Tag Archives: 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.

Shout Working Class

Nearly 18 years ago, at the closing session of a conference on Working-Class Lives at Youngstown State University, we posed this question: if there were a Center for Working-Class Studies, what should it be doing?  We heard over 100 suggestions, ranging from “create a bibliography” to “start the revolution.”  Many of the recommendations focused on education, including a plea from a local steelworker for us to advocate for and provide a good education for working-class children like his.  Others emphasized public policy advocacy, working with unions, and helping to create spaces for working-class art and literature.

That year, a group of YSU faculty created the Center for Working-Class Studies, with modest funding from then Provost James Scanlon, who challenged us to get other faculty involved. Over the next dozen years, the CWCS organized five more conferences that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Working-Class Studies Association in 2006. We sponsored a lecture series that brought scholars, activists, and artists to Youngstown, where they spoke not only to the usual academic audiences but also to community groups, unions, and schoolchildren.  We collected oral histories with workers from the GM Lordstown plant, created an online archive of materials reflecting the many different ethnic and racial communities of the Mahoning Valley, called Steel Valley Voices, and published many articles and books about the working-class history and culture of this area.

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, the Center was able to expand its programming.  Workshops for Ohio teachers and consultations with local schools helped bring attention to working-class history and literature into K-12 education, while an innovative “teaching on turns” project made college education accessible to steelworkers, whose constantly changing schedules made getting to traditionally-organized classes difficult.  We created a graduate certificate in Working-Class Studies and offered a focus within the MA program in American Studies at YSU.  Center members engaged journalism students at YSU in reporting on working-class people and issues.

In collaboration with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, we sponsored an interracial, cross-class community reading group to study mass incarceration.  With the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, we helped lead community discussions on class and race. The CWCS also created an extensive online resource collection featuring digital exhibits about working-class life, resources on working-class literature, and materials on teaching about social class as well as links to materials about labor and class from dozens of other projects, libraries, and organizations. We conducted opinion polls, helped journalists from around the world report on working-class voters and the continuing struggles of deindustrialized communities, and established this blog.

All of this might seem like bragging, but the point is simply to say that we have worked hard to make the Center for Working-Class Studies a dynamic, multidimensional project.  We’ve done some good and important work.

And now the Center is closing.  Over the past month, John and our administrative assistant, Patty LaPresta, with help from colleagues in the American Studies and History departments at YSU, have packed up the books, sorted through files, and moved dozens of photographs, posters, maps, and a/v materials to the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor.   The Center is closing because we have left YSU.  Sherry began a new position at Georgetown University in August, and John just retired.

But the real reason the CWCS is closing is not that we left YSU.  It’s that YSU left us. The administration at YSU was not willing to provide continued funding.  Had they been willing to create one position to replace our two positions, we could have hired a creative, activist academic organizer to continue this work.  They chose not to do that.  Some have suggested that our visibility as faculty union leaders and political activists may have contributed to that decision.  The official version is simply that the resources are not available.

We appreciate all of the kind words and support you’ve provided over the years, and we know that many of you share our sadness and anger at the Center’s demise. We hope you will also share our commitment to continuing to work with and for the working class.  As Jack Metzgar wrote in the fall newsletter of the Working-Class Studies Association, the Center may be gone, but Working-Class Studies is not.  Here’s what will continue.

First, we will continue to publish this blog, offering commentary on working-class lives, culture, and politics.  Since we began in 2008, the blog has received almost 300,000 page views, and it gets about 30,000 hits each week.  Last year, it was read by people in more than 100 countries.  It’s been listed as a Washington Post staff pick, cited in dozens of other blogs, and reblogged by the United Steelworkers, Portside, and others.  The most widely read piece, an early blog on “Stereotyping the Working Class,” has almost 18,000 hits – many more readers than anything we’ve ever published in an academic journal.  Put simply, people are listening, and we hope they will continue to do so.

Second, the endowment fund originally created through donations from many colleagues and supporters, as well as our own contributions, will now become the CWCS Legacy Fund.  It will provide continuing support for exhibits, research, and other projects on the working class at Youngstown State University and projects of the Working-Class Studies Association.  This ongoing work, most of it based in YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, will ensure that students, scholars, and organizers have the resources to keep asking critical questions about the issues facing workers and their families in the Mahoning Valley.  If you’d like to contribute, you may do so by downloading and sending in this form.

