Trading in the Blue Collar

Reaching working class students requires not just professors' good will, but concrete efforts, writes Shari Dinkins.

November 19, 2007

I am on a rolling work seat, moving like a crab around a wooden pallet. I reach for another metal part. Clumsy, oversized leather gloves make progress slow; I have to hold each part so that I can see how it is facing before placing it on a stack of engine mounts. Finally, I grab a tool and start tap-tap-tapping the last row into place. Sweat rolls under my breasts. I look at the clock. It’s been 40 minutes. It will be another 3 hours and 20 minutes before I get a break. My arms ache and my lower back is starting to spasm. Tiny hair-like metal splinters have worked their way between my clothes and skin making me twitch. I am grateful for the radio. The d.j.’s voice is my only relief. An old box fan whines and grinds past me in the huge metal shed. Beyond my pallet is another dozen. All I can think of is 5 o’clock.

This summer I had a bare taste of what some of my students experience every day -- the sheer complete exhaustion that accompanies manual labor. I am convinced that their experience eclipses that of our other working class students. For students who are interested in pursuing a career that is less physically demanding, shaking the blue collar is nearly impossible.

For working class students, the obstacles to higher education have been well documented. Sherry Lee Linkon’s Teaching Working Class; her book with John Russo, New Working Class Studies; Patrick Finn’s Literacy With an Attitude; and Academic Literacy by Carolyn Boiarsky are all tremendously valuable for professors who wish to be more inclusive rather than exclusive. Even instructors from a blue-collar background will find Lillian Rubin’s Worlds of Pain and Michael Zweig’s T he Working Class Majority helpful in refreshing the concepts that come along with back-breaking work. My own favorite was Alfred Lubrano’s stunning narrative, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams.

In short, it’s common for a working class student to enter a college or university without much support from family. Often there is no framework for parents and elders to understand what college demands. Emotionally abandoned, without encouragement or money, some students attend college for a semester or two before dropping out. Returning to the family business and home, they are often greeted with smiles and hugs. The student’s college attempt may be seen as a rejection of family values; the return often generates a sense of relief from relatives and friends. The failed student may feel confused. The support he or she craved is there at last. The cost? The dream of the college experience -- and the changed life beyond -- is lost.

“There are two factors for success,” says Ron Malcolm, reflecting on 13 years of postsecondary teaching and several years of grant writing for an educational foundation, “socioeconomic status and a parents’ level of education.” Mr. Malcolm, who teaches composition at Bradley University, in Illinois, added that the single determining factor seemed to be emotional support from family.

Although a number of blue-collar families do support children who want to go to college, many don’t. Lack of emotional support seems more severe in blue-collar families. Alfred Lubrano, author of Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, recognizes this: “Blue-collar households stress order, obedience, and discipline. No one is worrying about whether junior is self-actualizing as he sits over there in the corner, as long as he’s not bothering anybody.” Not only did some family members see his quest for higher education as “turning traitor,” some saw it as something worse.

“For some families, college is seen as a waste of time and money, a hideout where lazy -- or at least misguided -- progeny burrow to retreat from the real work of life,” writes Lubrano. His narrative account of the separation that ensues as he becomes educated is a painful and revealing read.

The community college where I now teach has a program that attempts to generate a support system for working class students. When one of my students, André, indicated that he wanted to go on a “New World” trip to check out a university a two-hour drive away, I immediately rescheduled his midterm so he could participate. Another “New World” student, Sarah, wrote an essay confessing that she is not sure what she’s doing at college. Her parents both do manual labor in an appliance factory; Sarah is the first in her family to attend college. Although she is a competent writer, she often doesn’t complete big projects and seems distracted. I’ve talked with her outside of class about my own working class background and the advantages that come with a college diploma; still, she seems reluctant to buy into the dream.

Most community college and state university professors I’ve met are perfectly suited to guiding their working class student population. Either they are from the working class themselves, or they have read a great deal on the subject. For me, it is a series of discoveries.

First, it was necessary for me to do some manual labor. Although I had mown my own lawn for years, and occasionally helped friends with drywall installation or painting, I needed to do something physical that I could not quit once the going got rough. Doing physical work for a paycheck made me instantly aware of the difficulties that my blue-collar students face. Even if my stint stacking engine parts lasted only a month and a half, it left me bedridden for another 10 days with ibuprofen and heating pads. Without this, I could only read about the experience and imagine the obstacles that my students face.

