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