only is the local mill about to close but the union is so irrelevant that it is never mentioned.

Both Bell and Cooper recognize the commitment to family and the strength of character that might emerge from economic struggle and hard work. Both recognized that working-class people can’t count on employers to look out for them.  But Bell believed that workers and their communities could protect themselves by standing together, while Cooper suggests that self-reliance is the only option, even if it isn’t a good one.

Out of the Furnace is not a great movie, and reviewers have noted a variety of flaws, including its reliance on working-class stereotypes and the emphasis on violence and revenge.  But it’s worth watching, especially alongside a reading of Out of This Furnace. 

If we read the film in light of Bell’s romanticized vision of working-class collectivity, we recognize that what has been lost is not just jobs and opportunity but the basis for hope.  If we read the novel with the film, we might be reminded that the only real hope lies in people working together to stand up for the right to a decent life.

Sherry Linkon

Growing-Up Working-Class On Film Forty Years On

The_Selfish_Giant_posterThe Selfish Giant, the new film from UK director Clio Barnard, has been hailed as “A Kind of Loach 2.0” and has attracted massive and glowing attention from the press.  The film centers around the moving relationship between two young teenage boys, Arbor and Swifty, who live on a housing project in Bradford in the North of England.  To put it charitably, both boys come from ‘hard living’ working-class families, and the plot revolves around their efforts to help support their disintegrating families. Both become excluded from school after getting into a fight as they react to the abuse they suffer because of their family background; both boys are picked on because of their lack of respectability. In order earn some money while not in school they set themselves up as putative scrap men, travelling the streets with a knackered old stroller, collecting pots and pans or indeed anything made of metal that they can convert in to ready cash. Predictably they graduate from hunting out abandoned household implements to stealing cabling and wire from the utilities and railway – ‘recycling’ their ill-gotten gain through a corrupt and corrupting scrap metal trader.  The Selfish Giant is a beautiful and profoundly moving film about friendship, young masculinity, and above all working-class culture.

I was invited to react to the film on a panel ‘sociology meets film’ at my University cinema last week. Because many of the reviews had connected The Selfish Giant with Ken Loach’s film making style,  especially his 1969 production Kes, based on author Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave,  I decided to watch Kes before the event. Kes_1969_film_posterLike The Selfish Giant, Kes is the story of a boy, Billy Casper, estranged from education and on the point of leaving school for the adult world of work.  He finds friendship and meaning in his life through his capture and training of a kestrel. Like Arbor, Billy comes from a broken home and is shunned by his community as a result of this lack of respectability.

These films were made over forty years apart and tell us so much about what has happened to the English working class in that period. Both illustrate real poverty, restricted culture, and poor living conditions.  In both, the fabric of the built environment is shabby and unkempt. In different ways, each details the casual disregard of the education system for ‘difficult’ working-class boys. However, the central theme that unites and divides the two films is the issue of work. Arbor has virtually no prospects of getting any form of mainstream employment when he eventually turns sixteen. He makes his living in and around a deindustrial landscape of loss. Like many left behind in the wake of economic change he is living off the scrap of residual plant and machinery from former industry.  Much of the film looks as if it was shot is located on a former colliery site. Four decades earlier, Billy Casper had the looming prospect of employment in a working coalmine that is at the center of his community and already employs his abusive older brother. Both characters seem trapped by industrial landscapes in very different ways.  For Arbor there are no jobs to choose, while for Billy the life of a miner is seemingly his only choice. We see how the hidden injuries of class play out both when people have access to work and when they don’t.

After the screening and comments from the panel reflecting on the film, audience members were invited to make their own observations.  One person effectively reframed the discussion when she asked “Where is the hope?”  The panel at the front of the auditorium shifted uneasily on their stools, hoping not to get the microphone – myself included – for there is little hope in The Selfish Giant’s unrelenting bleakness. In the late 1960s when Kes was released, living standards for the English working class were rising as they had been for over three decades. While many still lived in poverty, nearly everyone had a job, and above all there was still a strong and vibrant labour movement rooted in working-class community, culture, and workplaces – perhaps especially in pit villages. Today, the Arbors do not enjoy the range social structures to fall back on, nor can they look forward to anything other than precarious employment at best. If there is hope here it lies, I think, in the humanity that Clio Barnard captures in her respectful film, which is a feature of the best drama about working class issues. We see Arbor, or forty years before him Billy Casper, as rounded characters shaped by their surroundings, for sure, but also as embedded in relationships with others. Both Arbor and Billy are capable of demonstrating care and commitment to those who are important to them, to things they value.  Because of this, the audience sees something of themselves in the characters, and so the film seems to ask, what would you do in that world? What choices would you make?

The problem, of course, is that films like The Selfish Giant won’t necessarily be seen by as wider audience as they deserve.  All the press attention will bring more viewers to see this film, and perhaps this will create another important parallel with the earlier Ken Loach film. For while Kes was not an immediate blockbuster, it eventually became a word of mouth hit seen by a very wide audience and had a presence in national life, which it still enjoys to this day. Indeed generations of school children got to read the novel A Kestrel for a Knave as part of their secondary school English classes in large part because of the success of the film. That mainstreaming of working-class subjects and issues was the positive feature of the earlier film and book.  Let’s hope The Selfish Giant has a similar impact forty years on.

Tim Strangleman

Redefining Grit: New Visions of Working-Class Culture

A few weeks ago, Jack Metzgar wrote here about how proud he was when his grandson won the “Lunch Bucket Award” for his hard work in football practice, hard work that paid off in the team’s performance but didn’t make Max a star player at game time. Metzgar argued that the working-class grit his grandson displayed has value for all of us.  Researchers agree, but recent approaches suggest some different ways of thinking about grit, and their insights suggest important and troubling changes in working-class culture.

