Jerk in Charge

The word “boss” traces its roots to the Dutch word “baas,” meaning master, and some have argued that it caught on in the Americas as a way for workers to avoid the word master and thus the pairings of “master and servant,” or worse, “master and slave.”  As a slang word for “awesome” or “excellent,” boss took on an added positive meaning as early as the 1880s.  It was used in that way throughout the 20th century, as the character Michael Scott observed on The Office:

Remember when people used to say “boss” when they were describing something really cool. Like, “those shoulder pads are really boss man.” “Look at that perm, that perm is so boss!” It’s what made me want to become a boss. And I looked so good in a perm and shoulder pads. But now, boss is just slang for jerk in charge.

Have you ever had a horrible boss?  Have you ever fantasized about doing something to get rid of your boss that was, ummmm, kind of extreme?  Like….MURDER?  If so, you might enjoy this summer’s latest popcorn comedy, Horrible Bosses, in which three white (and white collar) workers played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day come together with the help of a black conman (Jamie Fox) to kill each other’s bosses.  Their bosses are each horrible in their own special way:  there is the “Psycho” boss, played by Kevin Spacey, the “Maneater,” a sexually aggressive dentist played by Jennifer Anniston, and the “Tool,” an impossibly ugly, sleazy boss, played by Colin Ferrell outfitted with a paunch, a comb-over, and the classic short-sleeve-shirt-with-a-tie-look.

We don’t normally look to Hollywood films for revolutionary zeal, but the people who made Horrible Bosses are keenly aware that a lot of Americans are angry about their jobs.  In 2010 a CNN report found that job satisfaction among Americans was at a historic, 22 year low, around 45%.  Horrible Bosses producer Jay Stern, in an interview with Hollywood reporter Steven Weintraub, said that he hoped the movie would appeal to the sense of “stuckness” that so many Americans have in their jobs:

If [Horrible Bosses] comes together the way I see it, it’s gonna tap into all the emotion and all the upheaval for a lot of Americans right now. People who can’t afford their mortgages and have to renegotiate with the bank or something gets repossessed after you worked your whole life. You follow the rules and you do the right thing and you still get screwed. That’s what I think a lot of Americans are in the middle [of] right now and I’d love to tap into that because that underpins the desperation that a lot of Americans are in…”

Stern is definitely on to something.  Last year workplace consultant, Lynn Taylor found that Americans spend 19 hours a week “worrying about ‘what a boss says or does,’” including 6 hours during the weekend. If this seems like a lot, think about your own job. How much time do you spend ruminating, fuming, griping, venting, or gossiping about your boss?  How much time do you spend in meetings with your boss, or answering emails sent by your boss, about things that do not help you to be productive?  Taylor argues that the managers’ words and actions can be a “tremendous drain” on the “minds and work product of its most valued asset:  people.”

Other studies show that a bad boss can be dangerous to your health.  A recent Swedish study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that employees who had managers who were “incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative” were “60% more likely to suffer a heart attack.”  Employees with good bosses—bosses who didn’t cause them undue stress—“were 40% less likely to suffer heart problems.”

When it comes to class, who has the worst bosses?  Blue collar or white collar workers?  While I could not find data that suggested one kind is worse than the other, I did find a list of the ten “least stressful” jobs, and they were all white collar jobs:  Audiologist, Dietician, Occupational Therapist, Dental Hygienist, Software Engineer, Mathematician, Speech Pathologist, and Philosopher were in the top ten.  Are these jobs less stressful because they allow workers higher degrees of autonomy and provide for less interference from meddling bosses?  Perhaps.

If your boss is stressing you out, there are several places you can go to publish your pain.  One popular website has trademarked the phrase “Really Bad BossTM,” and has a rich archive of stories and forums.  You can also send it to a website called “Employee Surveys,” run by a company called Business Research Lab.  In 2006 the AFL-CIO ran a “bad boss” contest, which it used to get press attention and to raise member awareness for the purposes of organizing for several years following the contest.  You can also choose from a variety of books that will tell you how to manage your boss.