Third, the Working-Class Studies Association has already taken on much of the work started at the Center.  The WCSA organizes annual conferences, publishes a newsletter, and starting in January, a new WCSA website will become home to many of the online resources we created at YSU.  If you’re not already a member, we urge you to join and become active. Better yet, organize a session for the WCSA conference this June in Madison, reaching out to colleagues who haven’t previously participated.  The deadline for proposals is January 14.

Finally, the most important thing any of us can do to ensure that Working-Class Studies continues is exactly what Joe Hill told us decades ago:  don’t mourn, organize.  Teams of faculty and local activists around the U.S. and beyond have the potential to create many more centers for working-class studies.  Begin with small steps.  If you’re a student or academic, invite a guest speaker to campus, or just show a film, and announce the event widely.  Get the names and contact information of everyone who attends, and get a discussion going about shared interests and possibilities. If you’re an artist or writer, follow the lead of folks like John Crawford and Larry Smith and organize anthologies or magazines to help make working-class voices heard – and send a link to your work to the editors of the WCSA website, so we can list it.  If you’re an activist or organizer, advocate for attention to class as part of local, regional, and national debates about policy.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, follow the advice of former Youngstown steelworker John Barbero, who explained that after the mills closed, he made it a point to keep “shouting Youngstown.”  Now it’s our turn.  Shout working class.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

“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

The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles

The Whiteness of Working-Class Studies

Later this week, scholars, artists, and activists from around the world will gather at SUNY Stony Brook for the How Class Works conference, organized by Michael Zweig and his colleagues at the Center for Study of Working Class Life.  We’re a diverse group, coming from about a dozen countries and a variety of academic fields and organizations.  Over the course of a few days, sociologists will talk with poets, graduate students will hang out with senior scholars, and community and labor organizers will discuss strategy with political scientists and literary scholars.  This combination of diversity and informal interaction creates an engaging, friendly, and lively atmosphere, and it keeps people coming back to working-class studies conferences year after year.

But with the exception of a significant group of international scholars from Turkey, Africa, and China, most of those at the conference will be white.  Several times over the course of the conference, people will suggest that, as a community, we should be concerned, maybe even ashamed, about our lack of racial diversity.  If we were really committed to social justice, the commentators may seem to imply, if we were sufficiently self-critical and open and inclusive, our interdisciplinary field would be much more multicultural.

But it isn’t.  And that isn’t about a lack of commitment, intellectual engagement, or organizing effort.  From the beginning, working-class studies has been deeply involved in critical discussions of both the diversity of the working class (or as our British colleagues perhaps more accurately put it, the working classes) and the theoretical and political intersections among class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. New working-class studies scholars have not generally suggested that class matters more than race.  Rather, we argue that class deserves focused attention within the context of broader discussions of inequality, difference, and culture.  The founding program in working-class studies, the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, got its start as part of a national project on diversity in higher education sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  In 1995, when we applied to that program, we asked whether “the working class would be invited to the diversity banquet.”  As the program organizers told us, we were the only people raising questions about class in the context of multiculturalism.

That emphasis remains a key element of working-class studies.  It’s been the primary theme of several conferences, and a significant proportion of the presentations each year focus on variations of the theme.  At this year’s conference, for example, about 20% of the paper titles explicitly reference race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, and more than 25% more address class in non-U.S. national contexts, including papers on the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as Europe.  A few more papers consider the latest addition to critical discussions of diversity: religion.  Of course, many of those who will speak about the intersection of class and race are white.  Indeed, one of the strengths of working-class studies is that it has encouraged so many white scholars to apply class as a critical concept in looking at issues of race and ethnicity.

And yes, a number of conference presenters will discuss issues facing the white working class.   Working-class studies is concerned that many, some would even say the majority, of whites have been exploited and excluded from so-called “mainstream” culture, marginalized as “white trash,” and stereotyped as racist and reactionary.  At best, the white working class has been elided into the more privileged white middle class, who benefit from more political, economic, and cultural capital.  As my colleagues and I suggested 17 years ago, the white working class has an important place in discussions and activism related to diversity.