Perhaps the most talked about recent definition of grit comes from the work of educational scholar Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues, who define grit as maintaining  “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”  Based on this research, Duckworth has created a “grit scale” that focuses on an individual’s ability to commit to and keep working at difficult tasks.  You can take a short online survey to determine your “grit score,” answering questions about how likely you are to stay focused on a project you’ve begun rather than being distracted by new ones.

Duckworth doesn’t tie grit to social class at all.  Quite the contrary.  She argues that grit cuts across different contexts and people. She also reveals her class perspective when she assumes that individual success and achievement are everyone’s highest priorities. Indeed, her entire project focuses on finding out whether and how to develop grit in young people  to help them succeed.

Duckworth’s grit is different from Metzgar’s.  He defines grit as the willingness to show up every day and work hard because it’s the right thing to do, not as a means of advancing one’s own position.  That working-class version of grit has roots in the collective nature of industrial labor and the experience of living on the economic edge.  In industrial workplaces, getting a job done safely often requires collaboration, and being part of a large workforce or an active union invites workers to see themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of a group — or a class. Once upon a time, most workers lived near their jobs, with neighbors who worked in the same factories.  When families and communities face economic struggle, because of low wages, lay-offs, or occasional strikes, people have to rely upon each other to get by. Solidarity was part of community life, not just the workplace.

Not anymore. As Nikki Lewis, Executive Director of DC Jobs for Justice, explained at a recent forum at the Kalmanovitz Initiative on Labor and the Working Poor, the structure of work today makes solidarity elusive.  Most jobs today are in small-scale workplaces, with staggered schedules and little collaboration.  Unlike industrial workers, service industry workers often view their jobs as temporary, expecting to move on to something better – a hope that might not be realistic but that keeps people from investing in relationships or a work-based identity.  Workers have little opportunity to talk, in part because when they leave work, they are often heading in different directions, not going home to the same block.

But surely working-class family values remain, right?  According to sociologist Jennifer Silva, that, too, is changing.  For her book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, she interviewed young adults from working-class backgrounds about their movement from youth into adulthood, and what she found is distressing. The traditional markers of adulthood – steady employment, marriage, buying a house, having children – have become so difficult to achieve in the post-industrial economy.  That combined with the cultural power of public discourses of self-help and individualism led  the people Silva interviewed to define themselves based on their ability to overcome personal hardships.  They told stories of recovering from abusive or dysfunctional family relationships, of their own or their family members’ recovery from addiction, of surviving homelessness, and of struggling through school while working multiple jobs and raising kids.  For them, adulthood means not just working hard to get by financially but also  managing emotional challenges.

Even more troubling, Silva’s research identified two related themes in the way these young people talk about their relationships with others and their political views.  Individually, she argues, they have learned that they can’t count on anyone else.  Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, and the government have all let them down.  They have come to believe that the only way to survive is to be emotionally self-sufficient and distant.  Most also hold conservative political views, believing that if they have gotten by without help, so should everyone else.  Many of Silva’s white interviewees expressed resentment toward immigrants and people of color, who, they believe, have received undeserved support and sympathy.  Despite lived experience of economic and social struggle, the young working-class people Silva studied embrace a neoliberal vision of self-reliance and suspicion of institutions of all kinds.

That’s yet another form of grit, but it isn’t about either success or commitment to others.  It’s all about the individual self. The people Silva interviewed believe in working hard and persevering, and they would probably embrace Duckworth’s vision of grit as the basis for success, even though their own grit has brought them few tangible benefits.  They might well reject the idea of working-class grit, viewing anyone who worked hard for the sake of others, or who valued family and community over individual survival, as a fool.

I find the sort of grit Silva describes both depressing and frightening.  The stories she tells are often sad, and the working-class culture she describes has little in common with the version many of us embrace as strong and resilient.  Understanding this, Silva ends her book with a story that offers some hope.  She introduces us to Wally, who seems to be the only person she interviewed who has responded to his economic and personal struggles by becoming what he describes as a “revolutionary.”  While his peers blame themselves for “lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures,” Wally believes in “equal opportunity, social solidarity, and risk-pooling.”  Instead of turning inward, he is “rallying his coworkers to form a union at the grocery store, protesting neighborhood gentrification, organizing sit-ins and protests on May Day, and fighting for universal health care.” Unfortunately, Silva offers no explanation of Wally’s activism.  What makes him respond by trying to change the system rather than trying to heal his own wounds?

At least part of the answer is good old-fashioned, do-the-right-thing, work-hard-for-the-good- of-others, working-class grit.

Work To Do

I was the first in my family to earn a Bachelor’s degree, the first to earn a graduate degree, and now I’m the first to have an office. In that office, I’m hanging a sculpture my brother made.

The sculpture is dirty. The brush is rusty, and the glove is stained. It smells dusty. It doesn’t quite fit in with the framed certificates and glossy new books. But it is in my office to celebrate the work my family has done and the accomplishments my brother and I have made.

The piece is made of several objects that belonged to family members. The brush was used by our grandfather in his work as a plasterer. The glove is one our father used at the mill. My brother found the rest of the materials at our grandfather’s house after he passed away. Our uncle helped my brother cut and assemble the sculpture. The piece matters, but we don’t take it too seriously. Dad named it “Employee of the Month,” which usually gets a laugh.

I say that my brother and I come from a working-class family, even though Dad’s salary as a clock-punching, union-protected, steel mill worker probably put our family financially in the lower middle class in the area of rural western Pennsylvania I grew up in. But culturally, we were working class. Dad worked in the Hot Mill Combustion department at the Armco steel mill in Butler, so the furnaces that melted the steel were his responsibility. His dad worked in the rail yard at the Pullman-Standard rail car mill across the street from Armco, and he worked a second job as a plasterer. Our other grandpa was a truck driver. Our uncle is a carpenter at a state university. The women in our family worked just as hard as the men, mostly as homemakers, and occasionally in the service industry.

I was raised to work hard. My dad’s dad shared stories about (mis)adventures navigating rail cars through the rail yard on his midnight shift at the mill, and then spending the following morning plastering walls and ceilings around town. I’ve helped—well, mostly watched—as my uncle built a porch for my grandparents’ single-wide trailer one Saturday morning. My dad went off to work wearing steel–toed boots, carrying his hard hat and lunch pail. On the weekends, my brother and I helped Dad clear our property, stacking logs as he ran the chainsaw.  Mom kept the house and clothes clean and always had a homemade meal on the table.

I was always good at school, so that’s what I worked at the hardest. But, while I was smart and determined, sometimes I got lost. I didn’t always know how to ask questions or where to go to get the information I needed.  When I encountered difficulties, my family wasn’t familiar enough with the situation to offer suggestions, but they encouraged me to ask questions and not to be intimidated by authority figures. I also benefitted from being a straight white male in a society that often subtly privileges that identity. Often I found my way only because when I was unsure who to ask, I felt comfortable asking everyone.

Then, one semester for a sociology class, I read the article “Moving Up from the Working Class,” by Joan Morris and Michael Grimes. They share interviews with sociologists from working-class families who identified two difficulties in their own experiences. The first was a deficit in cultural capital. Because of their cultural background, the respondents felt they sometimes lacked the social skills necessary to do well in academic settings. The second involved a contradiction: while their parents encouraged them to “do better,” which implied going to college and likely working a job that did not involve manual labor, the parents also advanced a culture that valued manual labor over other forms of work. Manual labor was acknowledged in a way that intellectual or managerial work was not. So, while they had attained good positions in their field, their work often did not feel real or legitimate.  Their stories gave me some perspective and provided some language for me to make sense of my experiences. It also helped me realize how useful sociology can be in helping a person make sense of how their individual opportunities are shaped by their social situations.

Back in college, I told one of my professors, Jim Perkins, about my dad working at the mill. He shared a story based on his experiences in a mill. The story begins at a local bar, when someone states that, “Professors have never worked a day in their life.” The protagonist of the story, like the professor in real life, accepted this as a challenge and spent his summer working in a local galvanizing mill. The rest of the story overflows with images of hard work and calamity, but he was ultimately welcomed into the group of mill workers with a round of shots at the bar after the last shift of his probationary period. I am motivated by the same forces, but in the opposite direction. He was working to show that a professor can be competent and capable in a mill, while also using the experience in his professional work to demonstrate the value of stories. I am working to show that a kid from a working-class family can be a competent and capable academic, while also demonstrating the practical value of academic lessons.

A friend pointed out that the maintenance of masculinity must play a role in how I think of work, and she’s right. Family members will make jokes about how soft my hands are or suggest that maybe I am “afraid” of getting dirty. So when I go home, I’ll do things like run the chainsaw and help my uncle with a project. Ironically, work rules at the university prevent me from actually hanging the sculpture on my office wall myself. This work will be done by a carpenter, someone with the same job as my uncle, not a professor.

When I go home, my family will make good-natured jokes about “the professor” lacking common sense or about academic work being easy. I counter their tales of hard work with my own. I describe the mental grind of preparing lesson plans, leading classes, grading papers, doing research, attending meetings, and advising students. One reason I am hanging this sculpture on my wall is because it expresses the cultural understandings of work I carry with me. I attempt to communicate between both worlds. I understand the accomplishment and pride of physical labor, but I also understand the persistent curiosity and mental tenacity necessary for academic work. When I am having trouble concentrating on reading, or struggling to find the words to write, I think about all the work that my family has done. I think about the clean laundry and homemade meals my mother made, as well as my grandfather driving another ten miles, my other grandfather changing clothes and heading off to a second shift of work, my uncle hammering nails, my Dad fixing a furnace. This sculpture reminds me that this office is comfortable, and that much of the work my family has done was not.

My brother and I were also lucky that our family trusted that we would make good choices about college and careers. It was only after I had lived for several years on a near poverty-level graduate student stipend, and my brother began working towards a Masters in Fine Arts, that our family really began asking about the risks we were taking. There are real risks. My brother and I have both taken on substantial student loan debt. We’re both pursuing advanced degrees in fields that have tough job markets. Neither of us has figured it all out. But we’re both making careful decisions about our career paths, and we’re both passionate about doing our work.

When visitors to my office ask, and sometimes even when they don’t, I’ll tell them about the sculpture and what it represents. And after discussing my family’s work, I’ll return to my own. I am only beginning as an assistant professor. I’ve got work to do.

Colby King

Colby King is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bridgewater State University who teaches and studies urban sociology and inequality with an emphasis on understanding place as a social structure shaping opportunities.

The Lunch Bucket Award

One of my grandsons won the Lunch Bucket Award on his high school football team a couple weeks ago.   And his father’s reaction to it and mine surprised me, especially for what it showed about class differences across generations.

The Lunch Bucket Award is given each week to the player who made the greatest contribution during practice in the week leading up to the Friday night game.   My grandson is a third-string running back on a state-ranked top 20 team, and he seldom gets into the game unless his team is way ahead – and sometimes, not even then.    He was proud to get the award and, as required, to carry a somewhat rusty lunch bucket to all his classes for the week after the game.   His father, my son, was dismissive of it, calling it “the tackling dummy award” and suggesting that it should have been humiliating to lug an old-time lunch bucket around for a week – signaling to all his classmates that he was not first-team.

My grandson is an exuberant, talkative, sort-of-flashy 16-year-old who both teachers and coaches have designated as “very coachable.”   He’s not that interested in academics, and school has never come easy to him, but he works hard and brings home good grades and is diligently prepping for his ACT test so he can “get into a really good college.”   As an athlete he has some natural ability, and he’s a really good wrestler, but his main assets even there are self-discipline, the ability to learn and improve, and his willingness to work hard so he can do a good job.