Some journalists have argued that bad boss stories spike in a bad economy.  So perhaps Horrible Bosses is, indeed, a product of the recession. But what else can you do besides gripe?  If you are feeling violently angry, you may be in good company;  research suggests that employee sabotage on the job can be seen as a form of protest.  One study argues that “theft, sabotage and aggression…can be viewed as a form of protest in which organizational members express dissatisfaction with or attempt to resolve injustice within the organization.”

I wondered as I conducted this research for Horrible Bosses if unionized workers, equipped with grievance procedures and options for collective action, might feel less anti-boss sentiment than their non-unionized counterparts.  But according to a recent study union workers are more likely to see their bosses in an antagonistic light.  Perhaps, in this terrible recession, with its jobless recovery, lots of non-unionized workers are having a harder time seeing their bosses as “partners” too.

Of course, I am always a big fan of collective action when it comes to bad bosses or anything else that’s bad on the job, but if you are not represented by a union and you need a quick fix, sneak your own popcorn and drinks into a matinee showing of Horrible Bosses.  As cathartic solutions go it will probably be a lot cheaper than buying a gun.

Kathy M. Newman

Poetry and People’s History: Places We Called Home

Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea, I know.  Modernist poetry in particular has a reputation for being obscure and self-obsessed.   But there is also a vein of contemporary poetry that speaks powerfully to our condition as a society, and much of it in recent decades has come from a working-class rather than an elite perspective.

Jim Daniels and Jeanne Bryner are exemplary writers whose poetry is rooted in the everyday experience of working people and written in ways most of us can appreciate.  They convey the clear vision, emotional connections, and truth-telling that good poetry offers.  And in their most recent books they illuminate local and personal histories of the times we are living through.

Bryner’s No Matter How Many Windows (Wind Publications, 2010) is the winner of the 2011 Tillie Olsen Prize from the Working-Class Studies Association.   Working from years of research into family history, she has pieced together the stories of four generations of women – her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and herself – who made their lives in rural West Virginia and industrial Ohio.

Daniels’s From Milltown to Malltown (Marick Press, 2010) is a collaboration with fellow-writer Jane McCafferty and photographer Charlee Brodsky, all of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.    Its juxtaposion of documentary photographs with imaginative writing it evokes Daniels and Brodsky’s previous collaboration on Street (Bottom Dog Press, 2007), which won the WCSA’s Tillie Olsen Prize in 2007.   Whereas Street offers images, voices, and stories from across Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, here the focus is squarely on the town of Homestead, Pennsylvania – an iconic site of labor history – and the changes wrought there by deindustrialization.

When you drive across the high level bridge towards the town, you look down at the former site of the mighty Homestead Works of US Steel, built on two miles of flatland in a bend of the Monogahela river.  This is now home to The Waterfront, “a mega shopping center, complete with surrounding town houses, a hotel, fast food drive-thrus, upscale restaurants, and every imaginable chain store.” Along the access road towards Costco,

Eight smokestacks rise above the carefully manicured lawn

as if eager to perform, to spell out L-O-N-G-H-O-R-N

in symmetrical puffs of meat-flavored smoke

 from the steakhouse nestled underneath these towering relics from the mill.

 At night, they’re lit up artistically, though no plaque

explains history, no fire burns inside.

From Milltown to Malltown is divided into the two sections indicated by the title, as Homestead itself is divided.  This is not only a story of historical displacement: from old world to new world.  The steel mill has been replaced by retail development, but the mill-town – with its houses, churches, bars, and schools – is still there, albeit run-down and underpopulated.  That old community and the new mall confront each other across the dividing line of the railroad tracks.

