Visual Culture of Workers’ Education

Excerpt of image from You and Your Union, 1935

Excerpt of image from You and Your Union, 1935

This week I had the opportunity to present my work-in-progress on the visual culture of workers’ education to a group of scholars at the Newberry Library.

The great thing about a deadline is that it makes you write.  And the great thing about sharing your work is that you have to actually explain yourself.  Now, it’s back to work!  The images are on my Flickr photostream.

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Did they really read Marx?

Over the weekend I attended an excellent new book panel on Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: a 19th Century Life organized by the Labor History Seminar at the Newberry Library here in Chicago.  The general thrust of Sperber’s book is to remove Marx from the role of icon, guide, or precursor to the crimes or triumphs of 20th century communist regimes.  Marx was not a prophetic thinker, Sperber argues. Rather he was mired in historically specific battles over politics and ideology in Central Europe, and backward looking intellectually.

There were some pointed criticisms of the book, especially from Bruce Levine (U. of Illinois) and Susan Pearson (Northwestern), along with general praise and comment on the achievement of grappling with such a complex subject.  Pearson calmly skewered Sperber for relegating the role Jenny Marx and the Marx’s housekeeper Helene Demuth to a chapter on the “private Marx” when in fact it appears they were key to the social reproduction of the fetishized and very public commodity “Karl Marx,” to paraphrase from memory.

Another interesting line of discussion concerned why and how Marx became such a singular figure for socialist movements when relatively little of his writing was known outside of Germany in his lifetime, and when his economic writing was so notoriously difficult to understand.  Sperber’s answer was that Marxism should in fact be termed “Engels-ism” because it was the work of Marx’s literary executor Friedrich Engels that made Marx famous on the left.

Less commented upon was the vernacular radicalism that developed alongside Marx’s writing and reputation, and was much more influential at least into the 1930s.  In this regard, there is a fascinating passage from Floyd Dell’s “Books and Writers” column (The Progressive Woman (September 1912), p. 11).  It suggests a time when Marx was not quite so hegemonic.

“Das Kapital” is sometimes spoken of as “the Socialist’s Bible.”  It is not, for two reasons.  The first is that, even Socialists do not read it.  In this they are not without justification, for the book is, in its strictly economic parts, to any ordinary human being, unreadable.  Why any one except a mathematician should bother about those amazing equations of Marx’s I do not see, nor do I see why any one should imagine that in explicating the Socialist “theory of value” these equations have any more than a suggestive validity.  Value, like everything else, is too complex to be reduced to an equation, and there is as much truth in the soap-box phrase, “Labor is the source of all value,” as in the maddening mathematics of Marx.  The fact is, the Socialist movement is not based soley on Marxian economics, and though Marxian economics may fall, yet the Socialist movement goes on.  There is good history and good historical philosophy in the volume which make it well worth reading.  But we Socialists (as I said) do not read it.

It was Walt Whitman, Dell suggested, who had written the Socialist Bible in his “Leaves of Grass.”  Commenting on his own youthful participation in Marxist study groups, Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian of 20th century labor and capitalism, recalled his struggle to understand Marx’s “labor theory of value” and ultimate conclusion that it just didn’t make sense economically.  But morally and ethically it made a lot of sense.  Sperber’s book argues that Marx just couldn’t make the shift to positivism in the late 19th century–maybe he shouldn’t have tried?

The idea of vernacular radicalism put me in mind of the frequent question in my own research:  did early 20th century rank-and-file radicals really read any Marx?  And if they read it, could they possibly understand the complexity of Marx’s economic writing, which is famously tough reading for professional intellectuals to this day.  The question, I think is actually part of a broader skepticism about the reading practices of ordinary people–then and today.  Sure they could read, but did they really read?  Or did they just pass their eyes over the text without really getting the point.  Did they–and do they–get it?