His job as a practice-squad running back is to learn the offensive scheme of each week’s opponent, and then run it as good as he can to prepare the first-team defense for what they will face Friday night.   It is potentially a highly confusing intellectual assignment, learning a new set of plays each week, followed by running hard and being tackled by the hardest hitting players at his school.   It seems like highly honorable work to me, where the “dummy” part of “tackling dummy” is clearly not appropriate.   But even more honorable is the grit it takes to do it at all, let alone to do it well “when nobody is watching” (except, of course, his teammates and coaches, who gave him an award for it).

Sports iconography is, of course, full of working-class imagery about “blue-collar” players who “simply show up for work and do a good job,” and who get little or no recognition for what they do – unless, of course, they do it badly.   The old-time barn-shaped lunch bucket is a particularly powerful symbol of this steady, reliable, just doing-your-part work ethic — especially when your part is dirty, distasteful, or dangerous, or maybe just monotonous in a way that middle-class people sometimes call “mind-numbing” or “soul-deadening.”  Most work that needs to be done in our society is like this.  Even though what is often called “unskilled work” almost always requires a wide variety of skills to actually do a good job, these jobs also require a daily kind of self-sacrifice that is hard, very hard, to do day in and day out – and that is actively disrespected in our mainstream culture with its celebration of the best and the brightest, the entrepreneurs and the innovators.  Sports is just about the only place in America that ever recognizes and celebrates the value of those who “simply show up every day and do a good job” at the kind of work upon which everything else, including all of us, depends.

My wife and I were raised in families that carried those kinds of lunch buckets to those kinds of jobs, and though once upon a time we did, too, for a while, we’re both glad we never had to find out whether we could have summoned the everyday courage, the true grit it takes to do it for a lifetime.

We were well on our way to becoming thoroughly middle class by the time our son was our grandson’s age, but even as well-educated grown-ups we didn’t know how to properly raise middle-class children —  in what sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.”  Our son knows that and, while he’s very forgiving of us, he’s bound and determined to raise his children in that way – to make sure they have the education and skills they’ll need to avoid lunch-bucket jobs and to cultivate that never-settle-for-second-best achievement-orientation that so many middle-class people think is essential to living a good life.  He has a middle-class job at which he earns a very good living, but just as our fathers did, he hates both the work itself and the kind of work he does.   He wants better than that for his kids, and for him the Lunch Bucket Award somehow seemed to challenge that aspiration.

Our grandson needs no help from us in pushing back against his father.  When asked if he was demoralized at not getting much playing time, he said, “No, I’m a big part of this team.  On the practice squad I help the first team get better – and that puts me out there on the field even when I’m not actually out there.”   I got a little too emotional in trying to congratulate him for his Lunch Bucket Award by referencing my grandfather (his great-great grandfather) who, as he knows from family legend, walked out of a steel mill in 1916 “on his own” right after losing both arms in a rolling mill.  I said something like, “That’s an award for character, buddy, and that will be with you long after you can’t juke and jive anymore.”  He said, “Huh?”   Followed by a polite, though possibly comprehending, “Thanks, Pap.”

I understand that sky-high, you-can-do-anything aspirations — even when palpably illusory – can spur young people onward and upward in healthy ways.   I also understand why parents often fear low expectations for their kids.  But finding out what are realistic aspirations and expectations for ourselves and our children is a tricky business, and it will not help to believe that “you can never aim too high.”   Most of us are going to need some lunch-bucket mentality for some or all of our lives.  We’ll need the steady will to do what we have to do to earn a living and to have the personal integrity to do a good job even when we don’t feel like it and nobody is watching.  I loved my job as a teacher, but even on my best days at work I brought that mentality with me just in case I needed it — and because I couldn’t shake it if I wanted to.    My son is a maniac helicopter parent who hates his job, but he does it conscientiously and well more than five days a week.   His son undoubtedly has noticed that.

Sometimes, for both good and ill, parents teach their children less with what they say than with what they do.  For parents, somebody is always watching.  Congratulations, Max, for finally getting our family a Lunch Bucket Award.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

“Transmedia” Conversations: Working-Class Studies and Expanding Audiences

A classic conundrum of academic writing about social class is that its style and concerns often exclude readers who are themselves from working-class backgrounds. As a teen-ager growing up in an industrial area of Chicago, I remember reading a classic sociological text from the 1970s about the steel mill where my father had worked as a shear operator. I hoped the book might offer insights regarding my father, the many generations of my family who had lived in the area, and the larger community that was then in the throes of deindustrialization. I expected to recognize us in the account. I was frustrated to discover, however, that the book used opaque terminology and engaged in debates I had never heard of nor cared about. In short, I resented the fact that it was written about us, but not for us.  Re-reading that classic work now as a professional anthropologist, I marvel at its insights, its sensitivity, and its helpful interventions in academic debates. Yet I remain concerned with the same question: why is it so difficult for academic works to include broader audiences in the conversation?

Of course, the reasons are more complex than I guessed as a resentful teen-ager. It’s not that all academics are snobs or obsessed by jargon, but that institutional structures make it difficult to communicate in a plainer style. Our academic peers judge our work, and they expect us to demonstrate how our work is part of an academic conversation. Being part of that conversation strengthens our thinking, and we, in turn, try to influence colleagues within our disciplines and beyond. The admission price to the conversation, however, is the scholarly apparatus of citations and, often, jargon. Some scholars have, of course, tried to get around these exclusionary tendencies in various ways, from writing different pieces for different audiences to engaging in “outside” forms of activism.  Working-class studies scholars have tried to find a middle ground, using autobiographical storytelling as a writing strategy. Instead of pushing others away, as academic language can do, stories invite people in. Although analysis is often bound up with working-class storytelling, the trick for academics, as Sherry Lee Linkon has suggested, is ensuring that our own storytelling also pushes forward both analysis and theory-making.

