– Kathleen A. Welsch
Students like to say that college prepares them for the “real world.” Many students believe that means developing specific skill sets, learning to handle responsibilities, and earning a degree that grants entry to a profession. Institutional mission statements and objectives offer lofty language about real-world higher order abilities and global citizenship. For me, though, the real world is, well, more real than that: it is the complex, ever-shifting, layered intersections among daily life, family, work, politics, economics, gender, class, race, and religion.
No matter what field of study students choose to pursue, they’ll have to navigate their way through these complexities. The problem is that students tend to approach courses as discrete blocks of information, rarely associating lessons from one class with those of another or with their lives beyond the classroom. They don’t see their readings as real. But it doesn’t have to be like this if we – with our students – are willing to transgress these boundaries.
As defined by bell hooks (1994), a “progressive, holistic, engaged pedagogy” is one in which professors and students see each other as “whole human beings striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world” (p. 69). In her November 2016 Hand-in-Hand article “Conflict: It’s an Opportunity,” Jane Walsh illustrates how real life events can be occasions for students to witness theory in action and to employ discipline-specific terminology in their analysis of events and participants. But one need not rely on fate to present real-life learning events: with a bit of imagination, we can create them ourselves through an “engaged pedagogy.”
Knowledge about how to live in the world can be derived from the types of projects we assign students. Rather than have students demonstrate isolated knowledge of course material, could we challenge them to explore the reverberations of it in their own lives? In a values-flagged course, for example, students are expected “to become more tolerant and respectful of diversity and to develop those attitudes necessary for them to be successful participants in a global society.” Such noble goals cannot be achieved in the abstract; we need to ground them in the daily realities of our students’ lives.
My course, Images of Working-Class Life, is cross listed as an English class and a Sociology class, and fulfills the requirements of the Women and Gender Studies minor. It is a values course framed in numerous ways on hooks’ concept of engaged pedagogy and transgressing boundaries. To begin, the literature is not the work of vaunted Shakespeares or Dickinsons, but those of worker writers. Additionally, the course challenges the American Dream and the boot strap myth, that the U.S. is a classless society and upward mobility can be attained by anyone dedicated to hard work. We read this literature through the lenses of social Darwinism, economic determinism, and a variety of definitions of class. Rather than reading the literature primarily for pleasure or appreciation, we read it for what it reveals about the human experience of workers and their lives. And rather than standing outside of it and examining it at arm’s length, we – teacher and students alike – wade into the stories, poems, and songs, testing how well they reflect realities we and our families have experienced.
A high percentage of Clarion University students come from working-class backgrounds. They must work to pay for their education; parents make stressful economic sacrifices; many are trailblazers for younger siblings to follow; all have hopes of a brighter future through hard work and education. As students read the literature, they begin to see their world and its particular challenges unfolding in voices that ring true to them.
In the academic world we tend to avoid the personal because we want students to develop scholarly habits and to broaden their horizons beyond the self. Yet turning to the personal – a student’s real world – can be a means of engaging them in course material and investing in learning the skills valued by academics. Projects/assignments with a personal angle can still require the application of course concepts and terminology, research skills, and appropriate documentation.
In their first major project, students in Images of Working-Class Life investigate the stories of workers in their own families. They interview family members about their lives as workers, gathering information regarding working conditions, economic challenges, and the impact on family and life choices. They also gather artifacts in the form of work items, photos, certificates of various sorts, and other mementos. It’s a project which their extended families become invested in, as well. After all, when has anyone from higher education come calling to learn the details of their work lives or afforded them any significance? Evidence of their interest appears in lines like the following frequently found in concluding paragraphs:
I hope to continue to explore my family work history by widening the search, continuing the story, and sharing it with my family who are eagerly awaiting a copy of this project. (Sue Groves)
Once students have completed their research, they analyze family work experience applying the same terms and concepts used to analyze the literature. It is their task to write a narrative of their family’s class status as revealed by their work and to create a family tree illustrating the type of workers they come from. The final stage of the project is what we call “Artifact Day” where they present their family tree and any significant work artifacts to the class: a coal miner’s lantern, a carpenter’s T-square, a cigar box from a cigar factory, a mill worker’s lunch box, a photo of a grandmother outside her business. I am not a by-stander in this process as I, too, share my family tree and allow them to feel the weight of my dad’s climbing hooks and belt (sans tools) that he wore as a telephone lineman.
Most students know relatively little about what it means to family members to “go to work” or what its ramifications are/have been. This project, however, requires they have meaningful conversations with family members and view their findings through various definitions of class. Both in the writing of their narratives and class presentations, students exhibit immense pride in and deep appreciation of their family’s work ethic and efforts. One student wrote:
Based on the example of Grandpa’s life, I know through hard work and commitment to education, I can make the best of my life. I understand that this is one of the myths we’ve been deconstructing in class, and I’m not saying I’ll be a billionaire just because I work hard. But if I work hard and do my best, I will receive some satisfaction in my life, even if the only satisfaction is that I have lived like Grandpa. (Erin Kelley)
In their second major project, students test how well literature acts as a mirror to human experience by selecting two pieces of literature that shed new light and understanding on their own family work history. Their task is to write an extended essay, once again using terms and concepts from class to explain the range of connections they see.
- Physical labor’s wear-and-tear on the body: “Though [Dad] will always do his job to the best of his ability and take pride in the quality of the work . . . it is hard to take true ownership of a task when there is really nothing to show for it except a tired body.” (Chelsea Keith)
- Parents’ sacrifices: “My mother, father, and the rest of the older generations of my family know . . . [j]ust like Johnny’s mother . . . what it’s like to feel guilty about not being able to give their kids what they want.” (Morgan Ramsey)
- Commitment to work: “This particular stanza stood out to me because this is what I’ve seen from my uncle and cousins. They could easily be defeated by the news of their buyer not wanting their milk anymore and easily give up farming like many have, but they are too committed to their work to do so.” (Joel Smith)
- Work’s influence on identity: “While my father is proud of his work, he still feels like [the character that] he let his family down . . . . He focuses on his economic short-comings, which in turn influences the way in which he views himself as a father and a husband.” (Kaylyn Brown)
- Worker as tool: “This line describes how my boyfriend is seen by others and how he often feels about himself. Since his career is as a pipefitter and he is seen as muscle, he is often seen as unintelligent or as less than others.” (Amber Klein)
Both major assignments and the course in general aim to engage students in thinking about the “real” world beyond the classroom: making direct connections to it by applying what they are learning, building a bridge between their home world and the academic one they inhabit while in college, developing respect for all forms of work, understanding the pervasive force of work in shaping identities and lives, and realizing that class is very much a feature of American society. As one student observed,”Poor people aren’t poor because they want to be” (Renee Ei).
Rather than present the course as a discrete block of information, which can be learned then abandoned at the end of the term, it is my hope that they take away important lessons about living in the world – because we made real connections with their world.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.