Monday, April 16, 2012

Dirty and Dangerous Work in American History

Last summer I taught an undergraduate history course titled "Pacific Islands: Histories of Paradise." I blogged both before and after the course, reflecting on my expectations and observations over the course of planning, executing, and evaluating the course.

This summer I will be teaching again, so if you are an undergraduate student, or you know one, and you need or want some college credits, or in particular need to fulfill either or both the K or 4 DEC requirements at SUNY-Stony Brook, then keep reading!!! Yes, this summer I will be teaching a new course, an amalgam of labor and environmental history, and it will be awesome. The course is called "Dirty & Dangerous Work in American History."

As I did last year, I'd like to use this pre-course blog post to think through some of my plans for the course, and I'd be thrilled to receive any feedback from other history teachers out there with helpful ideas.

The Course

The course is a six week course, with two class meetings per week. That means there are only twelve classes in all. Each meeting lasts three and a half hours - yes, three and a half hours! - and, lucky me, my three and a half hours are scheduled for the evening, from 6pm to 9:25pm. Those will be late nights for me, but 6pm is probably "mid-day" for undergraduate students, so they might like that!

The structure of the summer course raises certain pedagogical issues. What can an instructor do in three and a half hours to keep things interesting, and make the most of students' time in the classroom? How much homework or readings can an instructor assign when students have only six weeks to complete it all? In my teaching of summer and winter classes here at Stony Brook - both use the three and a half hour format - I have discovered that the key is mixing things up. A little lecture here, discussing readings there. In-class group work here, and then, now and then, watching a film. And, of course, at least one big break in the middle of the three and a half hours is absolutely necessary for both teacher and students!

As usual, I am structuring the course mostly chronologically, rather than thematically. As explained in the course description,

"This course examines the relationships between work and environment in United States history from the colonial period to the present day, with emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."

So there is actually not that much to cover here; well, at least not when compared to my earlier Pacific Islands class ("6,000 years of history in six weeks") or my Chinese history course ("3,000 years of history in three weeks"). This time it is only three or four hundred years of history in six weeks. That's much better!

The Textbooks

Last summer I assigned two books for my course: a more textbook-y chronological maritime history of the Pacific Islands, and then a book of collected plays by a Samoan author. The use of local literature worked well, but I won't be doing that this time. This time I plan to find my balance between a textbook-y overview of, and introduction to, environmental history, alongside a collection of case studies of intersections between work and environment in historical perspective.

The former book is Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History. This book is frequently assigned for introductory American environmental history courses, and since I suspect that most students this summer will not have any background in environmental history, it will be a necessary text. Steinberg moves chronologically from indigenous American history (the pre-contact period) to the twenty-first century, attempting to highlight the most important people, places, and processes - as well as methodologies and sub-disciplines - in the field of American environmental history. But Steinberg is not necessarily interested in understanding workers' perspectives on the environment, or the role of class in environmental history. Work environments are definitely mentioned in his book, but this is by no means the primary focus of his narrative.

That's why I am complimenting Steinberg with Chad Montrie's recent Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States. Montrie's got a good introductory chapter that brings up some of the major interpretive problems that we will be grappling with throughout the course. He follows this with six case studies from American labor history, from early nineteenth-century Lowell Mill Girls to late twentieth-century migrant farm workers. Once the course gets going, we'll be tackling one of Montrie's case studies each day for the middle three weeks of the semester.

There will be only a few supplementary readings. If I have learned anything from teaching these courses, it is that only so much reading can be done (and done well) in six weeks. For us to really rip apart these two books will be enough of an achievement, in that the process of really reading these books closely will instill a basic toolkit for investigating American labor and environmental history in students' skillsets, and will also hopefully provide enough firm ground for students to stand on as they build their own research projects.

