Thursday, April 24, 2008

Teaching Labor History to the Wealthy

The last several weeks have been extremely trying in my labor history class. When it was just a history class, it was OK. Not a great class, but a functional one. I have about 30% of the class which is really engaged in the material, some more who are so-so, and some who are brain dead. Maybe not too bad for a public school, but maybe a bit below average for where I teach. Anyway, not a big deal. Then, two weeks ago, nobody read the book so I kicked them all out of class. I wish that was the end of my problems.

But no, it gets much weirder. The last two weeks we talked about deindustrialization and then work in the present day. We read Ben Hamper's Rivethead and then Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. I then discovered how little wealthy Texas kids don't understand class in America. Last week, I kind of went off on a kid for saying that the poor should take care of themselves and that companies and the nation had no responsibility for what happened to them when factories move. Of course, the kid is the son of a CFO at some big Texas company.

Then yesterday, we are talking about the part in Nickel and Dimed when Ehrenreich is working for the housekeeping service. One student, a nice kid too, raises his hand and says this makes no sense to him because his family always had a housekeeper and she lived with them and they treated her great.

How the hell do you respond to that? If others had shot him down that would be one thing, and some people did respond mildly. But others clearly agreed. They had housekeepers or hired housekeepers and they would never treat people like that!

Yeah, sure. Let's ask the housekeepers.

I haven't responded well to all of this. Again, I went off on the kid last week and told him that he didn't know what the hell he was talking about given his background. In those words in fact. That was not my finest moment as a teacher. Yesterday, I just kept the class running but I was so dismayed that I was counting down the minutes until it was over.

The larger question here is how to teach labor history to students who have no conception of class issues. I tried to bring this up throughout the semester and put the history in a modern context, but clearly I failed because once we got to the present, the shit hit the fan. These students got real uncomfortable when it seemed that someone might be attacking their class privilege, accusing the books (and presumably me in the course evals that we did yesterday) of bias. Well, duh. Why the hell do you sign up for a class like this if aren't favorable to thinking about working-class people and their historical and present struggles with some empathy?

Part of the problem is that I take this stuff really personally. I feel passionately about environmental issues. I love teaching it and I think it is the most important area for people to get active on. But the class issues I take personally. I do carry a pretty big class chip on my shoulder and those who don't care about poor people make me angrier than the most virulent hater of the environment possibly could. So when I hear these kinds of attitudes from students that I have been working with all semester, I feel that I have failed as a teacher and that the next generation of business leaders are going to be the same callous heartless bastards as this generation.

Mostly, I feel that this is the strangest course I've ever taught and that I need to do some serious soul-searching before offering the class again, at least at an institution dominated by wealthy students. I should say that there are some fantastic working-class students who do get it and I really respect them. But their frustration was as great as mine with how the class turned out. I feel that I should offer the class again because the issue is so important but I need to plan my strategy out much more carefully than this semester, really figuring out how to a) weed those students out right away who are going to cause problems and b) make stronger connections between the past and present so that students see the connections between the historical struggles they might be interested in and the present struggles which they feel don't concern them.