None of which is to say that we should stop thinking about the whiteness of working-class studies as a problem. A more racially-diverse working-class studies could help to deepen and complicate our conversations about how class works.  Over the past 17 years, we have pursued a variety of strategies to reach out to colleagues of color: sending the call for papers to organizations that focus on ethnic studies, attempting to collaborate with such groups, organizing conferences around the theme of intersections, inviting keynote speakers whose activism or research focuses on race, and through personal contacts. The international participation in this year’s conference offers evidence that such efforts can bring more diversity to the movement.

Yet almost two decades of outreach have made working-class studies only slightly less white.  Why is it so hard?  Part of the problem must rest in the history of race and class relations in the U.S. (and in other countries), as the elite have repeatedly pitted working-class whites and blacks against each other (Michelle Alexander provides a useful overview of this in The New Jim Crow).  And part of it probably reflects the way some leftist scholars have argued that class should subsume race and gender, advocating for a class-based solidarity.  These twin histories might well make some scholars of color uncertain about whether working-class studies is the place for them.

But it may also be that working-class studies has too little to offer to those whose  work focuses on race, who may find similar ideas and similar camaraderie in critical race theory (CRT).  For me, working-class studies provides important ways of thinking about structural inequality, cultural difference, and shared identity and experience. For contemporary scholars of race, the same core can be found within CRT.  Consider, for example, this excerpt from a definition of CRT from the UCLA School of Public Policy:

Intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppressions and recognizes that race alone cannot account for disempowerment. “Intersectionality means the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings.” This is an important tenet in pointing out that CRT is critical of the many oppressions facing people of color and does not allow for a one–dimensional approach of the complexities of our world.

Narratives or counterstories, as mentioned before, contribute to the centrality of the experiences of people of color. These stories challenge the story of white supremacy and continue to give a voice to those that have been silenced by white supremacy.

Substitute class for the references to race in this passage, and the result would sound very much like some core ideas in working-class studies, which wrestles with the “many oppressions” facing the working class and which strives to make working-class narratives available because they challenge the class-based social hierarchy.

New working-class studies and critical race theory share some significant intellectual DNA.   The key to making the link may not be to bemoan the lack of racial diversity at the working-class studies conference but rather to actively seek out opportunities for in-depth conversation across these two fields.  We have much in common, and we have much to learn from each other.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

We’re On to Something: Reflections on the WCSA Conference

From June 22 to 25, 2011, around 230 people attended the conference of the Working-Class Studies Association, held at the University of Illinois-Chicago.    The conference was chaired by Jack Metzgar, a regular blogger on this site, and organized by the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies.   The conference theme of “working-class organization and power” reflected the urgency of the present moment when not only are public sector unions under attack, but also the very idea of the “public” as a shared set of social resources is being undermined by cutbacks or privatization.   Conference plenaries on organizing in Wisconsin, food justice, and the “corporatizing” of public schools explored these topics from multiple perspectives.  Panelists included teachers, parents, labor leaders, researchers, community organizers, a social worker, a farmer, and food service worker, along with academics.  Each panel both analyzed the challenges and described actions being taken to tackle them, in an inspiring demonstration of the unity-in-diversity necessary to carry our common work forward.  (The full conference program is available online.)

In this post I want to offer some reflections on the conference and on what it suggests about this formation we call “working class studies.”  But first, a little institutional history.

The first working-class studies conference in the US was held at Youngstown State University in 1995, and it continued to meet there every other year through 2005.  The conference was hosted by the Center for Working-Class Studies, which was founded in 1995 at YSU by Sherry Linkon in English, John Russo in Labor Studies, and several colleagues.  Since then, the WCSA conference has traveled to St Paul Minnesota in 2007, Pittsburgh in 2009, and Chicago in 2011.  In the meantime, in 2002 the Center for Study of Working Class Life, founded by economist Michael Zweig, began holding conferences in even numbered years at the State University New York – Stony Brook.    The sixth of these conferences on “How Class Works,” which also function as annual meetings of the WCSA, is planned for June 7 – 9, 2012.  (The call for proposals is available on the Center’s website.) The Working-Class Studies Association itself was launched in 2004 at the Stony Brook conference, with the aim of building a broader network “to develop and promote multiple forms of scholarship, teaching, and activism related to working-class life and cultures.”

