What We Hold in Common: An Introduction to Working-Class Studies

Article excerpt

Edited by Janet Zandy (Feminist Press, 2001).

At the same time that schools find themselves chastised for turning out students underprepared for the contemporary workplace, educational institutions come under fire as readily for engaging learners in critical dialogue about the realities of working life. A recent example comes to mind: the outcry surrounding the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's selection of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001) as the summer reading selection for their entering undergraduates. This best-selling collection of pieces, originally published in Harper's, chronicles the author's experiences as a journalist working in the tradition of labor's earlier participant-observers, including Margaret Byington's foray into mill life in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Ehrenreich undertakes stints in several low-paying lines of work, such as waitressing and housecleaning, in order to pose a central question of American economic life: how does one make ends meet while working at or around the U.S. minimum wage?

No matter that the UNCH website presenting the summer reading selection explains that the assignment targets critical reading, speaking, and listening skills rather than the book itself; that the program obliges students to only a single, two-hour small group discussion; that the university provides links to a spectrum of reviews of the book (which are by no means all favorable); or that the discussion questions furnished with the assignment specifically direct readers to consider the book's limits and shortcomings ("Are her reports fair? Accurate? Biased? What makes her account credible or questionable in your view? What are the limits of her research or what information did you feel was missing in her account?" (as featured at http://www. unc.edu/srp/questions.html)). It is difficult to say which problem--that such a work gives offense, or that students suppose themselves served educationally only through protection from works that might offend--is the greater impediment to the emerging field of working-class studies. How are we to understand such arch objections to a work itself replete with disclaimers (including Ehrenreich's assertion that "I make no claims for the relevance of my experiences to anyone else's, because there is nothing typical about my story"(9))?

While it has been several years now that educators have spoken to the value --indeed, the urgency--of the pedagogical process Gerald Graft refers to as "teaching the conflicts," teaching/learning about class difference has lagged behind critical approaches to other categories of social analysis, such as gender and race. The 1980s and 1990s marked a time during which teachers in all settings sought to update their curriculum and reconcile classroom practices with the lasting effects of earlier social movements, from civil rights to women's rights. In something of the way, then, that such collections as Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto's Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979), Paul Lauter's Reconstructing American Literature: Courses, Syllabi, Issues (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1983), Paula Gunn Allen's Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1983), Ellen G. Friedman's Creating an Inclusive College Curriculum: A Teaching Sourcebook from the New Jersey Project (New York: Teachers College Press, 1996), and Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A. H. McNaron's The New Lesbian Studies: Into the Twenty-First Century (City University of New York: Feminist Press, 1996) invited educators to reflect upon their pedagogy in terms of inclusiveness, diversity, pluralism, and value spectrum, Janet Zandy's What We Hold in Common offers a sourcebook and primer on critical labor studies.

As with other forms of inclusive instruction, working-class studies calls upon students to challenge some of their most deeply-held assumptions (in this instance, about opportunity, wealth, status, labor, upward mobility, success, and, as the book's title hints, the idea of a common good). …