Here I understood why going to night classes even once a week might be impossible for a student who does a physically demanding job for 40 hours a week. Add on one or two double-shifts and the ability to come to class disappears; for many who do attend, out-of-class reading or writing has to be put aside as the student attempts to care for his or her extended family.

I’m not advocating “dumbing down” of materials or cutting curriculum for working class students. I think the bar needs to be high for all my students. But knowing -- really knowing -- my students’ energy levels helps me schedule work in a way that helps rather than punishes them.

After my limited experience with physical labor this summer, for example, I immediately rewrote every one of my syllabi. I moved all major reading and out-of-class work to the weekends. I also installed “late” due dates for major assignments. I’d rather see a working student turn in an eight-page research paper two days late and suffer a 10 or 20 percent grade penalty than have him or her simply drop out of college. It’s not the perfect solution; still, I’m working toward accommodation without allowing the curriculum to be chopped up and picked over.

I also needed to explore my own deep-seated beliefs about class. Did I think I was too good to stack engine parts on a pallet? Yes, naturally. Later, did I think, “Well, someone’s got to do it?” In my mind, this is my middle-class brain judging, separating jobs into categories: crap, sort of crap, smart jobs, and very smart jobs. Painfully, I realized that I place work that flexes the brains well above jobs that flex the muscles. I’m sure my attitude seeps into every aspect of my teaching.

Because I moved out of a working class family, I often think that my “job” as a teacher is to help “lift” students out of that experience as well. This is, of course, just another form of hierarchical thinking. I need to become completely aware of my own prejudice. Only then will I start teaching with a free mind. I know that there is a way to measure my progress -- the day that I absolutely believe a student who seeks to finish a certificate program is just as good as a student who seeks to complete a four-year degree is the day that I will celebrate my move into “thought equality.”

In the meantime, there is much I can do. First, I must be sensitive in my choice of texts. If I choose a standard text, I need to augment it with essays and articles that are not only written about the working class, but are also written by the working class. If I stick to the classics, I need to define the culture in which each work was written and describe the hierarchy that existed at the time.

When teaching technical writing to burgeoning automotive technicians this semester, for example, I not only use examples from the textbook, but also cull trade publications like Turbo & High Tech Performance and Automotive News for articles -- as well a news column from an automotive buff. My best bet? With permission from the author, a written work from a student in one of my previous classes often captures not only a broad range of topics, but also the writing style of those who have not yet had the “ivory tower advantage.” I want my students to feel represented as best they can in the insular environment of the classroom.

It’s also important for me to make the teachings of my discipline relevant. If I do not tie my lessons to what I hope my students will do in the “real” world, I am contributing to the “us versus them” thought processes that separate the educated from the blue-collar experience. Before I end the day’s lesson, I often take 2 or 3 minutes and ask my students, “How will this help you later on in life?” and “Where will you apply this in your job?”

When lecturing, I need to be careful not to denigrate the blue-collar experience. Neither should I be condescending. I need to use examples that do not raise one job above another; instead, I should simply recognize the differences in tasks and duties, services and products without judgment. Next, I need to bridge to experiences common to all of my students. Just as I can create a sentence structure exercise that uses the new iPhone as its topic, I can easily create the next assignment using commercial construction techniques as the topic. In this way my students can see that both are valued.

I also need to acknowledge cultural differences that may make some college practices difficult for working class students. I need to be patient. I cannot expect my students to become critical thinkers overnight simply because they’ve stepped on to a college campus. When I realize that many of them may be from family systems that value obedience and duty, I cannot expect them to rise out of their seats and applaud when I question big box stores, the war, or the lack of support for a third party in our political system.

I will do what I can to rein in my personal agenda at the podium; instead, attempting to show both sides of an issue and letting my students decide -- even if that decision comes at a much slower pace than I’d like. I do believe that many experiences have the ability to raise consciousness and train students and teachers alike to “think big.” College is one of them.


Shari Dinkins is an assistant professor at Illinois Central College.


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