Blogger: Teaching labor history is difficult

Roundup: Talking About History

Most of us have (unfortunately) taken history courses that didn’t cohere around any narrative or set of arguments. Now that I’ve started teaching, I realize that even doing it poorly is much harder than it looks. Often I don’t see inadequacies in my lessons till I’m standing in front of my class and realize that I’m actually boring myself. I watch the students stop taking notes, fidget, and nod off as I ask myself, “Why am I telling them this? What’s the point?”

One such moment occurred the last time I was teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey (1865 to the present). I was lecturing about the labor movement in the late nineteenth century, arguably its most dramatic period: massive strikes met by state repression; the colorful culture of the Knights of Labor; the black flags of anarchists; the retrenchment of the American Federation of Labor. So what was the problem?

I don’t think it was that the students were uninterested in labor history. In fact, many of them wrote about strikes or union leaders for their research papers. The issue, I think, was that I was presenting labor history as just another social movement, with class as a natural category that transcends time. It seems like a trap that’s been set by a milquetoast interpretation of identity politics: students understand that hierarchies exist, but the liberal framework professors often use suggests that the only purpose of social movements is to make the hierarchies less onerous.

I was lucky enough as an undergrad to take the U.S. history sequence (both semesters) from the same fabulous Marxist professor, who really understood how to teach labor history. Now I’m trying to remember how she did it (didn’t save my notes—drat!). Part of the problem I have is that I usually only teach the second half of the survey; I don’t know if students have any idea of what concepts like the division of labor are. To start with the Great Uprising of 1877 is like telling them to walk into a movie an hour after it’s started.

Ultimately, what I want to do is figure out how to get students to see that the industrial working class had to be created. If this bores them too, I don’t care. It won’t bore me. And it will be on the exam.

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