In the book’s “Milltown” section, one photograph shows a bank building with a portico of columns out front, bearing a large “Available” sign and a realtor’s number to call, in case you’re in the market for a grandiose financial institution (7).  In another photograph, “Window Shopping,” we see storefronts and a shopper, but the empty windows offer nothing to look at or buy.  In the accompanying poem, the woman bundled in her parka is “heading toward / some place that’s open. / Maybe even home.”

Contrast this with the Victoria’s Secret window in the Malltown section, where a lingerie manikin seems to offer other more exotic possibilities:

There should be a door on her plastic leg.

The door would have a nice brass handle.

You open it and guess what?

There is another world.

The longing for another world, and with it another identity, seems to be what is now manufactured in place of steel.  In “Future Residents Parking Only”:

. . . the point is, I’d like to leave these parts,

drive to land I’ve never seen before,

wake up in the body of another,

begin again as someone bound for glory.

Waterfront shoppers and future residents are in the market for a glory-land very different from that of the train-travelers in the old song.  Whereas the steel mill was a place of production, the mall is dedicated to consumption.   Brodsky’s “Malltown” photographs present an entirely commodified landscape of endless parking lots, unrelieved brick walls, identical trimmed shrubs, among which restless shoppers perform the labor of consumption:

Shopping’s hard work, I don’t care what anybody says.

Ask my back.  Ask the hard floor, the automatic doors.

Days indoors with an empty cart . . .

Why use poetry to explore the human meaning of these historical changes?  Perhaps because poetry is itself a language of transformation.  In Daniels’s and McCafferty’s readings of Brodsky’s images, by turns witty and tender, these transformations are often startling:  Abandoned shopping carts become cattle grazing across the vast asphalt plains of the parking lots.   A “House with Flag” is turned into a ship by “kids / whose vocabulary is shaped by a desire / to be elsewhere.”  On a construction site, “The tree would like to have a few words / with all interested parties.  The sound / of machinery drowns out its whispers.”  In poems like these, though, we can hear them.

If From Milltown to Malltown illuminates a visual record of urban change, Bryner’s work, by contrast, dramatizes private histories unfolding in the rural-industrial spaces of northern Appalachia, where mining, farming, and mill-labor go on side by side.  She sees herself as “mining” the “connective tissue” of her family, their relationships to each other and to the places where they have made their homes.   No Matter How Many Windows, although its gaze is more interior and personal, also illuminates the larger historical changes of rural depopulation and outmigration to industrial towns, particularly as these affect the lives of women.

The poem from which the book’s title is taken, “Bertha’s Tenth Wedding Anniversary, April 21, 1908,” sets the theme of indoor work:

A woman becomes a man’s bouquet,

but it’s a chore to keep flowers alive.

So much handling in a house

no matter how many windows.

There’s never enough light.

The call-and-response poem “I Hear These Women Talking to Mama, Backyard, Ohio Projects, 1958” shows much they miss those country homes:

I want a real porch.  I want to see the stars again.


Even for an hour.


Even if it’s raining.

                                                                        Lord, let the kids be outside.

Some of Bryner’s women forbears left letters and journal entries, but much of their history was unrecorded or silenced, and she has used interviews and imaginative recreation to give them voice, as suggested in “Things Mama Learned the Hard Way”:

I used to make up stories.  When I died

they burned them in a garbage can.

Maybe you could write a little bit

about my life, there was nothing to it, really.

Nothing, that is, unless you count the trials these four generations of women lived through, including a stillbirth (“l abor without pay”), an infant’s death while in the care of his young sister, a three-year-old’s scalding at the stove, a four-year old’s polio, another child’s cerebral palsy, a father’s abandoning the family, a grown son’s death working construction, running booze for moonshiners, jail-time, mental illness, cancer.

If that list makes the book sound like depressing reading, it really isn’t.  Bryner handles these events without sentimentality, and her poems evoke the strength it takes to make do, hold things together, and look to the future.  There are also shining moments of love and connection to celebrate and savor: a lost child found on a neighbor’s porch, a daughter reading Wuthering Heights aloud, a new bookshelf, a picnic by the waterfall, a pottery class, feeding lambs.  And there is a wisdom that derives from deep experience:

Love is a country

and vows about forever a gate, the weakest part of a fence.

If Daniels and McCafferty draw metaphors from playful readings of Brodsky’s photographs, Bryner’s metaphors emerge from the literal language of farming and mining.  She uses images of digging in the garden and underground to explain the poet’s work of unearthing and connecting.  The book’s final poem “Chores” begins:

Before dawn, I get out of bed, lift my spade,

dig for something that lends grace or beauty

to the task of record keeping.

And ends:

I know the horses are gone, the farm house sags

And to live anyplace in this world is a risk and a gamble.

On the evidence of the poems in both these books, it’s a risk and a gamble worth taking, with every new day, even if we find ourselves living on the edge of a malltown.

Nick Coles

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

Anger Management, Anyone?

Compared to the US, Britain is generally regarded as having more rigid, tightly enforced, and widely understood social class barriers. With its well-known scene of blindfolded children moving on a conveyor belt toward becoming ingredients in a social sausage, the movie The Wall (and music: Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)) asserts the salience of class for British education. It does so via the refrain (presumably addressed to all teachers, not just the sarcastic one depicted in the video): “All in all, you’re just another brick in the Wall.” The film highlights how people  experience class during ordinary interactions in school and  thus offers a sharp reminder of the relationship between class and anger in education.

I once invited a group of aspiring American teachers to (re-)view and comment on the significance of the “The Wall” in relation to their own potential careers. While these largely middle-class undergraduates understood the anger expressed in the video and found it amusing, they didn’t see its relevance to their experience as students and the experiences they anticipated they might have as teachers. Why did my largely middle-class students respond to the video differently than I had anticipated?

In their 1986 study of anger (and anger management) in American history, social historian Peter Stearns and psychiatrist Carol Stearns assert that changes over time in the aims and methods of emotional control “help explain class relations in American society, particularly in the twentieth century.” After World War II, they say, the job of guidance counselors emerged in schools. The task was to reduce the number of “adjustment problems,” including angry students. By the 1950s, survey responses suggested that teenagers were intolerant of expressions of anger by peers, preferring instead a “cool” stance. Beginning in the 1960s, another aspect of anger in school was partially managed in a different way: as grade averages trended upward, angry student-teacher confrontations became less likely.

Despite the muted expression of anger, the classroom remains what social psychologist Bernard Weiner calls a microcosm of the social universe, a courtroom where we render and receive moral judgment.  When people feel negatively judged, anger is a likely response and students/faculty of working-class origin are likely targets of negative moral judgment. As British sociologist Andrew Sayer puts it in The Moral Significance of Class, “the working classes are both imagined or expected to be able to compete on equal terms with others and [at the same time] expected to fail.”

How can these two expectations go together? It is widely believed that the US is a meritocratic society: where we end up, most people think, is based (mostly) on individual merit. In other words, we get what we deserve. If so, how do we account for “failure”? The availability of a free public education means that educational (and occupational) achievement must be attributed to personal characteristics. In other words, we deserve what we get.

There is, however, abundant evidence that education in the US is less meritocratic than widely believed. After all, the teaching staff and management of educational institutions are largely informed by the perspectives of the (not always egalitarian) middle class.  Given that, what might a working-class person experience upon entering (or competing for entry to) a cathedral of learning? Class contempt.

Class contempt, according to Sayer, consists of negative judgments often based on taste and style that “[spill over] into judgments of moral worth.” Social class is “given off” by cues of accent, language, demeanor, possessions, and lifestyle and differences indicated via these cues can trigger the expression of class contempt (in either direction). Perhaps it was for this reason that Pierre Bourdieu described the belief that we can escape our social origins (by merit or other means) as a “dream of social flying, a desperate effort to defy the gravity of the social field.”

Even at its mildest, Sayer suggests, class contempt can significantly constrain the life chances of those who experience it. Expressions of class contempt (sometimes even by those who study the working class) need not be deliberate, and those who are the targets of it need not even be aware that contempt is being expressed.

The link between class contempt and anger is not necessarily direct: anger, as an effect of class contempt, can be mediated by shame. Shame, according to Sayer, “is commonly a response to the real or imagined contempt, derision or avoidance of real or imagined others, particularly those whose values are respected.” Consider the following example.

A working-class student in the last year of middle-school had very high achievement scores and difficulty behaving “appropriately” in classes. The student had independently read about the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and asked a favorite teacher (who knows the student extremely well and teaches History) for the recommendation required to enroll in an advanced course in Ancient History the following year. The teacher replies he cannot write a recommendation because the student may misbehave, thus reflecting poorly on the teacher. The teacher later confides to a colleague that he did not want the student to experience disappointment. During the remainder of the middle-school year, the student experienced shame; the following year, the student experienced anger, declaring “they care more about my behavior than whether I can think.” Angry in part over the denial of that dream of scholastic upward mobility, the student left school at age sixteen. Does this story depict class contempt or simply the negative evaluation of a student who happened to be of working-class origin? This complex question is difficult to answer. We can see class contempt more easily in an evaluation task completed in the late 90s by another group of aspiring teachers. I gave the students a list of ten hypothetical candidates for selection into a hypothetical high school advanced placement (AP) course that only had two openings. I asked them to rank order the candidates. The candidates varied by last name, gender, grade point average, test scores, number of days absent or truant, and parent occupation. The results were more or less as I expected:  the candidate with the highest test scores, a number of truancies, and a parent employed as a non-professional was ranked the lowest, while the candidates with Anglo-Saxon sounding names and professionally employed parents were ranked the highest.

When I pointed out that the most able candidate (based on test scores) was being denied access, several students argued rather vociferously that the candidate had misbehaved and thus did not deserve the opportunity. When I pointed out that many students in my class may have benefitted from a similar ranking process in high school (many having been enrolled in programs for “the gifted”), several replied that they had deserved to be highly ranked, either because of individual merit or (when evidence of this might have been equivocal) by virtue of having “come from a good family.” These results, and – especially – the student justifications, suggest the operation of class contempt. The possibility that some of my former students are probably ranking actual candidates even now suggests the relevance of the ranking exercise and its outcomes to the contemporary educational scene.

Anger sparked by expressions of class contempt can lead to interpersonal struggle or social transformation. “The Wall” makes the expression of sarcasm by a teacher visible as an expression of class contempt. Only by seeing ordinary interactions in social as well psychological terms can we move from shame to an anger that may help ensure that the American Dream is achieved more on the basis of merit and less on basis of class, race, sex, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or politics.

Roy Wilson

Roy Wilson has published in the areas of sociology, computing, and education and has worked in industry and academia in the roles of employee, consultant, teacher, and researcher.

Working-Class Knowledge and School Knowledge

A couple of hours after I posted a recent blog exploring whether college education is the best option for working-class students, our administrative assistant at the Center for Working-Class Studies came into my office, saying she wanted to talk with me about it.  She raised a question I hear often from students at this largely working-class university: why do they have to take so many general education courses that don’t seem to have anything to do with their future careers?  Patty’s daughter is a college freshman, and like many, she’s frustrated with having to take courses that are not related to her major.  And as Patty pointed out, taking all those classes is expensive.

I gave my standard answer, one that reflects a widespread agreement, especially among liberal arts faculty: getting a broad education prepares you to be an active, critical member of society, someone who can adapt to new situations, understand the complexities of social debates, and make wise decisions about things like how to vote or how to respond to media messages.  As the American Association of Colleges and Universities explains it, this sort of liberal arts education provides multiple benefits to individuals and society:

Liberal Education . . . empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

It’s this kind of general education that, to a great extent, defines the difference between most technical programs and a four-year college degree.  And it’s exactly what students who are pursuing B.A.s in very practical fields, like accounting or computer technology, sometimes question.

Patty and I talked for a while about her daughter’s experiences and the reasons why those liberal arts and general education courses might turn out to be useful, and then we both went back to work.  But the conversation kept nagging at me.  I had felt uncomfortable even as I offered my explanation, not because I don’t believe it.  I do.  I think that college courses on sociology, history, math, the basics of science, literature, philosophy, and so on help people learn to think better and provide an important foundation for citizenship as well as for navigating our complex world.

And yet, I couldn’t help but recognize the classism implied in my own explanation.  After all, school learning isn’t the only way of understanding how the world works.  Anyone who’s managed a household knows about interpersonal communication, social structures, and finance.  Anyone who’s worked for a large company understands the complexity of society and the ways that power can be distributed and deployed.  Those who work in the service sector, waiting tables or caring for young children, develop the ability to interpret social signals and navigate human relations.  Mike Rose has documented the intellectual knowledge of the working class persuasively in his terrific book, The Mind at WorkThe description of the book on his webpage reminds us of the nature of some of this knowledge, and why it matters:

The lightning-fast organization and mental calculations of the waitress; the complex spatial mathematics of the carpenter; the aesthetic and intellectual dexterity of the hair stylist—our failure to acknowledge or respect these qualities has undermined a large portion of America’s working population.

Nor is the gap between school learning and experiential knowledge absolute.  A number of for-profit universities grant credit for life experience, as do some accredited public institutions, especially those offering degrees online or for non-traditional students.  And many college faculty, myself included, incorporate experiential learning into our courses.  Experience is the best teacher is not just a cliché.

And yet, formal education does have much to offer.  It is at once intellectually broader and less immediately useful than education that focuses exclusively on preparing students for specific jobs.  In his most recent book, Why School?, Rose advocates for this view.  He writes,

I come from a working-class family, so I am certainly aware of the link between education and economic mobility. And as a citizen – and someone who has spent a lifetime in schools – I absolutely want to hold our institutions accountable. But I wrote Why School? to get us to consider how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our sense of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy. . . .  There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding.

Rose believes that the focus of contemporary education on students’ ability to “demonstrate on a particular kind of test a particular kind of knowledge” conflicts with American ideals about equality and citizenship. Equally important, he believes that parents, and presumably college students, also want more from education.

In today’s economy, as college tuition goes up, grants and other aid cover less of the costs, and the job market tightens, both students and parents – and yes, college faculty and administrators, as well – put increasing emphasis on the practical value of higher education, too often in ways that undermine its benefits.  Students rush through college, taking (and working) too many hours to have time for serious learning.  Curricula that focus too narrowly on job preparation leave graduates without one of the most important benefits of higher education: improved critical thinking and learning capabilities.  As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the students who learned the least in college were those in the most career-oriented programs – business, education, social work, and communications.  And those are the very majors that many students choose because they want to be sure their college education leads to a better job.

All of which puts humanities professors like me – and especially those of us in working-class studies — in a quandary.  How do I advocate for the value of what I teach, most of which emphasizes critical reading, writing, and thinking rather than job skills (humanities students are among the least likely to find work related to their college degrees), without denigrating the working-class knowledge that I also value?  How can I best articulate the value of  academic knowledge about the power structures and cultural forms that shape our diverse society (and reinforce its inequities) and developing the ability to navigate across social class divides while also encouraging students to value their own working-class culture and lived experience?

Every year, the Working-Class Studies Association conference includes multiple sessions addressing these and related questions.  We talk endlessly about the contradiction between valuing working-class culture and helping our students develop the cultural capital, skills, and credentials to leave the working class.  Despite all this talk, we haven’t reached many definite conclusions.  But I take heart in the ongoing conversation.  We may not be able to elide the contradictions of our work, but we are taking them seriously and talking together, across classes and situations, among faculty and students, in order to figure it out.  That may be the best we can do.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies