Monthly Archives: February 2009


I’ve looked over your theses and feel compelled to make a few general remarks about writing your papers. 

1. A thesis should be specific. Something along the lines of “Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’ narratives were similar yet somewhat different” is not a thesis. 

2. “However” is not a conjunctive. However it may be used to begin a sentence.

3. Define your terms. “Freedom,” for instance,  is notoriously vague as a concept. 

4. Aim high. An intellectually ambitious essay that stumbles is preferable to one that adopts a staid, predictable approach.

5. Be sure of your diction. Always look up terms about which you have even the slightest doubt.

6. Bibliographies, working or otherwise, should contain all relevant publishing information including place, company and date.

7. Research.

8. Slavery is not a “lifestyle”. In fact, “lifestyle” is a marketing term, one of the most debased forms of language.  Let’s retire it for the duration of the semester.

9. Avoid false starts. Some examples include:

a. “Since the dawn of time people have….”

b. “Webster’s dictionary defines….”

c. “What is…?”

d. “Quoted material” (i.e. begin with your own voice)

10. Revise. Better yet, take your paper to LAC:

Here is SFSU library’s links page for MLA format:

Quiz Results/ IWW

For those of you who couldn’t make it to class: we took a quiz. 

HUM 225: Quiz

1. IWW stands for_____________.

2. According to the preamble to the IWW constitution what is “historic mission of the working class”?

3. By what method did the IWW propose to complete that “historic mission”?

4. Who of the following was/were NOT Wobblies?

a. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

b. Joe Hill

c. Clara Lemlich

d. Frank Little

5. According to Karl Marx the history of the world is the history of____________.


Curiously, the 9.10 class (225-05) had some difficulties grading the quiz. I corrected the grades and came up with the following range of scores:

score                   number of quizzes

0/5                      4

1/5                       6

1.5/5                   2

2/5                      10

2.5/5                   2

3/5                       3

3.5/5                   2

4/5                       0

4.5/5                   1

5/5                      0

Not so good. 

The 12.10 class (225-06) fared slightly better:

0/5                      1

1/5                       4

1.5/5                   5

2/5                      12

2.5/5                  4

3/5                       2

3.5/5                   4

4/5                       1

4.5/5                   1

5/5                      3

If we treated this as a straight grade on a ten point scale, then 6 people in section 05 and 11 people in section 06 would have passed the quiz.

Next week we will continue with our study of the IWW and the radical labor movement. Monday and Wednesday we will discuss all of the readings for the Work unit to date, including an article by Jack Reed on the Paterson Silk Strike. In addition, look through the following two websites for dates, names, images, etc.

Friday March 6 we will screen a documentary to inaugurate our study of Asian American history and culture. I have altered the syllabus on the VIAL page to reflect these changes. Any questions? Direct them to this post.

Each According


From anecdotal experience I can tell you that most folks– if they know anything about Marx– are familiar with the phrase “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” An impossible scenario, they’ll aver. Just the kind of dewy-eyed nonsense commies are prone to spout as they quietly undermine all that is wholesome and good. Yet it’s interesting to consider where that slogan actually occurs: in a work called Critique of the Gotha Program. Let’s look at the context:

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

It’s clear from the passage quoted above that the notion of “each according” would only be possible after some massive, fundamental transformation of society– what Marx calls “a higher phase”– one that includes a profound change in the social character of labor from soul-killing drudgery to a form of human fulfillment. “Each according” requires a certain level of development not only economically but individually. New subjects (kinds of people) will have to be generated to run a new social organization, the profit-motive will need to be superseded by co-operation, our imaginative capacities will require expansion beyond “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right”, etc. Such a situation obviously couldn’t take shape overnight. 

Friday we’ll discuss the Wobblies and the Communist Manifesto. I’ll collect your theses (ahem). Looking forward to it.

A Taste


Good. We got a taste of what the socio-economic stakes were in turn-of-the-century America with Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader’s Diary. We’ll have an opportunity to discuss that film on Wednesday in addition to the readings which were assigned for today. As I made clear at the beginning of class Clara was not a member of the IWW but the ILGWU. As a woman and an immigrant she faced extraordinary challenges in rising up from both her home shtetl in Ukraine and the ghetto of the Lower East Side. You might consider, however, that this biographical documentary, like the narratives of Douglass and Jacobs, attempts to render her life as representative– and indeed that is a leitmotif of the film, as when Clara talks of her sense of the strikers forging a “collective identity” or when the film-makers take us from the garment industry of 1909 to the one of 2004. Be prepared to engage on such matters for next class. 

One additional reading for this week, though not a lengthy one at all. Print out and read the first two sections of the Communist Manifesto. That will conclude the assignment for this portion of the Work unit. Next week we begin Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men. We’ll also see a documentary from a series titled Ancestors in the Americas.

B is for breathing

The recent study at UC Irvine on “student entitlement” and “grade inflation” has been bouncing around the internet. Here are a few takes from, Scholars&Rogues and The last of these is clearly the most thoughtful because the author examines the methodology used to arrive at astonishing claims such as “A third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures”. In fact the statement which students were asked to consider was “If I have attended most classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B”– hardly the same as “just for attending lectures.” 

What’s interesting for our purposes is that here again we have a situation in which fact and value collide. Surely some people will take UC Irvine’s study as an opportunity to emphasize their own positions, many of which will be all too flat and reductive. Though I haven’t read all the responses to this study– one, we should remember, that we’d know absolutely nothing about were it not for the fact that someone in the mediascape thought it merited our attention– of those I have perused no one yet has made what seems to me to be perhaps the most obvious claim of all: students and the institutions they attend are a product of the wider social formation whose values and ideologies they both absorb and (albeit often in distorted form) reflect. In other words, if the culture at large reduces every question– personal, political, aesthetic– to the crude calculus of cost/benefit, if the very consciousness of the nation is totally structured by a kind of market logic, then is it any wonder students will respond in like fashion? 

This isn’t to let those who view college as a McDonald’s of the mind off the hook. Just to say that The University, as an institution, and certainly the society which produced it, share responsibility. 

Okay. Now here are the guidelines and prompts for your first paper:

The Guidelines

Paper #1, worth 25% of your course grade, is due 6 March at the beginning of class.  Choose one of the prompts below.  Articulate a coherent thesis—i.e., a non-trivial claim based on your analysis of the specific material referred to in the prompt—and substantiate it with well-organized, accurate, and richly detailed references to course material.

The paper must be double-spaced with normal margins.  Use a reasonable font (i.e. no courier or jumbo sized, crayola font).  The paper should be five to six (5-6) pages long, or a minimum of 1250 words.  I do not accept emailed or faxed papers. Pages numbered. Stapled. No title page. Name/course/date/title on the first page.

Note: Papers that do not follow the guidelines will NOT be accepted. No late papers barring some catastrophic, life-altering event (pulmonary embolism, earthquake, implosion of sun, etc.)

Your own thinking should constitute the core of the essay, but you are required to use outside resources to support your analysis which should be meticulously cited following MLA guidelines.  Citations of scholarly articles may be helpful, but you may not cite sources like Wikipedia, Sparknotes, and Cliff Notes; if you have questions about the appropriateness of any sources, talk to me or a university librarian.

The Prompts

1. It has been said that as a sub-genre of autobiography the American slave narrative not only narrates the life of an individual but represents the circumstances and ambitions of all enslaved African Americans. Formulate an argument based on this claim by comparing and contrasting the works of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass.

2. The subject of the first unit of this class is expressed in the phrase “getting free.” According to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs what does freedom mean? What is the relationship between the dream of freedom and its practical realities for those authors, and how do their views compare to some of the ways freedom is mobilized or discussed in contemporary American life?

3. Open Topic: write on one of the topics we’ve touched upon in class thus far such as Nat Turner (and, more generally, slave rebellions), John Brown, or minstrelsy. Be advised this is possibly the most difficult option for the first paper. Your topic will need to be approved by me.


Finally, for Friday, Feb. 27: Bring (and be prepared to discuss) a preliminary thesis for your paper and a working bibliography to class.