Dell was an exceptional working-class intellectual by any measure.  But his educational background wasn’t that far off the norm for working class activists.  The son of a butcher and a teacher, he grew up on Illinois and Iowa, and left school after 2 years of high school.  He told the American Labor Who’s Who (1925) that the “most important part of [my] education [was] gained in [a] Socialist local and [the] pubic library.”  There is, in fact, evidence in diaries, letters, and publications that more-or-less ordinary working people did read and understand high brow literature and social science.  Some would fall into the category of “extraordinary ordinary people”–rank and file workers who were, I’m quite sure, smarter and better read than many professional intellectuals then or now.  In any case, it’s also worth exploring the opposite side of the question:  the non-reading of books, and whether this non-reading has any positive significance.  In other words, what impact did books and text have on those who didn’t read them very thoroughly but who circulated in a public sphere suffused with conversations about books and text?  That will have to wait for another day.

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Transfixed by Distant Power

Excerpt of image from You and Your Union, 1935

Excerpt of image from You and Your Union, 1935

Workers gazing upward and into the distance was a key motif of sight in the art and photography of self-education. In this post, I follow this gaze to see what lies in the distance. Later I will move on to other common modes of looking: staring intently at books (i.e., reading) and staring out at the viewer while holding books.  I’ll have more to say about each of these in the future (likely in more formal venues), but for now I am simply “#writing in public”…

The enticement, fatalism, and police repression that the rank-and-file Wobbly Van Dilman drew in his cartoon “And the First Great Step is Education” personified the forces standing between working-class self-educators and their lofty goals. These were very much present dangers, as opposed to the memory of child labor depicted in John Anderson’s “Out of the Darkness.” Anderson, after all, was a success story; with barely any schooling he rose to the rank of Vice President in one of North America’s larger trade unions. Dilman was still looking and climbing up.

International Socialist Review, February 1916Still, the “workers college” that Anderson’s drawing suggested as the place of enlightenment was somewhere out of sight. Other images suggested more definite objects of attention, sometimes the sun or a star, sometimes a union logo, and sometimes across great distances to symbols of political and intellectual power. Distance and attention signaled desire, or at least they advertised the things viewers ought to desire in the artist’s opinion. For instance, the cover of the February 1916 International Socialist Review (drawn by Stanford Chumley) pictured a workman sitting down to his lunch amidst factory buildings and power lines that open onto a view of a distant capital building. In the language of the Second International, workers want political power, and they can get it through the Socialist Party. Job Doubtful?  Try StudyRecruiting posters for the Workers Summer Schools at Bryn Mawr and the University of Wisconsin played with similar imagery. In one, a women looks up from her sewing machines and busy work-mates to a cathedral-like university building atop a hill. Another (“Job Doubtful? Try Study”) reverses the view. A male figure dressed in a suit (presumably the worker addressed by the poster’s text) looks out upon an industrial landscape from beneath a archway that suggests a university building.  Each of these seems to play off the idea that knowledge and power occupy high ground that allows for a clearer view than possible in the cluttered and crowded working-class neighborhoods.

Like the temple on a hill, the rising sun is an old symbols that artists and illustrators have deployed to represent everything from national power to religious conversion, working-class revolution and superior consumer products. By the 1920s the visual language of advertising, especially in mass market periodicals and product labeling, was accessible to people across the industrializing world, and we can see some of this in labor movement iconography.  In fact, some IWW cartoonists of the 1930s parodied product advertising, but that’s for a later discussion.

Knowledge is PowerInstead, let’s look at two very different examples of the rising sun image, one symbolizing collective power and the other private escape. The title page of  the 1935 ILGWU Education Department pamphlet “You and Your Union” (detail to the left) shows two women and two men looking up from their sewing machines and irons to a female figure. She holds aloft in one hand the logo of the union (radiating shafts of light), and points to the words “Knowledge is Power” at the center of the image. Under her arm she holds a set of books. The message here, I think, was not simply that the union, or education, was something workers desired. There is also a sense of the distance between workers and their goal, and the relative clarity of the object they gaze toward. You and Your Union CoverBut this image begs my original question: what does powerful knowledge look like? We get a better sense from the pamphlet’s cover. Here the “Knowledge is Power” image sits atop a rising sun, and out of the sun well-dressed working women and men stride forcefully toward the reader. A pile of books, some open to text and images, lies between the viewer (a rank-and-file union member) and the powerful ranks of labor.  The composite illustration links the individual and the shop group to the overall collective force of the union.  It suggests both that reading is a crucial instrument of collective power, and that collective power makes books accessible as desired consumer products.

