It was my freshman year at university, and we were just back from Easter break for the first tutorial of the summer term. The seminar leader, an older middle-class professor, went around the table asking each of us what we had done in the vacation. As I related my four weeks spent working in a big-box electrical retail store on the edge of my home town, I saw his eyes glaze over. I was a skilled enough sociologist even then to know it was time to let the next student relate his experience. After all work was ‘boring’, right? By contrast, my neighbour told of travelling down Egypt’s River Nile buying antiques for his uncle’s shop back home in London. My tutor liked this story, a fascinating and exotic mix that sank my tales of the shop floor without a trace. It was an early lesson in how working-class experience is often discounted at college while that of the middle-class is privileged almost naturally.
I now teach the sociology of work, amongst other things, to students from a mix of social classes and ethnicities. Perhaps one of the few positives about so many students now having to gain paid employment to see themselves through college is that they have lots of work experience; my class is full of shop workers, builders, carers, gardeners, assorted labourers and a multitude of other occupations. In the initial seminar, I ask students to talk about their working lives. It’s a great icebreaker, and it shows from the start that they have something valid to say about what we are studying.
The assessment for my course is a long essay about almost any aspect of work, including their own experience. While working-class students often struggle with abstract ideas or concepts generally on their degree courses, they feel more at home with concrete examples rooted in their own lives, and that, in turn, helps them engage with the more theoretical ideas central to the sociological imagination. Over the years, I have become braver in encouraging my students to reflect on their working lives, workmates, and customers and use this grounded knowledge as part of their essays. Not all the students who try this auto-ethnographic approach manage to pull it off, but more often than not these essays reveal something of real value.
This year I had three great examples, all from working-class women, which I know I will use as examples for future students for years to come. One of the essays reflected on working in a bar. While there was some discussion of pulling pints and replenishing stock, the student focused on the casual everyday sexism of her managers and especially the regulars she served. She offered a litany of examples of comments, wise-cracks, and leers that are part and parcel of an ordinary contemporary workplace. She described how she tried to ignore comments from men waiting to be served, the advice that she might want to ‘cheer up’ after failing to laugh at their jokes, or the older man who called her ‘daughter’ but then ogled her while she bent down to refill the ice box. Her description was shocking and chilling in equal measure. Another student described working in a women’s fashion shop. She recounted having to face the Monday morning blues and the prospect of another week at work, traveling in on the train, being told by her boss to remember ‘that smile’, and dealing with one difficult customer after another.
I don’t want you to think that these essays were unrelentingly grim, although truth be told they often explored difficult themes. There were laugh out loud points when I had to stop reading, such as a story about a customer asking for her goods to be put aside to wait for her boyfriend to ‘treat her’ as she had just learnt she was pregnant – and waving the pregnancy test wand in my student’s face! The essays also offered spaces of hope and humanity, such as an essay by a student working as a care assistant at a residential home for seniors. Her story about accompanying her client to the emergency room after a fall was a moving reflection on the stress of having to deal with an adult with dementia while waiting for four hours to be seen by a doctor, only to be looked down on by the medical staff because she was just a ‘carer’ and not a medical ‘professional’. The student felt humiliated by this classed interaction, but she was proud that she had coped with a difficult client for hours with only her wits to help her, especially when the medics reached straight for the chemical cosh to sedate the client – whom they saw as a problem –as quickly as possible.
These personal accounts offer real insight into the contemporary world of work – the petty insults, the repetition and boredom, and the way people simply get themselves through each work day. But these insights also allow us to understand how workers humanise their workplace experience and find meaning, identity, and humour in the most unlikely of settings. These essays reveal both the hidden injuries and rewards of class as well as the complex nature of working-class identity that entwines sham, dignity, and pride.
These essays have also taught me that working-class students’ academic writing comes alive when they are encouraged to explore complex issues through their own experience. They demonstrate that complex abstract ideas can be beautifully illuminated through first-hand accounts and that students who ordinarily struggle with ‘Theory’ can apply it perfectly well when they are given licence to draw on it as they interrogate their own world. I feel proud to have in some way enabled my students to find their voices on my course. Their essays are all their own work, but they can only do this kind of writing if faculty are prepared to listen and value what they have to say. As teachers, we can do more than act as passive if empathetic sounding boards. We can – and we should — challenge, provoke, and push our students to reflect on their lives in a rounded and critical way. We need to make sure that class matters in what we teach but also in how we teach. We need to think about how our pedagogic practice enables students to combine raw experience with more abstract concepts to make better sense of their world.
Tim Strangleman, University of Kent