The Films

I usually show four films per semester. The three and a half hour structure allows us to watch films in their entirety and then even discuss them afterwards. I have found from students' evaluations that usually two-thirds of students like watching full films in class, but the other third really despises it. They find it boring to sit around for hours and passively watch a screen. I have to agree, but at the same time I find the benefits of watching films in class to outweigh the discomforts of it all. What I am trying to do is to teach students to "read" films as they would read a text. Watching films should not just be "passive" entertainment, but it should be a dialogue where the viewer, armed with his or her knowledge, critiques the interpretation of the filmmaker and attempts to understand what the film is attempting to say and how that jives with what we think we know about what actually happened in the past. For me, that's what makes history films so much fun to watch and think with.

I am having trouble, though, narrowing my film choices down to four. But I think that narrowing is definitely necessary here. I usually avoid historical documentaries, because students are more likely to watch those and just accept whatever the "talking heads" say. I prefer to show feature films about history, instead, for it is easier to read these as interpretations, and not as statements of fact. But, of course, teaching that documentaries are just as interpretive as feature films would be a good lesson, too. But I'm not sure I can do that in six weeks!

I couldn't find any feature film, though, that focused on workers' relationships with the environment in the colonial period. So for now I'm thinking of pairing some excerpts from Marcus Rediker on seamen's experiences of nature on 18th century ships with some or all of Ric Burns' 2010 documentary, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. In effect, this section of the course lumps the colonial period with the early Republic up to 1840, so the whaling focus will work here. (Burns' documentary focuses largely on the nineteenth century.) This will be an opportunity to talk about the Pacific Ocean, too, where indigenous Pacific Islanders encountered the environment in new ways through participation in American trans-Pacific extractive industries (like whaling, for example).

I am also failing to locate a good feature film on the nineteenth century. Sure, I thought about using any of the great films made about American slavery - a topic we will be reading a lot about - but I couldn't find any film that I think really highlights workers' experiences of their environment. Any ideas out there?

So skip to the early twentieth century. When we talk about American westward expansion, we'll examine how the U.S. West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not some romantic land of individualistic white male pioneers, but rather was a heavily industrialized and ethnically diverse work environment. We'll highlight this with two films I really love: Picture Bride (1995) about Japanese plantation workers in 1910s Hawaiʻi, and Days of Heaven (1978) about poor white youths from 1910s Chicago who take up migrant farm work in the Plains. I like how both films focus on migrant labor - yet in very different ways and circumstances - and shed light on the larger discussions we'll be having about the relationships between cities and countrysides, metropoles and peripheries, capitol and labor, men and women, etc., in turn-of-the-century imperial America.

As we move into the twentieth century, we will start talking about the history of labor unions and how unionization and struggles between employers and employees reflected new relationships between working-class people and their environments, at home, at work, and at rest. Our readings will focus on mines, slaughterhouses, fields, and factories. But the two films I have chosen focus on union activity specifically in American mining. We will start with Salt of the Earth (1953), a half-documentary/half-fictional film from the early Cold War that was famously blacklisted by the U.S. government for being "communistic." It focuses on the lives of Mexican-American mining families in the 1950s as they struggle for decent wages, homes, and health and safety protections. We will compliment this with the award-winning documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) about striking miners in 1970s Appalachia. Both movies, to varying degrees, demonstrate the many ways mine workers related to their work environments, and perhaps also can speak to the role of environmental issues in shaping American labor activism.

As you can see, I am actually showing more documentaries than I would like to, but the two movies above, because they reflect now-historic events - in the 1950s and 1970s - can be "read" as primary sources, and I like that quality about them.

So that's five movies so far. In the last week of class we will discuss contemporary issues, because I always feel like students will get more out of a history class if they have the opportunity to discuss relationships between current events and historical ones. I am interested to see what interests my students will have in labor and/or environmental issues. To round things out, I think it would be great to watch a film about contemporary work environments. I am considering either Which Way Home? (2007), a documentary about the amazing journey of child laborers from Central America to the United States, or perhaps a newer film - although it doesn't appear to be available yet - Skydancer (2011), about Mohawk Indian steelworkers building skyscrapers in New York City. Either film would present the opportunity to not only reflect on work and environment, but also the significance of race, class, and nation in today's complex conditions of migrant labor and globalization.

