The Saga of History 492: The Transformation of Working-Class History in One Classroom

By Barrett, Jim; Koenker, Diane P. | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Saga of History 492: The Transformation of Working-Class History in One Classroom


Barrett, Jim, Koenker, Diane P., Labour/Le Travail


JOURNALS, CONFERENCE PANELS, and on-line newsgroups are filled these days with talk of a crisis (or backlash or decline) in labour and working-class history. (1) This loss of confidence is sometimes linked to the rise of new theories or forms of analysis such as critical race theory, gender analysis, or postmodernism; or to the decline of Communism, Marxist theory, or the organized labour movement. Such scholarly discussions are worthy and can tell us a lot about the writing of working-class history, but we wonder what is going on in labour history classrooms amidst this crisis? How has the teaching of working-class history changed over the past two decades? What are we trying to do in our courses on working-class history? What does this tell us about who "labour historians" are, what they do, and why anyone else should pay attention?

We offer "the saga of History 492" not as a firm answer to these questions, but rather as an effort to open a more self-conscious discussion of the relationship between the re-conceptualization and rewriting of working-class history and the ways in which the teaching of the subject has changed over the years. Looking at the question of teaching might even tell us something about where we are headed.

For the past 22 years we have taught a graduate seminar in comparative European and U.S. working-class history. Diane Koenker works in the area of Russian and Soviet working-class history, Jim Barrett in U.S. working-class history. The influence of other scholars in our department and well beyond has pressed us to expand the geographical perspectives a bit. More recently we have included some material on Canada (not too much) and some nods to colonial labour in various settings, but the course has remained largely concerned with Western Europe, Russia, and the United States.

This decision in itself deserves some reflection. Given our own particular interests and the quality of much of the literature on Europe and the United Kingdom, our original focus is not surprising. Yet, as in most other comparative efforts, the extremely promising comparison of the U.S. and Canada is largely overlooked here. While there are undoubtedly some exceptions somewhere, this seems rather typical of working-class history in the United States. lust recently the journal Labor: Studies in the Working Class History of the Americas has made a concerted effort to re-conceptualize U.S. working-class history in the broader context of the "Americas," but most labor historians in the United States are far more likely to reach across the Atlantic for a comparison than across the Detroit River. Given the vibrant quality of work in Canada, the strong tendency of Canadian labor historians to view their own field in relation to studies in the United States, and the obvious points of comparison between the two societies, the apparent indifference in the U.S. is rather striking--even if it is not surprising to our Canadian colleagues.

From the beginning, we have always started the course with several weeks on key concepts, which used to mean various conceptions of proletarianization and class formation, in order to provide an overall framework for discussion. We then focused most of the remaining seminar sessions on work, family and community, unions and strikes, aspects of working-class culture, and characteristic forms of working-class politics, meaning, usually, socialism and communism (see Appendix 1 for the 1986 syllabus). From the start, we thought that the question of "American exceptionalism" provided important heuristic value that helped to focus our comparative analysis. We also focused the readings quite tightly around the early part of the 20th century. In the beginning, our units of comparison were nation-states--initially the United States, Russia, Great Britain, and France--but over time we paid increasing attention to distinctions between capitalist and socialist systems as well. …

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