Sherry Linkon and John Russo founded and continue to run the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio, the first multidisciplinary center in America devoted to the study of working-class culture. Linkon and Russo also collaborated on Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown (2002) and New Working-Class Studies (2005), a collection of essays on approaches to the study of working-class life and culture.
This interview took place at the Center on 22 November 2004. It was conducted by Victor Cohen, who at the time was an editorial assistant for the minnesota review and a Ph.D. student in literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. The interview was originally published in Issue 73/74 (Spring/Summer 2005) of the journal.
Cohen: How did the Center for Working Class Studies get started? Was there a conscious plan from the start, or did some set of events set things in motion?
Russo: We started out simply to get a higher profile for what we were doing. In 1995 we had been teaching courses over at the union hall, courses for people on the swing shifts, so we would offer a basic composition course that you could take in either the morning or the afternoon, and not just our courses but we did a math course, a labor history course, a philosophy course. It immediately brought fifty new students into the university. Now, that’s a lot of money. I want to be real clear on this to a university that had declining enrollment, you bring in fifty new students, that’s really important. The last time we checked, of those original fifty, I think twenty-five or thirty actually made it through a complete program of study.
But one other thing was clear people on campus started carping, snide remarks like “what are you guys doing, drinking beer down at the union hall?” So what we did the first year was take all the students’ work, put it on display at the Museum of Labor and Industry, and invite everybody in the university community and the media. Then we went back to those people and said, “Now put your students’ work on display.” There was never any question after that; we got the snotty academic thing out of the way immediately, and we had great press. So that helped start the Center.
Then word got around about what we were doing, at a time when there were museums developing around industrial history and technology. For example, the Goethe Institute invited us to Chicago to meet with museum directors from Germany in 1997-8. These museums were full of technology, but they were all depopulated; there were no people around. We tried to give a different vision, of what you lose when you erase the workers.
Cohen: Would you say your definition and use of “working class” is rooted more in your own experiences studying it, rather than adhering to a particular discipline or methodology?
Linkon: The one thing at the heart of our work, that I don’t think you can assign to any particular discipline, is the focus on the lived experience of working class people. That connects with Marxist approaches, it connects with cultural studies approaches, it connects with geography. In some ways, it’s a neutral intellectual space because all of these approaches can work through it.
Another thing is that, from the very start, we began with three basic ideas. One is the idea that working class people are at the core, even though the people doing the work in working class studies may or may not be working class. That’s the focus what is the experience, what is the perspective of working class people? Second, that the work would be interdisciplinary, that there is no boundary between the history of working class communities and the uses of space in working class communities and the stories that people tell in those communities. The best way to approach studying something as rich and diverse as working class culture is across disciplinary lines. The third was that the strength we brought to this particular center is through the humanities and the arts, because that’s who we were. John is the exception. Of the five people who started this,
four were in the humanities and the arts.
You can read more from this interview in Issue 63/64 (Spring/Summer 2005) of the minnesota review. You do not need institutional access for this issue.