These strands of WCSA’s work  – research into working-class issues, attention to education about class, and a focus on organizing (labor, political, community) – were fully present at the Chicago conference, along with another strand that has become salient at WCSA gatherings: cultural production in the forms of photography, film, poetry, music, and so on.   For example, a “Hard Times Poetry Slam” demonstrated the people’s art of slamming, now popular worldwide, which made its start in Chicago’s neighborhood clubs.  Another plenary, “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” celebrated the work of a remarkable photographer who died January at age 101, with an exhibit of his work and a lecture by Janet Zandy at a packed gallery on Michigan Avenue.

A key feature of working-class studies from its beginnings has been interdisciplinarity, the way it draws not only on activism and art, but also on work from all the academic fields in which class can be productively studied.  One example of the benefits of this approach came in the session “Visualizing Work, Class, and Place,” a roundtable discussion of Derrick Jones’s eloquent and haunting film “631.”  This short documentary centers on the house where the Jones family lived, in the largely Black south side neighborhood of Youngstown, now decimated by the effects of deindustrialization.  In addition to the filmmaker, the panel featured historian David Roediger, geographer Carrie Breitbach, and Cultural Studies professor Kathy Newman, each of whom offered a response to the film, reading it within the terms of their discipline.

For instance, Roediger noted how the film corrects a silence in New Labor History about the interior lives of workers, Breitbach observed how landscape can be read to illuminate social justice issues, and Newman drew on her knowledge of film history to notice the horror-movie elements of footage inside the now-burned-out house.  Listening to these readings of his film from three perspectives, Jones commented, “We need this interdisciplinary focus because what we are creating is like a community, a neighborhood.  We each have skill sets that are needed to build it up.”  Or, as one audience member put it:  “The disciplines together expose the full humanity of the story, which is not only about one family, but lots of people, and the demise of a town.”

As at any conference, much of the pleasure and the learning comes around the margins of the official program of panels and plenaries, as people from all over the US, and several countries beyond, eat, walk, talk, and sometimes sing together.  One evening, for instance, I found myself playing guitar and swapping songs with a group that included miner-poet Rab Wilson from Scotland, who recited Robert Burns and sang a US truck-driving ballad; Italian scholar Cinzia Biagiotti, who sang “Bella Ciao” and Joe Hill songs; psychologist Barbara Jensen from Minnesota dueting with Betsy Leondar-Wright of Class Action on feminist folk-standards; and nurse-poet Jeanne Bryner from Ohio, who shared her haiku.   Of course, the fun and camaraderie of this “wayside learning” can’t really be communicated.

But other forms of knowledge from these meetings can and should be shared between conferences.  Although the WCSA has decided for the time being to hold off starting its own peer-reviewed journal, members at the WCSA business meeting are committed to developing the association’s website as a space for informal publishing and conversation, including conference papers, blogs, videos, and linking to social networks.

In this connection, let me insert a membership plug here:  If you like what you are reading in the Working-Class Perspectives blog and especially if you attended the recent conference, consider supporting the Association’s work by becoming a member (you can join online at the WCSA website). As a member you will be eligible for a discounted subscription to New Labor Forum, the interdisciplinary journal with which WCSA has an editorial partnership.  You will have access to our website, including the Working-Class Notes newsletter and book reviews.  And you will help make future conferences like the event in Chicago possible and affordable.  As a member, you’ll be the first to find out where it will be held and to get the call for proposals.

The 2011 conference concluded with a general assembly on “the future of working-class studies.” It was a rich and lively discussion, and specific suggestions will be taken up by the Steering Committee and reported on in the Fall edition of Working-Class Notes.  As a brief preview, broad questions raised included:

  • how to develop the international reach of working-class studies
  • how to foreground issues of poverty, along with labor, in the field
  • how to work more consciously at the intersections of race, gender and class
  • how to use our institutional know-how to set up new centers of working-class studies.

Why?  Because we’re onto something.  The fact that the working class constitutes a social majority is no longer “America’s Best Kept Secret” (to borrow the title of Mike Zweig’s key book on the subject), and the increased recognition of working-class struggles and cultures owes a lot to pioneers in our field like Zweig, Metzgar, Zandy, Russo, Roediger and Linkon, among many others.

As some at this conference argued, the key to a just and sustainable future for all of us may lie in the alliance of a clearly and inclusively defined working class with a professional middle class that also sees its interests opposed by a small capitalist class (or corporate-political elite, if you prefer) which has been conducting a very conscious class war from above for the past thirty years.  Globally, this capitalist class has been busy grabbing up the planet’s land and resources, converting the global proletariat into a “precariat” of impoverished casual labor, fueling (and denying) climate change, and undermining the democratic processes designed to give the rest of us a voice and vote over these matters.  So yes, we have our work cut out for us, but on the evidence of the Chicago working-class studies conference, this modest sector of the broader movement is up for it.

Nick Coles

Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is the president of the Working-Class Studies Association.

Hard Lessons: The Challenges of Teaching about Class

I’m teaching a course on working-class culture this semester, a course that always reminds me in forceful ways of just how complex and elusive a topic class is.  That’s one reason why it often gets left out of the curriculum.  In a radio interview a few years ago, I asked two professors from elite institutions why their programs on gender, race, and ethnicity didn’t address class more directly.  Their answer was simple:  “class is too difficult.”  The difficulty has three sources, I think.

First, class is difficult not because it’s invisible in American culture, as some have claimed, but because the way we talk about it creates misconceptions.  In contrast to the survey data Jack Metzgar wrote about here a few weeks ago, my students seem to think that identifying someone as working class is rude.  They have learned that we aren’t supposed to notice social differences or to draw attention to anyone’s disadvantages.  Focusing on someone’s class – especially if that person is working-class — seems comparable to focusing on a disability or emphasizing someone’s race.  They’ve learned that we’re supposed to focus on how everyone is human and equally valuable.

My students also often insist that upward mobility is available to everyone.  Working-class people, that belief suggests, are therefore responsible for their economic struggles.  They must not be smart enough or work hard enough.  On the other hand, upper-class people fare no better in many students’ eyes:  rich people, they tell, don’t appreciate what they have, and they’re lazy, self-absorbed fools.  In other words, my students define middle-class as normal, and everyone wants to be normal.

The second reason why class is such a difficult topic to make sense of is that the experts – people like me – refuse to define it clearly, insisting that it’s complex, shifting, contingent.  While many scholars base their approaches in the reasonably clear Marxist distinction between those who own the means of production and those who sell their labor, many others complicate the definition by considering multiple variables such as education, income, social status, and so on.  It’s easy to get caught in an unending debate about an individual’s class status, and my students find such debates confusing.  But, as I remind them, Working-Class Studies is less about how we define class and more about how it affects people’s lives.  That leads us to focus more on culture and discourse.  We’re more interested in how working-class people think, write, act, and interact than we are with drawing sharp lines between classes.  That makes our work complex, which is useful in academic terms, but that can also make it confusing.

I can handle these first two challenges by guiding students through readings, discussions, and applying what they’re learning to new situations.  My students usually come away from a few weeks of concentrated examination of class theory and images of class with the vocabulary and conceptual models to think critically about how class works.  They may not feel completely confident of their understanding even at the end of fifteen weeks, but, as I tell them, I’ve been studying class for more than fifteen years and I still struggle with the concept at times.

The last challenge of teaching about class is harder to resolve:  class is challenging because it’s personal.  It makes us all recognize aspects of our lives that we’d prefer to ignore.  Talking about class makes us question our own social positions, and students sometimes find that their long-cherished identities as middle-class people begin to shift as the course progresses.  That’s often uncomfortable.

The discomfort is compounded when we talk about the limitations of upward mobility.  Most of my students have a deep faith that getting a college education will improve their social and economic positions.  They’re right.  But they have to recognize the obstacles that could block their progress up the class ladder.  Many are the first in their families to attend college, much less graduate school.  They sometimes struggle not only to pay for school but simply to justify it.  “What are you going to do with that?” their aunts and uncles ask at every family gathering.  And the truth is that they don’t know: they’re pursuing degrees in English and American Studies that not only won’t make them rich but may not even lead to a job.  And they’re attending a working-class regional state university has less status than a selective liberal arts college or well-known research institution.  Simply put, they don’t want to wrestle with the contradiction between the ideal of higher education as a ticket to the middle class and their fears that maybe, in the end, they won’t be good enough to move up.

I don’t tell them these things to make them feel bad.  Rather, I want them to understand that the deck may be stacked against them.  They need to know that working hard might not be enough.  I want them to understand that social class is not a reflection of individual worth or effort but rather the result of a social system that doesn’t distribute opportunity equally.  I also want them to recognize the strengths of working-class culture, so that they can appreciate where they’ve come from and understand that moving up may bring loss as well as gain.

Working-Class Studies is complex and sometimes contradictory.  I want my students to understand how class affects their lives, but I also want them to learn not to take it too personally.  I hope that they will continue to work hard and dream big, but I also hope that they will recognize how their lives are shaped by social forces, not just their own efforts and abilities.  Their futures may not rest completely in their own hands, and that’s a difficult lesson for anyone.

Sherry Linkon

Warming Up to the Working Class

When John Russo, Sherry Linkon, and other faculty at Youngstown State University initiated Working-Class Studies as a field in the mid-1990s, it was virtually impossible to use the term “working class” in public discourse.  We were a “middle-class society,” with all but a few rich people and poor people in that one ubiquitous class. This was a point of considerable national pride.

It was both pleasing and a bit unnerving, therefore, to hear so many people throwing around the term “working class” during last year’s presidential election.  As Carl Bloice at Black Commentator pointed out, it was often assumed that the working class in question was all white and usually male.  Bowling was pitted against basketball, beer against wine, NASCAR against golf – as if everybody knew what they were talking about.  But at least it was possible to use the term, and the actual multiracial, multi-gendered working class occasionally got some attention paid to its interests.

One of the interesting pieces of research produced by political scientists studying white working-class voters was overlooked during the election.  Larry Bartels’s very useful Unequal Democracy reports in passing on a “feeling thermometer” where people are asked how warmly or coldly they feel toward a long list of different groups (p. 137).

Working-class people outpolled middle-class people, poor people, and rich people by 5 points, 9 points, and 22 points, respectively.  What’s more, working-class people outpolled every other group presented.  With a temperature reading of 82.3, the working class was more warmly considered than women, older people, the military, and young people – the next most warmly considered groups – as well as The Democratic Party and labor unions (both by 24 points), big business (by 26 points), and The Republican Party (by 28 points).

I wonder if those Democrats and labor leaders who prefer usages like “middle income,” “working people,” or “working families” have seen this temperature survey.  They’ve bent over backwards to avoid using the term “class” unless it is preceded by “middle.”  As Bartels declares, “Given the frequent characterization of America as a society that exalts the middle class, it seems remarkable that most Americans express even more positive feelings about working-class people than about middle-class people” (p. 138).

Why do people of all classes, genders, ages, and colors feel so warmly about “working-class people”?  I don’t know, but given how confused Americans are in using class language, it would be worth further investigation.  One thing such investigation would almost certainly uncover is that the reasons for warmness vary by class.  There is a working-class set of connotative meanings that is different from the middle-class set.

For example, from the early 1970s – when the notion of America as a proudly “middle-class society” was probably at its peak – until its most recent survey in 2006, the National Opinion Research Center has found that about 46 percent of respondents self-identify as working class, while another 46 percent self-identify as middle class.  During most of this period, the term “working class” was virtually banned in public discourse, often seeming vaguely unpatriotic during the Cold War, and yet it is likely that the overwhelming majority of working-class people (whether defined by occupation, education, or income) identified as working class.  I taught working adults during all of this period, and though my students were influenced by the “middle-class society” discourse all around them, many routinely used the banned term with accuracy-and pride.  That is, many defined themselves and their world as outside middle-class society, and of those, most were proud of and glad about that (though admittedly more so in the ’70s and ’80s than now.)

Working-class pride has two general sources, in my observation.  One is the belief that they are the people who actually do the work and get things done, the ones the world really depends on.  Not simply that there are many more workers than managers, but rather a pride in being on the ground “where the rubber meets the road” and the knowledge and wisdom that derives from that.  Though often associated with men who make things, this pride is also common among women clerical, retail, and other workers who often express amazement at how little understanding managers have of “the real world” they participate in on a daily basis.  This source of pride often comes with a certain negative stereotype about middle-class professional and managerial workers, which is not likely to be a source of middle-class warmness about working-class people.

The other source of working-class pride is more about cultural connotations of working-classness that are shared in great measure by working- and middle-class people.  My guess is that connotations of being honest, sincere, down-to-earth, straightforward in speech and manner, and of not “looking down” on anyone or “putting on airs,” or “caring (too much) about what other people think” are all attributes that make even the most compulsively achievement-oriented middle-class professional feel warmly about working-class people.

Those are my guesses, and it would be interesting to hear others’.  In any case, it is good to know that not only is the existence of an American working class finally being recognized, but that it is warmly considered by damn near everyone.

Jack Metzgar