Wednesday, October 4, 2006

"Shop Class as Soulcraft" by Matthew B. Crawford

When I was in grad school at NC State, I taught a lit-comp class organized around the theme of work. If you want to piss off a bunch of 18 year old North Carolinians, try making them see that there's a difference between "work" and getting stuff done, that work is a social construct, that there might be some other way to organize production than what we have. Make them read some Marx, assorted anarchists (esp. Bob Black's The Abolition of Work), communist utopianism (Charles Fourier), then talk about alienation of labor and how this theme might be treated in film (Slacker) and literature (or Trainspotting, whichever comes first).

Yeah, I know. I was dumb. Or starry-eyed, if you're feeling generous. I still think it's a great idea for a course, but it didn't work so great with the freshmen. They had some ideas, from family, the Bible, etc., about what work was, how it worked, why, and, most importantly, how college was going to get them a good job and sluice them ecstatically into the happily-ever-after. A ten-year follow-up might be interesting.

Anyway, through NC State, and on into teaching at VCU, I thought about these ideas and that course, and I thought about my students, how many of them were there to get a good job. And who can blame them, really? Well, in an uncharitable mood, me. I mean, all this pre-professional crap really interferes with my romantic Liberal Arts notions. And it just makes everyone miserable. So many students suffering, in a piss-poor mood, through 4-plus years of college, when they really want to be out earning money. It's insanity, I thought, when these students, who really aren't interested in the college experience, who are working two crappy jobs or racking up debt to pay to be tortured by yours truly, could be out building a career in a trade. Seriously, carpenters and plumbers and electricians make good money. There's a lot of opportunity out there. There's actually a shortage of these kinds of workers.

So Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford covers all of this and quite a lot more (like how the Arts and Craft movement was bastardized to romanticize factory work). Read it. Really good stuff. And don't hate me; hate Crawford.

Found it, by the way, on Arts and Letters Daily.


  1. Imported on behalf of: McAiiii
    More comparative teaching, though nothing so ambitious.

    In classes where it makes sense (global history, geography) I've lately taken to assigning the writing of a work "diary"--making the kids describe a particular job they've had and asking them to explain the global-historical-economic-cultural forces that created that position. And what they actually really truly for surely made. About half of them turn in something moaning about unfair bosses, but don't really get to the roots of what I want them to see.

    Just assigned a snippet of Fourier in Modern French History, and hit the Paris Commune today, though we went at it from the angle of internecine political feud rather than a reconstruction of society.

    Have been having a long, multi-person running conversation about the frustrations of collegians who have really no interest in the liberal education thingy. Learning, I believe we (bourgeoisie) call it. Especially hard on us what have to describe what peasants were doing 1600 years ago in a toasty room today with 30 pairs of drowsy eyes. (And some of us care about peasants. No, really!)

    Speaking of which, I got to sit in today on one of my colleague's classes, on the French Revolution. This is--in case you don't know--perhaps *the* most interpreted event in historiography. His version:
    a) lazy, dense, profligate king
    b) Lafayette's soldiers bring tidings of American egalitarianism
    c) Class privilege summed up: ability to hunt
    d) The poor had nothing to do with the rising, something like Marx's "sack of potatoes" only with the message that abolishing poverty is foolish because the indigent have never, ever been revolutionary

    My version was probably a lot more boring to the kids, with the impersonal forces, and enlightenment thought (not mentioned!), and taxation and whatnot. But, goddammit, the peasant revolt in the countryside (to say nothing of the urban poor who appointed themselves Paris's police force for half a decade) was what tipped the political balance.

    (Hope that's not too wretched cuz it's hard to edit in this form.)

  2. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    Apologies about the form. I should at least make the comments box bigger.

    Do the other half of your students get the point of the work diary?

    Believe me, it's no easier teaching the malcontents literature. LIterature is not useful, you see. And if I had a nickel for every time some resentful teenage boy bitched in his journal (usually prefacing the complaint with, "I know you don't read these . . . ") about how I was forcing them to look for "hidden meanings," well, I'd have a quarter or more. There's no way, they'd complain, that the author *meant* any of that---which, look, first of all, I can tell you, **yes there is!** And secondly, it doesn't matter what the "author" meant---*intentional fallacy* for the umpty-ninth time. If you've got good evidence to support a reading, it's valid. What's so hard about that? Urgh.

    Oh, and the Fourier: We read it mainly to contextualize Nathanial Hawthorne's *Blithedale Romance*, which is a thinly veiled account of his time on a socialist commune. These days I'd probably use it to contextualize that Whit Stillman movie---was it *Metropolitan*?

  3. Imported on behalf of: McI
    Ha! As I popped this open to read, a student (who last class stage-whispered 'I don't care' when I asked a question of 'm) came in and asked if I could make the class more exciting. Goddamn Shakespeare and his world-stage theory. (And have you heard about the multiple studies where actors mostly ignorant of a subject have given college lectures, and they've always scored high on the "good teacher" comments?)

    I can't believe they don't want to look for hidden meanings--I do the same thing with slightly different goals. How anyone can not want to know how the world works in general just seems to be too dim and contented.

    *Metropolitan* and Fourier?! To contextualize the parasitism of the haute bourgeoisie? Love Chris Eigeman's (sp?) characters throughout the Stillman oeuvre (sp? you gonna add spell-check anytime soon for us lazies?).

  4. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    I hadn't heard that about the actors as teachers, but it doesn't surprise me. Certainly, people prefer actors for President. They probably don't even have to be good actors. Look at Reagan.

    The protagonist in *Metropolitan* describes himself as a Fourierist, one of my favorite nerdy jokes ever.