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. 

Nat Turner Rebellion/ Coming Up

Next week we will discuss Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. For Monday the 16th please finish that text. 

Hopefully the last three weeks of class have left you with a cluster of possible avenues of future study. The slave narrative as a genre, obviously, one that branches into various directions: the prison narrative, African American autobiography, the political polemic, historical essays confronting the status of race in the United States, etc. Authors such as James Carr, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison and others can be seen as the literary executors of an estate built by the works of Douglass and Jacobs. 

Other scholarly directions might include slave revolts, the life of John Brown, the triangular trade, and sentimentalism. 

My notes from the Turner documentary include Eugene Genovese’s remark that “Revolutions have to be thorough. You spare the kids – they run off and warn your enemies. If you’re going to take that road, you’d better make up your mind to take it to the end. That is the horror of the thing. It’s all well and good to say that these killings came out of rage. I don’t doubt that to a certain extent they did, but the real horror is that even if they hadn’t, matters would have probably taken the same course. A revolution is either thorough or it’s doomed. Real revolutionaries know that, which is why they have to proceed in cold blood.” (The full transcript for the documentary is available here.)

What I like about this quote is that it crystalizes the very drastic stakes of an event such as Turner’s revolt. Most Americans would agree with the statement that chattel slavery was an abomination which was necessarily brought to and end. Yet when confronted with the bloody wages of the sort of violence required to terminate the institution how many today– in an age when virtually any political activity exceeding the quadrennial obligation of bubbling in the name of a party-approved candidate with a borrowed sharpie is branded a species of “extremism”– would offer their uncompromising support? 

Monday we’ll discuss the documentary in detail and consider the difficulties of retrieving the historical figure of Nat Turner (Nat Turner? Whose Nat Turner?) the complexity of representation in reconstructing the past, and the uses to which that past is put in order to speak to the present.

Friday the 20th will thus conclude our exploration of slavery in the US, and we’ll launch into our next unit, Work, with a week of discussion, on-line readings, and one film. I have revised the syllabus to reflect these changes.

Survey says


Thanks for taking the survey today. I’ve already looked them over and see some things I might do to make the course more effective. Here are some general remarks on what you told me:

Almost everyone noted the reluctance with which people speak in class. This was pretty much a universal theme: that nobody’s really talking and that’s kind of a drag. 

More than a few recommended the small-group strategy, though others were less enthusiastic. When you end up in a group where few or none of the other students have completed the reading assignment, someone wrote, you end up having to carry most of the weight. 

Two people admitted that they had not done any reading nor consulted the links posted in blog entries. To those anonymous students let me say that while your candor is admirable if, in the third week of the semester, you can’t be bothered to do the work then it seems unlikely you’ll do much if any of it in the months to come. You might save yourself the trouble and drop the course.

Two final remarks I feel compelled to address. 

In response to the question of how the course is going so far somebody wrote “Feels like something I took in highschool.” To which, were I overly-defensive, I might reply “And sometimes it feels like I’m teaching highschool.” But that would be unkind and almost always untrue. 

The second remark was interesting for the opportunity it gives me to speak on a theme integral to the course. One student wrote, again in answer to the question of how the course is going, “VERY LIBERAL, IGNORES ASIAN PERSPECTIVE.” There are 3 things I need to say about that.

1. I don’t identify as a political liberal (I’m guessing the student does not mean to call me an economic liberal, which is a different matter. Most so-called conservatives are economic liberals or neo-liberals, which is to say they believe in the myth of a self-regulating market which will solve all of humanity’s challenges). This is important to me because I don’t like my ideas to be misconstrued. If you need to pigeonhole me in terms of political identity then you should call me a marxist (note the lower-case ‘m’) because that is my intellectual tradition. I have friends who self-describe as revolutionary communist, anarchist, libertarian, and– in one notable case– Fourierist . And of course I know many Democrats and Republicans. As the semester passes, we’ll have a chance to investigate at least some of the incredibly variegated political history of the United States. If, at present, our political options sometimes seem to be confined to two remarkably similar choices, America’s political past is startlingly crowded with parties: Know-Nothing, Copperhead, Whig, Peace and Freedom, SWP, CPUSA, Wobbly,  Free Soil, Populist, and many others.

2. What we learn in this class will not be the product of an impossible– indeed, non-existent– purely neutral perspective. All knowledge is situated because knowledge is more than a mere aggregate of facts. Remember the distinction I made between fact and value? Knowledge incorporates values, especially in the Humanities. There’s simply no space outside of the situation we occupy from which to cast “fair and balanced” decisions. This is not to say that facts are not important. (And let me assure you my own ideological and intellectual commitments will never warp or misrepresent a fact in order to make a case.) Most thinkers would not argue for the fallacy of total objectivity because they understand that our comprehension of the world is always invested: with our personal experiences, our geographical and historical location, etc. Those who claim to be objective (note I don’t say “strive for objectivity”) are simply unwilling or unable to acknowledge that, as Howard Zinn once said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”  

3. In a few weeks we will be reading Maxine Hong Kingston‘s remarkable book China Men. For two to three weeks we will discuss Chinese-American history, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We will learn about the anti-Chinese pogroms which occurred in California in the 1870s, the effects of the Asian Exclusion Act, and think about the oddness of that all too capacious word “Asian”, a term that is supposed to describe not only Koreans but Sri Lankans, not just Phở  but naan.  We may even discover that Asia, as such, does not exist. 

Here is one hard change to the syllabus which is a result of the survey: we will not be reading Alexander Saxton’s The Great Midland. Though some students indicated the reading load was quite reasonable, others seemed a bit traumatized. By dropping this text we can focus on the others with greater attention. Instead, we will spend exactly one week on the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World, the subject of the novel). I’ll give you on-line reading assignments by this Friday, the 13th of February.

Thanks again for helping. Remember to read through chapter 13 in Jacobs’ narrative. Or, if you’re fired up, finish it.