Vacation DreamingBooks, as Nan Enstad argues in her study of women garment workers (Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure), symbolized and embodied leisure time and an imagined “good life”—time beyond the power of the factory clock and the rhythm of the machine.  That is why the marching workers in on the cover of “You and Your Union” are so well dressed–they are not going to work.  They are going out on the town. But if books symbolized leisure, nothing could symbolize free time more effectively than a book held, but unread.  What a luxury it was to have time to doze off over a good book!  This was the message of a cartoon accompanying a 1912 short story, “The Tired Girl’s Dream.” In the story, a young woman sits alone in her tiny apartment dreading the coming workday.  She is, by today’s standards, depressed because she simply moves between unrewarding work and her lonely apartment.  She imagines herself sitting in the country, back up against a tree, a book open on her lap. But instead of reading, she gazes off into the distance at nothing in particular.

Next up: didactic, heroic, and assertive modes of looking.

* * *

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Iconography: From a Rank-and-File Wobbly

Continuing with my series on the iconography and visual culture of workers’ education, I turn now to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) monthly journal, Industrial Pioneer.  The journal was the successor to One Big Union Monthly, and was published from 1921-1926. The Industrial Pioneer had little in the way of news (this was handled by the union’s weekly press in English and a number of other languages).  It’s pages were filled with educational articles, commentary on contemporary culture and politics, book reviews, and original cartoons, plays, short stories, and poems.  This “educational matter” and “proletarian art,” the editor announced in the first issue would “spread the doctrines of Revolutionary Industrial Unionism.” Reflecting its participatory approach to organizing, IWW newspapers and magazines routinely published member-created reports from the field, and carried over the member-generated cartoons, songs and fiction.  As Franklin Rosemont notes in his “A Short Treatise on Wobbly Cartoons,” in the 1988 edition of Joyce Kornbluh’s Rebel Voices collection, not all all of the IWW’s cartoonists were amateurs.  Well-known leftist cartoonists like Art Young and Robert Minor at times drew for the Wobblies, and apparently a few professional illustrators working in “the capitalist press” donated their work under pen-names. But the identity of one “Van Dilman” remains a mystery.  He appears to have been a rank-and-file reader of the Industrial Pioneer who submitted his work in support of the cause.

And the First Great Step is EducationLike Kennedy’s “Upward and Into the Light,” Van Dilman’s cartoon (dated 1925 and published in 1926) features an allegorical female figure and the directional metaphor of climbing. For both, education is a path toward freedom, however, Dilman’s cartoon places Lady Liberty atop a pedestal and distant from the shirtless, male figure grasping the educational step and calling out “Let’s get up fellow workers.” Education is just “the first great step” followed by Organization and Emancipation (the three-part motto of the IWW). Why education is such a big step is evident from the other figures in the foreground. On the right, a female figure, with bare midriff and feet, taunts the rebel worker saying “Above lies illusion. Joys of the flesh are close to the ground.” On the far left of the image, a male figure with arms akimbo and hat pulled over his face asks, “Why don’t the damn fool be satisfied with what he has? He knows the law won’t let him climb!” In the middle foreground a policeman with a billy club, a soldier with rifle, and a hooded Klansman with pistol drawn advance on the would be working class intellectual.

Darker and less hopeful than most cartoons about education, Dilman’s drawing was accompanied by explanatory text that seems at odds with its visual message.

Living in the midst of the disgusting debaucheries of the capitalistic hogs who wallow in the products of modern industry, and continually menaced by the persecutions of their filthy gunmen, thugs, and murderers, the working class is still on the whole, untainted and uncowed. It continually strives towards the three things the I.W.W. takes as its motto: Education, Organization, Emancipation.” It not only tries in individual cases to mount this staircase toward the stars, but it is socially minded, and each member calls on his fellow to rise along with him.

Despite these protestations, the working class presented by the cartoon seems quite at war with itself, and subject to doubts about all three of the great steps. As rank-and-file Wobblies would have known, these temptations and doubts were very real. Just as the beast “Hunger” in Kennedy’s drawing suggests his personal experience as a child laborer, Dilman likely knew what he was drawing. The first challenges facing self-taught working people would have been close at hand—neighbors, friends and family doubtful that education would do any good, and the temptations of the “joys of the flesh” only a paycheck away. Notably absent from the image are those who might reach down to help the worker up, either real or allegorical. Although the fact that the artist sent this image to the editors of the Industrial Pioneer suggests he looked to the magazine for education and inspiration, in the image no one is leading the way. If anything, Dilman’s drawing suggests that 1925 was a lonely year to be a Wobbly autodidact.

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Upward and Into the Light

So, if you read the last post, you know I’m blogging my way through a rough draft of a chapter on the visual culture/iconography of working class self-education.  As with most popular political cartooning, those of labor and the left were usually simple (often simplistic), direct and frequently over-the-top. I wouldn’t be the first to note the strongly masculinist messaging of many cartoons, or to suggest that we can read into these images the ideology of the movement, warts and all. The scholars that have influenced my thinking most on the topic are Liz Faue (great chapter on labor cartooning in 1930s Minneapolis that drew women out of the movement), Roland Marchand’s work on advertising and corporate public relations (particularly the chapter in Creating the Corporate Soul on the PR response to industrial unionism in the 1930s), and Barbara Melosh’s beautiful book on New Deal art and theater, Engendering Culture.

In the Hands of the EnemyLet’s start with some straight-forward visual vocabulary of education and ignorance:  upward and into the light.  Like a lot of conversations about personal and social transformation, the imagery of workers’ self-education used simple darkness/light and down/up oppositions to give their images direction and meaning. The iconography of working class self-education often juxtaposed images of clean, upright and modern self-educators with various negative counterparts signifying ignorance, vice, or exploitation. Like this image of “Ignorance” as an ape clasping the “average voter” under its arm by the Socialist editor Barnet Braverman, left wing cartoonist often focused on the negative: ignorance and powerlessness. When positive enlightenment does appear, it is frequently in the allegorical female figure, guiding workers upward or shining a light in the darkness.

In John F. Anderson’s “Out of the Darkness—Into the Light” we get both bestial ignorance and the goddess of learning. The two-panel full-page cartoon appeared in Labor Age in 1924. In the first panel, a caveman-like figure with “HUNGER” on his belly and a club labeled “WORK” pulls a young boy away from an idyllic country schoolhouse. In the second panel the boy, now an adult wearing workers’ overalls, walks hand-in-hand on the way to a “Workers’ College” with a female figure wearing a sash labeled “Workers Education Bureau of America” and holding aloft a torch lighting the words “Knowledge with Make You Free.” Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1878, Anderson’s family migrated to the western U.S. when he was about 10 years old and he went to work shortly afterwards attending grammar school for less than a year while he worked. He apprenticed as a machinist, and worked in railroading around St. Louis where he became active in the International Association of Machinists (IAM). He rose to be a Vice President of the IAM and even contested the presidency, but lost.

Out of the Darkness--Into the Light

In “Out of the Darkness,” Anderson was likely commenting on his own childhood. He also put into pictures a message that was familiar to those in the workers education movement in part because so many had also been child workers. As a member of the New York Central Labor College put it in 1926, “The failure of our economic and political system to function socially has forced thousands of children into industry too early, thus depriving them of their educational heritage with great loss to industry and the state, and to the children themselves. This loss has been felt most keenly by those whose minds have not been crushed by our autocratic educational or industrial system or by both. Hence the constant striving of these adults for education which will enable them to function more effectively as workers and as citizens and to enjoy the cultural values of life.” But the “Workers College” imagined in the cartoon was somewhere in the future, enlightenment was a process with a definite, but as yet unrealized, destination. The child and the adult in the cartoon seem to be on the same road, but heading in opposite directions. What’s more, the cartoon suggests that the road toward workers’ education re-balances male worker toward heterosexuality (albeit with an mythological woman). Many associated child labor with sexual danger and deviance during the Progressive Era, and I think it not unreasonable to read HUNGER in the cartoon as the potential for sexual violence, as well as a symbol of evolutionary backwardness and carnality. In the context of the Progressive Era conversation about evolutionary backwardness, the “racial” characteristics of living peoples (which at the time encompassed what we would call ethnicity and race) were almost always intertwined with the presumed long-term changes in society we call modernity. So “Hunger” and “Ignorance” in these cartoons can be seen in racial terms, although it would be interesting to see if either Braverman or Anderson have any statements directly on the topic.

Next up: an IWW cartoon, “And the First Great Step is Education.”

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Iconography of Workers Education

Knowledge is PowerOne of my writing tasks this year is to draft a chapter on the iconography of the workers education movement. The basic questions are these: if everyone agreed with the aphorism that “Knowledge is Power,” what did powerful knowledge look like?  How did students and educators describe this knowledge, and how were their visual practices related (if at all) to the organizational forms emerging in the first half of the 20th century?

American Negro Labor CongressIn the age of industry it was relatively easy to imagine power as a dynamo, a locomotive, a factory, tank or gun. But these tools of human activity don’t in themselves obtain knowledge. Likewise in an era of machismo, power was frequently embodied as a muscular manly man.   The stock image of a man with brains was that of the weakling, bespectacled intellectual.  How then to depict intelligent, powerful working women?  Or coal miners and loggers with extensive personal libraries and literary ambitions?  Did craft knowledge and book knowledge look the same? Did knowledge–as depicted in cartoons, drawings and photographs–have race and gender? Could knowledge visually overpower the social prejudice that associated mental acuity with the middle and upper classes, and the daily performance of manual labor with lack of intelligence?

unorganized brain workerThese questions matter because, as the philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “Ideas always come in history wrapped up in certain practices, even if these are only discursive practices.”  Patterns of image-making, I think, help us place the meaning of learning outside of the texts and lectures that were, if we can believe many labor educators, insufficient modes of communication for their working class students.   To be sure, I am privileging sight over other senses.  One can hear liberation in the songs of the freedmen and freedwomen, for instance.  But because seeing and visualizing is itself a technology of power, it makes sense to ponder visual production as a key practice of working class self-education.

I’ve collecting images as I’ve read through periodicals and ephemera over the last few years, and generally archive them on my Flickr account. I’m primarily focusing on popular education as it emerged in the pre-World War I socialist and labor movements, and as it developed in what was known as “workers education” between the two World Wars.  As such, most of my images come from primarily from radical and labor union periodicals.  I’m somewhat less interested in mainstream media images, except when they specifically comment on workers education, radicalism, and the perceived mental states of working people–for instance in the case of the “Robot.”

Look for posts in coming days about particular visual motifs, and let me know whether I’m making any sense.

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Working Paper: UC Workers Education, 1921-62

horizontal and vertical unions

Illustration of AFL and CIO unionism by a California worker-student, c. 1937.

At the end of World War II California created a new academic institution devoted to the study and influence of industrial relations. Along with similar initiatives in at least five other industrial states, the University of California’s Institute of Industrial Relations (IIR) aimed to bring academic balance to the rancorous hand-to-hand combat typical of labor relations in the 1930s and 1940s. In the folklore of the university, this was uncharted territory upon which the visionary scholar Clark Kerr would make his name. The future Berkeley Chancellor and university president later recalled that the IIR was the brainchild of liberal Republican governor Earl Warren. Kerr told an interviewer that as he took over the IIR he tried in vain to learn whether the university “ever had any contact with the trade union movement at all,” but could find only one person who had tried and given up the effort amidst Labor’s factional split of the 1930s. “We came in as the very first effort of this big university to make contact with the trade unions,” Kerr recalled. “It was Earl Warren’s way of saying that the unions were recognized as an important part of California society.”

In fact, by 1945 the University of California had participated for more than 20 years in outreach to labor unions and working people. But these earlier programs differed from the IIR in their outlook toward unions and employers, and their status within the university. “Workers’ education,” as it was known in the years before World War II, was a wide-ranging movement that included trade unionists, political radicals, and middle class reformers. Taking place largely outside the mainstream university system, workers’ education served as training ground for the generation of activists that brought the labor movement into political power during the 1940s. Until the spectacular growth of unions during World War II, University of California administrators were uniformly wary, and often hostile to workers’ education as a university enterprise. A small program of the University Extension during the 1920s, workers’ education became an issue for administrators during the turbulent Depression years when worker-students gathered for summer institutes and turned to discussions of the epic strikes taking place around them. Conservative business leaders denounced the program, and the UC kept its distance. As university president Robert Sproul wrote to an angry businessman, the workers’ education program had “no organic connection with the University.” Despite his stern denial, by the early 1940s Sproul was himself leading efforts within the UC to create organic connections to labor, this time on terms the university could better understand and control.

This essay traces the development of University of California workers’ education programming, with an emphasis on the Pacific Coast School for Workers and its rocky relationship with university administrators. I then examine the University of California’s response to legislative efforts to fund worker education and industrial relations programs, and the ultimate development of the Institute for Industrial Relations. I conclude with some thoughts about implications of this history for present-day labor programming within the university, and for the labor movement. Outreach to organized workers, and efforts to bring working class students into the university, reflected a contest over knowledge about work, unions, and political economy. With the development of Industrial Relations programs, American universities positioned themselves as neutral arbiters able to stand above the dirty work of industrial conflict. But the university purchased this neutrality by foreclosing a deeper connection to workers-as-students and students-as-workers. For administrators, it was an easy choice. “Industrial Relations” sanctioned legitimate university interactions with unions and managers separate from the core liberal arts curriculum and the on-campus community. In the postwar expansion of higher education, working class youth would encounter the university as students rather than workers. But the development of Industrial Relations was also a boon to labor educators who gained new legitimacy and funding stability. In the years after 1945, outreach programs to labor expanded significantly, particularly at UCLA.

Read the whole paper at the UCLA IRLE Working Papers Series.

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From the Archive: “a spirit of hostility toward organized labor”

Part of a resolution of the Illinois Federation of Labor, 1942

Part of a resolution of the Illinois Federation of Labor, 1942

I spent the last week doing research in the University of Illinois archives. Kind of what you’d expect: memos, reports in triplicate, lots of form letters. I’m looking into the ways faculty and administrators reacted to demands by organized workers that universities be more responsive to the needs of industrial workers and unions during the 1920s and 1930s. Recently, I posted a working paper on the University of California’s worker education and industrial relations programs, and this week’s research is follow up and comparison work.

Like several other states, Illinois established an industrial relations program at the end of World War II–the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations (ILIR, now the School of Labor and Employment Relations). Also, like other states the original drive for the program came from unions: in 1942, delegates at the Illinois State Federation of Labor convention passed a resolution (put forward by a group of milk truck drivers, link) that “a department be set up in the University of Illinois with properly qualified labor economists and analysts to advise and supply information which will assist the workers in their many complex problems.” As was the case in California, labor-backed Democrats and Republicans were willing–even eager–to direct large sums of money to the university in support of these programs. University officials set their sights much lower and some actively sabotaged the efforts.

By 1945, about two years after the initial discussions between unions and university administrators, the unions and their legislative allies were ready to move ahead.

State legislature to UI admin: here’s $400,000 (about $5 million today)

UI admin to State legislature: well, we really only need $25,000

State legislature: take $125,000 and get back to work.

This was basically the same conversation California had in 1939 when state-level New Dealers advanced a bill for a Labor Extension on par with the Ag. Extension. What ultimately resulted from these efforts was really not what the unions had in mind. Rather than a Labor Extension, they got Industrial Relations with labor on the side.

There were, of course, complicated reasons for this. But the primary reason had to do with how university people envisioned objectivity and knowledge vis a vis working people. There was always a much more uphill battle to get pro-labor views within the university than pro-business. For instance, in a 1943 letter Economics professor Horace Gray explains to the Provost why there is no existing program in labor economics, recounting how a series of labor economists were so poorly treated that graduate advisors in prominent economics departments warned their students not to take job offers from the UI. Later the chair of Economics attempted to hire to teach labor union courses “a man who by his writings and utterances is clearly a Fascist–a ‘business administration’ expert who for large retainers serves the interests of certain anti-union employers in Chicago.” And when they finally did hire a labor economists, the junior scholar was told that renewal of his two-year appointment “would depend on his refraining from any association with labor leaders and from participation in the activities of labor unions. He was also warned that in his teaching he was expected to be ‘objective’ and to refrain from expressing any sympathy with organized labor.” Gray concluded that, despite leadership turnover in the department, “There will still remain in the College, both among members of the staff and administrative heads, a lack of sympathy and a spirit of hostility toward organized labor.”

Seventy years on things have changed. But not that much. In either state.

Full disclosure: I was faculty at the Labor Education Program at the UI ILIR for a few years. There are some fine labor folks there.

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Across the Continent, Again

It has been years since I’ve traveled the great expanse of North America by car.  Normally, we fly from Los Angeles to Chicago and then drive around the Midwest.  But this year we are driving, and it’s great fun to see the local sights, billboards, bumper stickers, diners, and all the confusing Americana that we normally miss.

Here’s something we saw in the historic Haymarket district of Lincoln, Nebraska.
"Iron Horse Legacy," Lincoln, NE 2013
At one end of a public space in an area of old factories and warehouses turned into restaurants, condos and (a really good) bookstore is this brick mural. It’s both interesting as intricate brick work, and extremely ideological. It put me in mind of the Currier and Ives lithograph “Across the Continent.” But instead of looking out into a suggested, but incomplete future, this one looks back on a sanitized past. Perfect history for a contemporary commercial zone. The old Haymarket and train station were places in which real distribution took place. It was a market both in the sense of money exchange and in the sense of stuff and people moving about. Now, like every other rehabbed urban nightlife district, the only exchange is money for things immediately consumed on the spot (food and beer, mostly). So the mural has just the faintest suggestion that the train is going to displace the buffalo–no suggestion that the people on the train are coming to shoot the buffalo. And of course, no Native Americans at all. The 19th century was more honest about its imperialism.
Across the Continent

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Back to Bughouse Square

Dill Pickle Lending LibraryAfter years of neglect, I do believe this blog is going to see a bit more action in the coming year.  I’ll be relocating to my old stomping grounds around Washington Square Park in Chicago, and I couldn’t be happier.  For the 2013-14 academic year I will be the Lloyd Lewis Fellow in American History at the Newberry Library, working on my book “Working Knowledge: Learning Power in the Open Shop Era.”

So look for increased activity here, especially as I transit the continent with the family (and the cat), and reacquaint myself with old friends and favorite places.

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The Governor’s Thinking Has Become Very Uptight

Originally posted on Rethinking the University.

Mulling over Jerry Brown’s recent comments on the disruptive impact of digital technology on education, I’m reminded of the lead character in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski. Another spokesman for the California Dream, The Dude lumbers through a mystifying course of events that seem to be related, but are not. At one point he thinks he’s figured it all out and quips, “My thinking had become very uptight.”

Yes, Governor Brown’s thinking has become very uptight, myopic, and apparently funneled through the tiny screen of his iPhone. When he thinks about the digital revolution in education, he sees only online courses. When he reads an old out of print book on his iPhone, he sees Only Google Books and not the library that contributed the book. When he Googles “university education online” he just reads the hits, and doesn’t see the educational infrastructure that trained the computer scientists who wrote algorithms and designed his iPhone.

Fact is, the University of California is plenty familiar with the creative destruction of digital technology, even if UC Online, the darling of our administrators, is apparently a failure. Setting aside the huge impact of digital technology on research and scholarly communication (digitization of sources, data mining, online publishing, etc.), and looking only at undergraduate teaching, our practice is thoroughly hybrid. Our courses use digitized readings, online discussion forums, e-mail, and other interactive, distance education tools.

What more do Coursera and Udacity offer? Without diminishing the potential of these platforms, it seems their courses are mainly recorded lectures. Even the best lecture video is just a rehash of a technology that’s been around for a while. There are distinctions. Technical courses (computer science, for instance) seem to be well suited to the digital platform. History courses, on the other hand, are mostly lectures. As cool as it is to watch a pre-eminent scholar in my field, recorded lectures delivered online are not too different from audio books, which is to say, marketable but not revolutionary.

What the massive online open courses (MOOCs) have going for them is reach, and the illusion of cost-free communication. The governor, it seems, has caught MOOC Fever. The fever-dream of one course enrolling tens of thousands of students is hard to shake, even in the face of the huge drop-out rates that always dog these courses. It may be that you can have a single course with 10,000 students. But they cannot be students in a meaningful way without expensive educational infrastructure.

The truly disruptive potential of digital technology in education waits beyond the paradigm of the “course.” Courses are administrative units, rather than educational measures. Digital platforms, while they clearly can deliver courses, are most effective when communicating granular elements of education—sources, problems, and skill-based activities. For instance, what if we reimagined “prerequisites” and even some elements of “general education” as sets of skills rather than courses? Digital media could deliver and evaluate students’ mastery of these skill sets, leaving professors to work with students on writing, communication, and complex research problems.

A system like this could operate as a supplement to face-to-face courses. It would allow students to catch up quickly when they fall behind, to change majors without fear of adding another year to the course of study. Professors teaching face-to-face classes who find a student is unprepared for course work could direct the student to these online platforms to strengthen his or her basic skills.

Imagine if this system were created and administered by a consortium of faculty, in collaboration with high school teachers and counselors—perhaps completely outside of the traditional administrative structures of higher education.

Of course, all of this is speculative, even dreamy. And it presupposes a commitment to public higher education on the part of the state and federal governments. The point is that we can imagine a future of education that uses digital technologies to serve educational purposes, rather than one in which education is crammed into ready made online boxes. But to do this we have to think more about knowledge and human development and less about administration and market-making.

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Jerry Brown, Vanguard of the Digital Revolution (He Googled It)

Originally posted on Remaking the University.

At the last Regents meeting, Governor Brown mounted the digital barricades and sent a shot across the bow of every University of California professor and administrator. Tossing a mixed green salad of metaphors about technology, education, capitalism, and revolution, he warned us to embrace online education or go the way of the Post Office and the daily newspaper. Fossilized. Downsized. Out of business. Also, we need to “fix this” in the next two years, and don’t expect any money from Prop. 30.

Helpfully, he’s planning to recruit business and technology advocates of online education to make an hour-long presentation to the next Regents meeting (and maybe faculty will be able to reply). Thanks Governor!

Listening to this eight-minute clip from the Regents meeting, I was struck by the reality that UC faculty should not count on our administrators to defend our interests, or those of students.

Brown steamrolled Yudof’s meek appeal that we’ve already cut too much, and launched into an off-the cuff rant with a fairly clear message: change or die. He portrayed the UC as a lumbering giant mired in tradition, choking on its own “excellence,” and sorely in need of radical transformation. All of these I can agree with. Unfortunately, Brown thinks Silicon Valley will be our savior.

Brown began with backhanded praise for the UC’s institutional conservatism, and quickly moved on to harsh business realities.

I appreciate the university and the durability of its ways. I won’t call them ‘folkways,’ but it’s a powerful tradition and I, and half of me very much likes tradition…. [But] just while people were talking I went to my iPhone and I went to Google and I typed in ‘university education online’ and there’s a lot there and we don’t have to wait until January, or February, or March. We can have it right now. So that’s the world we live in…. The newspaper, the Post Office, the university. We can build the most fabulous buildings, we can have the teachers, professors, all this kind of stuff. But if other people come along and offer the same, or better, when they want it, you’re going to find there’s pressure out there.

Warmed up, he suggested the educational emperor is not wearing any clothes…

We invoke the terms ‘quality’ and ‘excellence’, but those are highly abstract terms that provide no particular guidance to what we’re talking about here. So I think we have to get grounded here. So: What takes place in a classroom? Are there other, equally fine alternatives that are so much more available? I believe that to be the case.

…then he rose to a crescendo with the triple threat: Schumpeter, McCarthyism, and Angela Davis:

… What we’re talking about here is disruption. Make no mistake about it. That’s what everyone loves to celebrate about capitalism, the creative destruction of the capitalist model. Okay, so we’re going to have to have some disruption here. So I would propose that we invite some of the individuals who are pushing this technology. Not that we have to agree with them, but the university is a place where you can accept ideas whether you like them or not. This is not the time when the Regents used to censure someone for being a little bit too ‘red.’ This won’t be as threatening, or maybe it will be more threatening, than having Angela Davis teach on the campus.

That’s a lot to chew on, and a lot to spit out. In any case, our problem is not mixed metaphors; it’s the coherent message. And the message is this: get your butts in gear, put your courses online, and don’t expect a raise. If not, kiss your sweet sinecure goodbye.

Is Jerry Brown a bolshevist for the digital revolution? Or is he trying out for the part of west coast Rahm Emmanuel? We’ll find out at the next Regents meeting, January 15-17 at UCSF.

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