The Assignments

I usually like to ask my students to visit museums and think about objects and visual representations of the past as part of their study into how to "read" history. Whatever I can do to convince students that texts are only a small part of knowing the past - that images, objects, films, etc. are just as important - I think I can convince students to have a better appreciation for what history actually is all about.

But I have found it hard this time around to think about work and environment through objects. Surely there are some museums that would work - like Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum or Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, both on Long Island - but these collections would only relate to the very early material in this course, so I'm not sure about this.

Instead, I have decided that assignments will focus on exploring real worksites, and making sense of contemporary relationships between work and environment in our own lives, and those of our friends and loved ones, and then doing our best to contextualize our experiences within a larger history of work and environment. Therefore, students' first assignment will be to write about their own experiences of work and environment. I might ask them to focus on one particular job they have had and, by using some of the theoretical approaches we will have discussed at the outset of class, place their experiences of work and environment into historical perspective. Hopefully this assignment makes us all question our own class identities and class consciousnesses, and will serve as a basis for the remainder of the course as we compare our own work and environment experiences to those of historical ancestors.

A second small writing assignment is more straight-forward. We won't just be watching four films, but every student will have to write a review of at least one of them. So that's that. I just have to decide which four films... :)

And finally, there will be a final project assignment. This assignment will ask students to investigate a present-day worksite and put the current conditions of work and environment at that site into historical perspective. They will need to both visit the site - or go to work, if it is their own worksite -, talk to workers about their experiences, but also use historical sources that speak to the history of that type of work or worksite. I will be giving students the opportunity to either write up a big paper with their project results, or write a shorter paper accompanied by some kind of multimedia project: a podcast, a documentary film, a website.

The key here will be to check-in with students every week on their projects. I will give them firm benchmarks when project statements, bibliographies, research plans, drafts, etc. need to be in. Because the worst outcome would be waiting until the last day and then discovering that students misunderstood the assignment or otherwise produced substandard results.

One other reason why I must meet with students about their projects from the get-go is to make sure that every student has chosen an appropriate worksite to investigate, and that they have secured permission to visit that site and speak with its workers. As I remember from my public history days, consent forms will be needed if students are going to produce an audio or video recording of site conditions or interviews with workers. I will do everything in my power to help students investigate the most fascinating sites on Long Island or in New York City wherever their interests lie. But together we might hit roadblocks if we attempt to investigate factory farms or something of that nature. The key as the instructor is to be involved in every aspect of the planning stage with students. This way we can ensure that every project is not only relevant but also doable and also safe.


This course will need at least fifteen enrollees to run. So please spread the word!!!

And now I must attend to my own work environment, where I am cruelly forced to hunch in front of a small, bright computer all day and write essays, conduct historical research, and grade papers. I thought of going on strike today because it was over 80 degrees out, but my union informs me that it is illegal for public employees to go on strike in New York State. So, like the Lowell Mill Girls who came before me, I guess I will just open my window and gaze out at the pre-modern world I have left behind while I toil indoors in pursuit of meager wages. ;)


  1. Hi there. Delurking to share a 19th century labor/environment film possibility. Have you seen The Molly Maguires, starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris? Set in PA in the late nineteenth century, it gives a sense of Irish-American mining life and labor conditions. The Molly Maguires were a secret society fighting mine owners through acts of sabotage, and this is the story of a Pinkerton detective who works to infiltrate their operation. A great movie -- I can't take credit for the idea -- I've TAed for a prof who uses this in class!

  2. Hi Barefootrooster:

    Great movie suggestion! No, I haven't seen the film. I will definitely be adding it to my queue, though, and perhaps it will make its way into the course! Thanks for checking in and offering thoughtful advice.

    So you are a fellow grad student?? I'm interested to hear more about you. If not here, then feel free to write me: