Finding Context: Teaching About Class
through Local History
By Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder, doctoral student
in rhetoric and composition in the English department
at Purdue University
Students explored the social class history
neighborhoods, including the Haymarket area,
which was Cleveland’s first slum.
Image courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical
Society, Cleveland, Ohio (www.wrhs.org).
A few semesters ago, I proposed and taught a working-class
studies course at a Midwestern research university (not
my current school) whose students, in general, did not
come from the working classes. Most students majored
in math, medicine, law, or the hard sciences, with only
10 percent working toward a humanities degree. I knew
from past courses—where students had openly challenged
the values of inclusiveness and diversity—that
some students might not care about socioeconomic diversity,
nor value the cultural studies approach to economics.
I realized I was up for a challenge that would require
me to choose my pedagogical approach carefully.
But despite these challenges—or rather, because
of them—I wanted to show students that they could
broaden their perspectives by seeing the world through
a class-based lens. I also wanted to develop a framework
that other instructors could use in their courses: one
that encourages dynamic interaction with social class
through local history. Any instructor, regardless of
background, can incorporate a school’s geographic
and historic environment into the curriculum. By connecting
the class to the community, instructors can help students
make sense of the material and engage with their surroundings.
Goals and Frameworks
|Peer Poll Assignment Questions
Each week, students
polled five to ten peers to learn more about their
diverse attitudes and experiences related to socioeconomic
class. Questions for this assignment included:
- What is your work history?
- Do you think you are part of the working class?
- What do working-class people earn?
- What are three things associated with the
- What is the difference between high culture
and low culture?
- To what subcultures do you belong?
- Do you live in a working-class city? Explain.
- Can you name three “class markers”?
- Can you name three examples of “everyday
- What is the biggest challenge facing your
city right now?
My main goal, aside from teaching students strategies
for historical and cultural research, was to broaden
students’ worldviews and encourage them to value
other perspectives. To do this, I took a cue from Sherry
Lee Linkon’s Teaching Working Class and
brought my students into the immediate contexts of working-class
Luckily, the university was located in Cleveland, where
waves of immigration and a strong manufacturing base
have created a sprawling city with a complex economic
history. Cleveland is currently struggling to avoid
the extreme economic troubles affecting other “rust-belt”
cities as it shifts from a manufacturing-based economy
to technology-driven one. Given this context, I knew
that the area had more than enough working-class history
to fulfill the course needs. History professors and
local historical institutions like the Western Reserve
Historical Society helped me to identify relevant information
as I prepared to teach the course.
Although finding information was not a problem, I faced
another challenge that I hoped to turn into an asset.
I had lived in the area for less than three years, so
I could hardly present myself to students as an expert
on Cleveland neighborhoods and social history. I decided
to reveal my background to students on the first day,
framing the course as an opportunity for joint inquiry.
This strategy allowed me to “de-center”
the classroom, giving students room to be “experts”
about certain issues and events. As a result, students
took ownership of their knowledge.
The focus on students’ immediate environment
not only offered students a tangible grasp on working-class
studies, but allowed the city to dynamically reinforce
classroom discussion. As students discussed their jobs
and interactions in the world beyond the classroom,
they connected their lives with our analysis and saw
class-based issues arise in their own lives. The city
became a pedagogical tool that was constantly available,
whenever students walked to class, took the bus to the
store, watched the news, or went “out on the town.”
As students analyzed the cultural and economic implications
of different local histories, they came to recognize
how distant events affect the current culture. Students
learned that socioeconomic diversity involves more than
census numbers. They saw how change is interrelated:
a shift in a city’s budget, for instance, has
multiple consequences for bus routes, employment, and
police presence. They also came to see more subtle relationships,
such as how their school’s architecture was influenced
by civil unrest. The following are some key strategies
that led students toward these realizations:
Field (Trips) Work. We spent several classes
at the Western Reserve Historical Society, a museum
dedicated to showcasing Cleveland history. The staff
and professors from the university led us through the
exhibits and introduced us to the library holdings,
which provided material for students’ research
projects. Other local trips included a visit to Little
Italy, where we spoke with local business owners and
saw evidence of how the neighborhood grew to accommodate
new immigrants of various socioeconomic classes.
Understanding Disasters. We examined how the
local community responded to man-made catastrophes,
such as a significant riot, a massive explosion, and
a century-old murder case. Instead of focusing on the
gory details, we tried to understand the reasons for
the catastrophes, see who they affected, and critique
the aftermath. Students were eager to recognize the
present-day ramifications of these events.
Peer Poll Assignments. I required students
to complete weekly surveys of five to ten peers previously
unknown to them, of whom they asked a question related
to the week’s activities. Some questions focused
on general diversity issues, while others addressed
specific local concerns. As the semester unfolded, the
polls helped students gain insight about how socioeconomic
culture operated in the city and in the lives of their
Reading Outsider Critics. Course readings
allowed students to understand radically different perspectives
on topics that initially seemed mundane to them. We
read works by visiting hitchhikers, local artists, comic
book creators who used content from the city’s
history, and historians who criticized the very socioeconomic
structures students found so comfortable. Confronting
these diverse perspectives allowed students to debate
ideas they would not have encountered in their day-to-day
Oral Histories. The oral history research
project became the centerpiece of the course. Students
worked to report and contextualize local historical
events by interviewing participants whom they identified
through various businesses and organizations. This project
challenged students to expand upon skills gained during
the peer poll assignments, requiring them to organize
information around a central topic and write as-yet
unreported histories. At the end of the semester, we
collected these histories and placed them online to
provide a resource for the community and other students.
A Promising Pedagogical Experiment
As my experience shows, with a little preparation,
any instructor can use local history to teach about
class difference. In retrospect, I was pleased with
most of the course’s outcomes. Engagement with
outside historical organizations added a depth of meaning
and a breadth of material that I would have found difficult
to develop on my own. Most significantly, I learned
that in order to encourage students to engage in the
community, I had to get involved with the community
myself. Such engagement can bring both students and
teachers much closer to understanding the economic realities
of the world in which they teach and learn.
Linkon, S. L., Ed. 1999. Teaching working class.
Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.