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Finding "Hidden America"
November 11, 2012 - 9:00pm

Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Published in September of 2012

Every job is in some way fascinating.  I'm particularly interested in how you earn your living.  Those of us who are in some way associated with higher ed, and who gather in this community to learn and share what we know.

Jeanne Marie Laskas is one of us, an associate professor and director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh.  Maybe in her next book she will turn her attention closer to home (or maybe your campus or office), but the lack of higher ed people in Hidden America should not dissuade you from reading this terrific book.

What class would you assign Hidden America? Sociology - sure. Your nonfiction writing class - definitely. Maybe your labor economics course (are those still taught?).   

My favorite chapters of Hidden America matched my obsessions with infrastructure.

Laskas goes deep into an Ohio coal mine only to find that she doesn't really want to come back up. There is about a 40% chance that the electricity that you are using to read these words comes from burning coal (although natural gas is gaining fast). How much do you know about the workday of the people that extract our coal?  (Did you know that in 1923 the U.S. had over 700,000 coal miners, and that today we still have about 90,000?  China has about 6 million underground coal miners).  

My recommendation is not to read Hidden America while landing at New York's LaGuardia Airport. The air traffic controllers that she spends time with come across as true heroes, but the air traffic control system and the FAA are revealed to be completely dysfunctional bureaucracies.  I knew something about the technology struggles to revamp how our airplanes are guided - I did not know that they still use paper strips to manage take-offs and landings. I knew about Reagan firing the air traffic controllers in 1981. I did not know about the rancor between the air traffic controller union and the FAA, or about the looming shortage of controllers.    

In addition to learning about the lives of coal miners and air traffic controllers you will also learn what it is like to work at an enormous dump (really pretty good), an Alaskan oil rig, an a gun shop. You will see life through the eyes of a long-haul trucker, a cowboy, a blubbery picker, and an NFL cheerleader. 

None of the jobs profiled in Hidden America made me want to trade in my laptop and leave campus to do something else with my life. But I may just be a little more thoughtful next time I throw something away, eat a hamburger, charge my iPhone, or put berries on my cereal.

What are you reading?


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