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Finding Context: Teaching About Class through Local History
A few semesters ago, I proposed and taught a working-class studies course at a Midwestern research university (not my current school) whose students, in general, did not come from the working classes. Most students majored in math, medicine, law, or the hard sciences, with only 10 percent working toward a humanities degree. I knew from past courses—where students had openly challenged the values of inclusiveness and diversity—that some students might not care about socioeconomic diversity, nor value the cultural studies approach to economics. I realized I was up for a challenge that would require me to choose my pedagogical approach carefully.
But despite these challenges—or rather, because of them—I wanted to show students that they could broaden their perspectives by seeing the world through a class-based lens. I also wanted to develop a framework that other instructors could use in their courses: one that encourages dynamic interaction with social class through local history. Any instructor, regardless of background, can incorporate a school’s geographic and historic environment into the curriculum. By connecting the class to the community, instructors can help students make sense of the material and engage with their surroundings.
Goals and Frameworks
My main goal, aside from teaching students strategies for historical and cultural research, was to broaden students’ worldviews and encourage them to value other perspectives. To do this, I took a cue from Sherry Lee Linkon’s Teaching Working Class and brought my students into the immediate contexts of working-class culture (1999).
Luckily, the university was located in Cleveland, where waves of immigration and a strong manufacturing base have created a sprawling city with a complex economic history. Cleveland is currently struggling to avoid the extreme economic troubles affecting other “rust-belt” cities as it shifts from a manufacturing-based economy to technology-driven one. Given this context, I knew that the area had more than enough working-class history to fulfill the course needs. History professors and local historical institutions like the Western Reserve Historical Society helped me to identify relevant information as I prepared to teach the course.
Although finding information was not a problem, I faced another challenge that I hoped to turn into an asset. I had lived in the area for less than three years, so I could hardly present myself to students as an expert on Cleveland neighborhoods and social history. I decided to reveal my background to students on the first day, framing the course as an opportunity for joint inquiry. This strategy allowed me to “de-center” the classroom, giving students room to be “experts” about certain issues and events. As a result, students took ownership of their knowledge.
The focus on students’ immediate environment not only offered students a tangible grasp on working-class studies, but allowed the city to dynamically reinforce classroom discussion. As students discussed their jobs and interactions in the world beyond the classroom, they connected their lives with our analysis and saw class-based issues arise in their own lives. The city became a pedagogical tool that was constantly available, whenever students walked to class, took the bus to the store, watched the news, or went “out on the town.”
As students analyzed the cultural and economic implications of different local histories, they came to recognize how distant events affect the current culture. Students learned that socioeconomic diversity involves more than census numbers. They saw how change is interrelated: a shift in a city’s budget, for instance, has multiple consequences for bus routes, employment, and police presence. They also came to see more subtle relationships, such as how their school’s architecture was influenced by civil unrest. The following are some key strategies that led students toward these realizations:
Field (Trips) Work. We spent several classes at the Western Reserve Historical Society, a museum dedicated to showcasing Cleveland history. The staff and professors from the university led us through the exhibits and introduced us to the library holdings, which provided material for students’ research projects. Other local trips included a visit to Little Italy, where we spoke with local business owners and saw evidence of how the neighborhood grew to accommodate new immigrants of various socioeconomic classes.
Understanding Disasters. We examined how the local community responded to man-made catastrophes, such as a significant riot, a massive explosion, and a century-old murder case. Instead of focusing on the gory details, we tried to understand the reasons for the catastrophes, see who they affected, and critique the aftermath. Students were eager to recognize the present-day ramifications of these events.
Peer Poll Assignments. I required students to complete weekly surveys of five to ten peers previously unknown to them, of whom they asked a question related to the week’s activities. Some questions focused on general diversity issues, while others addressed specific local concerns. As the semester unfolded, the polls helped students gain insight about how socioeconomic culture operated in the city and in the lives of their peers.
Reading Outsider Critics. Course readings allowed students to understand radically different perspectives on topics that initially seemed mundane to them. We read works by visiting hitchhikers, local artists, comic book creators who used content from the city’s history, and historians who criticized the very socioeconomic structures students found so comfortable. Confronting these diverse perspectives allowed students to debate ideas they would not have encountered in their day-to-day lives.
Oral Histories. The oral history research project became the centerpiece of the course. Students worked to report and contextualize local historical events by interviewing participants whom they identified through various businesses and organizations. This project challenged students to expand upon skills gained during the peer poll assignments, requiring them to organize information around a central topic and write as-yet unreported histories. At the end of the semester, we collected these histories and placed them online to provide a resource for the community and other students.
A Promising Pedagogical Experiment
As my experience shows, with a little preparation, any instructor can use local history to teach about class difference. In retrospect, I was pleased with most of the course’s outcomes. Engagement with outside historical organizations added a depth of meaning and a breadth of material that I would have found difficult to develop on my own. Most significantly, I learned that in order to encourage students to engage in the community, I had to get involved with the community myself. Such engagement can bring both students and teachers much closer to understanding the economic realities of the world in which they teach and learn.
Linkon, S. L., Ed. 1999. Teaching working class. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder is a doctoral student in rhetoric and composition in the English department at Purdue University.