I’d like to suggest another possible tool for broadening academic conversations and pushing forward analyses of social class – storytelling across multiple media platforms. My collaborator Chris Boebel and I are currently engaged in one such “transmedia” endeavor, the Exit Zero Project. Although this “experiment” is in mid-stream and its outcome unclear, it has raised questions for us about shifting possibilities for academic engagement in a highly mediated age. The Exit Zero Project has three components: my recently-released book, Exit Zero: Family and Class in Post-Industrial Chicago; a companion documentary film, Exit Zero, currently in post-production; and an interactive documentary website we plan to develop in collaboration with the all-volunteer Southeast Chicago Historical Museum. The book and film are set in the former steel mill community of Southeast Chicago and interweave family stories over multiple generations to offer a window onto the long-term social and environmental impacts of “deindustrialization,” the role it has played in expanding class inequalities in the United States, and the ways in which Americans talk – and fail to talk – about social class. The website is intended to foster and broaden this storytelling by using documents, photos, oral histories, and home movies donated by residents to the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum as storytelling prompts to elicit further discussion among area residents, those from other deindustrialized communities, and the general public.

Although “transmedia” work often refers to telling stories across multiple forms of new media, in our case, we’re interested in working across “old” and “new” media and in the process bringing potentially disparate audiences and genres into conversation. A book, a documentary film, and a website linked to a local institution may all tap into different audiences, and we have worked to keep all three pieces connected and accessible. For example, I wasn’t sure if family, neighbors, and other Southeast Chicago residents would find an academic ethnography like Exit Zero interesting, but I wanted them to feel invited to read it. Consequently, even though the book was published by an academic press and written with undergraduates in mind, it places family stories at the center and relegates the academic theory – although not the analysis – to the endnotes.

Although still in process, the initial audience involvement with this “transmedia” project has been intriguing. Just before the book was published, we worked with others to create an informational website for the Exit Zero Project as a whole, and we included an 8 minute trailer for the film. The Southeast Chicago Historical Museum, which has lively facebook traffic among current and former area residents, publicized the site. In response, we began to receive a steady stream of emails and letters from those with ties to the region. Some wrote in response to the film trailer; others read the book and shared their thoughts. On the day the book was officially released, my mother called to report that she’d been startled to look in a storefront window that day and see her hairdresser friend reading a copy.

A few months later, we showed a rough cut of the documentary in Chicago at two screenings – one sponsored by Chicago Working-Class Studies at the Field Museum and one at a local library in Southeast Chicago. The response of many audience members to the “stories” in the book and film has been similar: they feel a need to “witness” their own experiences and want to debate the impact of deindustrialization. What is striking is not that this “transmedia” project is getting out the word about a finished project, but that it has generated discussions that are shaping the project itself. These conversations have included debates about how and why the mills went down, recollections about the tenor of neighborhood life, discussions of the health effects of industrial pollution in the region, and representations of working-class communities and individuals, among other topics, pushing forward our own analysis in the project. Project events are also being incorporated into the cultural style of community gatherings I remember from my childhood rather than more academic ones – with my mom and others serving home-made cookies and coffee and selling discounted copies of the book at the local screening and planning events at churches and community halls. We hope that the museum website will not only be able to harness this engagement and story-telling momentum, but also provide a space for further conversation and knowledge-sharing that has a semi-autonomous life of its own.

For an academic whose previous work circulated only to other academics, the difference in this experience has been striking. While, initially, I hesitated to presume that Southeast Chicago residents would want to engage with this kind of “academic” project, now it seems that people had been waiting for an invitation. Although “transmedia” work clearly has its own constraints (not least, the need for multiple skill sets, often requiring team efforts, and more funding), can the burgeoning number of transmedia projects offer an additional tool in moving our work off purely academic institutional tracks? Can we use it to extend a broader invitation to conversations about social class?

Christine Walley

Christine Walley is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and the author of Exit Zero: Family and Class in Post-Industrial Chicago.

Of Bankers, Pundits, and Hillbillies

Up on Banker’s Hill the party’s going strong

Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.

                     –Bruce Springsteen

What does Rolling Stone’s bad-boy investigative reporter Matt Taibbi have in common with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly?

That might sound like the lead-in to an off-color joke, but I’m serious. Despite their different forums and ostensibly different political orientations, both men reflexively invoke images of poor people—desperately poor people from Appalachia in particular—as cautionary tales, supposedly vivid representatives of what is wrong with our country. For good measure, both toss in “war on drugs” rhetoric to seal the scary deal that “hillbillies”—Taibbi’s word, not mine—are not only economically bankrupt but morally bankrupt as well.

Poverty in Appalachia has been harrowing for well over a century. Moreover, that poverty was planned. At the end of the Civil War, both black and white Appalachians were trapped in the subsistence practice of sharecropping, a struggle to wrest the barest of livings from someone else’s land that shared much with the economic system of slavery. The speedy industrialization and subsequent regional over-production that followed—most famously coal mining, but also timber, textiles, and chemical production—not only bequeathed the exploitation and unsafe working conditions depicted in John Sayles’s movie Matewan, but also had a lasting and deeply detrimental effect on the region’s economic health. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Appalachia hard by the 1920s, when Southern politicians managed to prevent domestic and agricultural workers from qualifying for Social Security benefits so as to keep them from moving even incrementally closer to economic independence. In the 1960s, when the Johnson administration pushed Appalachian poverty into the national line of vision, one in three Appalachians lived in poverty. More recently, mountaintop removal mining has had a devastating effect on the region. 2008 census figures showed that Appalachia was home to 13.3 million people living in poverty. In some areas, as many as 16.8% of homes are classified as substandard, which means that the house has more people than it has rooms and lacks indoor plumbing. Rates of poverty among children in Appalachia range from 17% in some counties to 56.4% in others. 13.6 million Appalachians have no health insurance (which renders the “hillbilly teeth” sold on Halloween considerably less funny). Last month hundreds of miners gathered in St. Louis to protest both the economic and mining practices that contribute to poverty in Appalachia (stealing retirees’ pensions and stripmining) on the part of Arch Coal, the second largest coal company in the U.S.

When O’Reilly, in a 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer, discussed these economic realities, he disparaged Appalachians as ignorant drunks willfully keeping themselves stuck in a “culture of poverty,” calling the region’s children “hopeless” because of their parents’ innate lack of ambition. As might be expected, the interview generated a great deal of furious response, both from people within the region personally hurt by this application of stereotype and from others outside who were repulsed by this latest articulation of Fox News’s contempt for the poor. With all this in mind, it’s both galling and bewildering that Matt Taibbi, groping in an otherwise instructive piece about the chicanery involved in the bailout of Wall Streets moneyed interests for an analogy to communicate how seemingly ad hoc crisis measures have been institutionalized, writes, “We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.”

At best, Taibbi is being lazy here, reaching for a slur that is near to hand to squeeze shock value out of a hateful stereotype: Appalachians are poor because they deserve to be. At worst, he is rearticulating the Reagan’s disgusting image of the “welfare queen” who takes and takes but is unwilling to contribute to society. In doing so, Taibbi knocks at the door of a ringing defense of 21st century capitalism, wherein the poorest people endanger a healthy economy, and the better-off are at risk of contagion from them. It’s particularly frightening in the context of American history to put forth, as Taibbi does, an image hinging on how dangerous it is when the wrong people get into your neighborhood.

Taibbi’s starkly punishing “war on drugs” language deploys this vocabulary of invasion to identify a group of people who supposedly cook meth because they’re rotten at their core (and sleep nine to a bed because they’re tacky). This demonization of addicts is all too familiar to me. Having watched heroin ravage the neighborhood I grew up in—at least four dead, including my brother, on my old block alone—I am accustomed to encountering language that blames people who just don’t want to better themselves and get off drugs, darn it. Sometimes the language is coded, but sometimes it’s not: the meth Taibbi invokes is frequently referred to as “hillbilly crack.”

The concrete relationship between meth and the rural economic wastelands of the United States is depicted in a moving way in the 2010 movie Winter’s Bone, in which even the landscape is empty and bleak. There’s no work to be had, so people cook meth. They are resigned to the fact that sometimes they will die doing it. “When it’s either the mine or the Kentucky National Guard,” sing Old Crow Medicine Show in their 2008 song “Methamphetamine,” “I’d rather sell him a line than be dying in the coal yard.”

But the most important word in Taibbi’s cruel put-down might be one of the shortest and most common: “we.” In my teaching life, I often wish for a rubber stamp to print certain comments I find myself writing over and over. “Who is this ‘we’ you’re writing about?” is one stamp I’d order up to simplify my job. Obviously, Taibbi’s “we” is not simply “Americans,” because some people are being pointedly excluded. “Decent” Americans? Suburban Americans? Educated Americans? The mental exercise of filling in that blank—who is “we” to Taibbi and O’Reilly, and who are the outside invaders trashing up their well-manicured front yards—is painful.

It’s a shame, really, because Taibbi has shown the potential to make Rolling Stone halfway relevant again. If he could learn to set aside his class bias, a lot of what he writes is insightful and deep. “Taibbi’s too smart and wickedly funny to opt for the hillbilly default button,” historian Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia, among other books, told me. “When it comes to banking machinations, he should turn off ‘Buckwild’ and take a cue from Anne Royall, the hillbilly muckraker–the original American muckraker that carved out Taibbi’s literary niche nearly two centuries ago–who single-handedly took on the corruption of the Bank of the United States.”

Ultimately, I mourn the way Taibbi has surrendered the rhetorical battle. The wonderful radical Appalachian poet Don West pointed out more than half a century ago the great American sleight-of-hand to which Taibbi contributes: somehow convincing a broad swath of Americans that it is the poor who are to blame, not those who have made millions after bloody millions from institutionalized racism, from environmentally reckless industrial policies, from mass incarceration and the drug laws that facilitate it. Taibbi owes Appalachians an apology, to be sure. And his readers need to refuse to be part of Taibbi’s “we,” and instead join the community on the lawn—they’re not cooking meth, they’re Occupying.

Rachel Rubin

Rachel Rubin is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of Immigration and American Popular Culture (with Jeffrey Melnick).

Union Density: What’s Literature Got to Do with It?

So union density in United States has declined yet again. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3% of American workers now belong to unions.   This compares to 11.8% in 2011, and it’s a long way from the all-time high of 35% in the early 1940s.   The “right to work” campaign is expanding – even to Michigan, of all states – along with “austerity” policies that target working people.   Since Ronald Reagan launched his attack on labor in 1980, when union density was at 20%, real wages have declined along with union membership to a point where we now have a “gilded age” level of income inequality.

In times like these, it is useful to be reminded of what unions can be good for.  A labor history like From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend (2001) explains in readable style what it took to establish unions in the first place, while New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse makes clear in The Big Squeeze: Hard Times for the American Worker (2008) why we need them now more than ever.  Novels, too, can make the case for working people’s rights, through compelling fictional narratives that engage us with characters we care about.  Two Depression-era novels from the Pittsburgh steel district, Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace and William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge, both in published in 1941, do this particularly well, though in very different ways.

Bell’s book – subtitled “a novel of immigrant labor in America” when it was republished by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1976 – follows three generations of a Slovak-American family from arrival in the 1880s up to the unionization of the steel mills in the New Deal era.  Along the way it addresses the Homestead battle of 1892, as well as the great strike of 1919 and the struggles of 1934-37.  Attaway’s is a novel of the Great Migration, tracing the experience of three African-American brothers who are lured north from Kentucky to work the mills during the 1919 conflict.  By this time, eastern European laborers have been admitted into some union lodges, while blacks are excluded and demonized as strikebreakers.

Although Bell’s novel is a family saga spanning fifty years of steel-town history, while Attaway’s focuses on one pivotal year, they have several points of contact.  Both address the dislocations of [im]migration, the hazards of steelmaking, racial/ethnic subjugation, labor strife – and the strength of the human spirit in response to these conditions.  And there are telling coincidences of detail between the two: fourteen men die in the blast furnace “accident” that kills Joe Dubik in 1895 in Furnace and fourteen in the explosion that blinds Chinatown Moss in 1919 in Blood.

But there are equally telling points of divergence.  Bell takes the family as a social ideal and traces its process of Americanization within a known community.  The health of family and community depend on strong representation in the workplaces that dominate life in the steel towns.   Although they are discriminated against as “Hunkies,” assigned the worst housing and the worst tasks in the mill, Bell’s characters grow into a sense of citizenship and belonging.  And they are recognizably white in relation the lowest stratum of immigrants to the steel towns.  Looking back on how Braddock has changed in fifty years, Bell’s aging Slovaks lament the arrival of the “shines” in the First Ward, “brought here to break the strike” in 1919.

Attaway’s characters are rootless single men, focused on survival and what pleasure they can find in the present moment, with the aid of corn whisky, dog fights, and the prostitutes in Mex town.   Only the eldest brother, Big Mat, who has left his wife behind in Kentucky, sees any future for himself in the mill town.  Working steel, “His body was happy.  This was a good place for a big black man to be.”  When the strike starts, however, he lends his strength to the company’s campaign to crush it; as a sheriff’s deputy, he becomes a “black riding boss,” trampling those who have mocked him, including the Hunkies.

From contrasting standpoints, both novels demonstrate how racial division was as much a product of industrial management as steel from the mills, and how this division, reinforced by craft union prejudices and racial exclusion, bedeviled any attempt at industry-wide organization – that is, until the CIO swung into town in 1935.   Dobie, Bell’s third-generation protagonist, understands the racial system: “Once it was the Irish looking down on the Hunkies and now it’s the Hunkies looking down on the niggers.  The very things the Irish used to say about the Hunkies the Hunkies now say about the niggers.  And for no better reason.”  Whereas Bell does not criticize the steel unions for their part in maintaining this cycle of racism, its destructive power is central to Attaway’s story.

Differences in narrative style make it a pleasure to read the two novels alongside each other.  Bell writes with a naturalistic matter-of-factness, leavened with gentle irony, and sometimes with finely pointed commentary.  Of the death of Joe Dubik and his workmates, Bell writes:  “Officially it was put down as an accident, impossible to foresee or prevent . . ..  In a larger sense it was the result of greed, and part of the education of the American steel industry.”  His style is also capable of great tenderness, especially in his scenes of courtship, married love, and family losses.  Attaway’s writing, by contrast, crackles and hums with a dark music.  The novel’s first sentence reads: “He never had a craving in him that he couldn’t slick away on his guitar.”  But Melody’s healing blues cannot survive the move to the steel towns, nor can it save his brothers Chinatown and Big Mat, who used to love to hear him play in the red-clay hills of Kentucky.

The two novels’ titles suggest not only this contrast in style but also in narrative outcomes.  “Out of this furnace” comes a vindication of the steelworkers’ aspirations and the possibility of a better life for their families.  At the end of Bell’s novel, Dobie, having helped to build what became the United Steel Workers, engages in a nighttime reverie about issues the union could address in the future:  technological unemployment, environmental destruction, anti-worker politics, bosses and “bossism,” and the degradation of work itself.  As he spins this web at the bedroom window, his sleeping wife is pregnant with their first child – completing the picture of productive and reproductive futurity.

The “blood [spilled] on the forge” in Attaway’s novel is not redeemed by any such optimistic conclusion.  The book itself becomes a kind of blues, and any uplift it provides comes from Attaway’s ability to sing it.   Big Mat, Melody, and Chinatown do not recover from the combined violence of cultural dislocation, deadly working conditions, and racist labor politics – and they do not understand what has happened to them.  But we, as readers, are invited to develop the consciousness they can’t.  The novel offers us the insight and empathy out of which to draw our own conclusions about the industrial system and the need for racial solidarity in labor.

For me, novels like these suggests that unions can be good for much more than better hours, wages, and working conditions. What they achieved, on the evidence of Bell’s novel at any rate, included a sense of personal dignity and collective strength in the present, and a hopeful vision pulling one forward.   When Bell wrote that in 1937 “the fifty-year struggle to free the steel town was nearly over,” he was claiming that the fight to organize, to be recognized, to bargain implied more than “labor rights” alone; it was a struggle for what came to be called civil and human rights. Conversely, Attaway shows us, in visceral scenes, the damage done, no only when companies and their henchmen engage in violent suppression of those rights but also when unions play into a company’s hands by excluding the unorganized and the “other.”

Most unions today seem to get this – though, for now, they are still on the losing end of the most concerted legal and political assault since the robber barons ruled the roost.  But we would be much worse off without them, and they may be due for a revival.  Read any good labor novels lately?

Nick Coles

“By My Lights” and “Studies Have Shown”

Recently while writing an article, I found myself using an old-time expression I don’t think I have ever used in writing before: “by my lights,” which means something like “in my view.”  It’s an expression I heard a lot growing up in a working-class family decades ago and still hear among the old-timers of my generation.  Though I sometimes use it in conversation, I thought it might be obscure and/or too colloquial for readers, but the meticulous editor of the piece let it pass without comment.

Then as I read Barbara Jensen’s new book Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, I thought about notions I’ve had for some time about a distinct working-class epistemology that is often more complex and sophisticated than the standard educated middle-class one.   Reading Classes lays out in detail what Jensen sees as competing class cultures, with special emphasis on how middle-class cultural imperialism in schools (from kindergarten to graduate school) makes life and learning more difficult for working-class students.

Though the book is rich in showing oppositions between categorically distinct working-class and middle-class cultures, Jensen’s effort is to put the cultures into dialogue with each other so that they can benefit from each other’s strengths and compensate for their contrary weaknesses.  Firmly based in a memoir of her own experience as a working-class girl who became (somewhat accidentally) middle class, Jensen draws on a wide range of social science studies to supplement her own direct observation as a counseling psychologist, especially of mixed-class couples and high school students.  In doing that, she brings together what I take to be contrary but potentially complementary epistemologies, captured perhaps by the expressions “by my lights” and “studies have shown.”

In my undergraduate classes, I have long warred against the usage “studies have shown” because of its passive-voice exaggeration of the certainty of conclusions drawn from social science studies.  I read a fair number of such studies, and I have yet to come upon one whose data would not support more than one interpretation, no matter how rigorous the research methodology.   I encourage students to use somewhat more awkward phrasing that acknowledges that fallible human beings are actively drawing conclusions from their study – e.g., “researchers [or even “experts”] who have made systematic studies of X have concluded that . . .” Studies do not “find” things or “show” things.  People do.

Systematic studies by people who are knowledgeable about what has been thought and said in their discipline or field of study should be given greater weight than my or my students’ off-hand impressions based on our direct observation and experience.  But, like our off-hand impressions, studies are products of creative human thought.  And one of my off-hand impressions is that one out of three times when the expression “studies have shown” is used it actually means “shut the fuck up.”  That is, it is an educated middle-class bullying tactic to close off discussion by an appeal to authority.

At least as it is reported in both mainstream and, especially, progressive media, this often seems to be the case with disputes about teaching climate change and evolution in public schools.  Without discounting the ideological power politics of local school boards, I don’t see why popular skepticism about scientific findings (even in the natural sciences) does not present opportunities for educating students about the values and procedures of scientific methods, let alone for the exercise and development of critical thinking.   In any case, dismissing and thereby disrespecting popular skepticism strengthens that skepticism – or, rather, has a tendency to turn skepticism into ideologically rigid resistance.   Thus, my war on “studies have shown” in undergraduate general education courses is part of gaining students’ respect for such studies by requiring them to think about the conclusions experts have derived from them – and not simply learn to repeat “what studies have shown.”

On the other hand, in my experience working-class adults have a strong tendency to give too much weight to their own direct observation and experience.  There is a clear strength to this, as they are often very complex interpreters of what they have seen and lived.  But it can often cause them to discount the value of “book-learning” and “abstractions,” and it can be difficult for them to articulate their interpretations of their direct observation and experience in a mixed-class, mixed-race, mixed-everything public setting.  On the plus side, though, “by my lights” is one of several expressions whereby people acknowledge that not only is their own observation and experience necessarily limited – that is, they know they’re only seeing or feeling one small part of a massive elephant – but that they also are bringing their own unique framework, their way of seeing and thinking, to their report/interpretation of that experience.  And, in most cases, the expression invites others to share how they see things by their lights while firmly asserting the value of one’s own lights.  That is, I fancy that there is a grassroots working-class relativism that thinks and lives within an experientially based subjectivity that claims a large space (often too large, in my view) for belief and faith, but that also sees a path to truth in inter-subjective dialogue – usually looking for confirmation, but existentially open to correction and refinement by how others read their different experiences.

The educated middle-class, on the other hand, while officially recognizing a thorough-going epistemological relativism (“observation interferes” even in physics), has a strong tendency to overestimate the number and certainty of “known facts,” to confuse “evidence” with “proof,” and to try to “escape” from belief through the use of rigorous methodologies that can overcome or get beyond “subjective biases.”  The whole project of the sciences (social as well as natural) is to design and implement methods that get researchers free not only of their own subjectivity, but of all subjectivity so that they can “find” objective truth.  These efforts can sometimes be quixotic and are often highly disingenuous, but over the past several centuries they have compiled an impressive array of “known facts” that could not have been derived from undisciplined sharing of beliefs and experiences.  Though the arts and humanities operate very differently, placing much more emphasis on the interpretation of direct experience, interior as well as exterior, we generally respect and pay deference to “scientific truth” without thinking that it is all there is.   But we too tend to overestimate how large what is known is and the degree of certainty with which it is known.

If I had my way, there would be more experimentation with putting these two contrary, but potentially complementary epistemologies together.  Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes is not the first to do that within Working-Class Studies, but it is the most thorough and comprehensive (and admirably risky) attempt so far.   There are more such efforts in progress.  Christine Walley, for example, who spoke at last year’s How Class Works conference, will soon publish Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago.  Walley calls it an “autoethnography.” The book begins with her childhood recollections of the day her father lost his job when Wisconsin Steel shut down forever, and Walley uses anthropological methods to understand the long arm of consequences deindustrialization continues to visit not only on her family and its neighborhood but on a whole world of meanings and relationships that extend well beyond.

By my lights, these and other working-class studies have shown that there is a lot more to life and learning than is dreamt of in an exclusively middle-class philosophy.  But that’s true of a working-class one as well.  Cross-class coalitions, besides being crucial to our politics going forward, have a vast, nearly untapped potential for cultural sharing — not just of information and ideas, but of different ways of knowing.   With Reading Classes and Exit Zero we are better able to tap some of that potential.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies