Teaching guide: Using the “Work in Progress” blog for teaching sociology of work and labor studies

by Karla Erickson

I teach an undergraduate seminar entitled Work in the “New” Economy (my students call it “WITNE”). I’ve taught a version of this course since 2004. The “new” originally referred to the rise of service work in the 1990s, but the useful thing about the title is that it allows us to examine waves of transformation over time: in workers’ rights, in collective actions, in the forms of discrimination used to protect dominance, and in the distribution of opportunity.

There’s always something new in the sociology of work. And now we have a new tool to use in teaching the sociology of work, organizations and labor studies: the Work in Progress blog. The blog hosts short articles (800-1,200 words), written in accessible language, showcasing recent findings or providing news analysis and commentary on current events. The blog also hosts “virtual panels” on a variety of topics.

Blog activity 1

I ask students to look at two panels and ten blog entries during one of the first weeks of our semester. During the class period following that activity, each student has to identify three patterns in what they read about; this helps them connect to the underlying logics and dilemmas that characterize the field.

I make use of the blog early on in the course because it allows them to make concrete connections with the more abstract theories and histories of working life. Then, they have to talk with each other in pairs and make an argument for why what labor scholars know might be helpful to the average citizen. This lays the groundwork for the second activity.

Blog activity 2

In the second activity, I require a student to take the discovery that most surprised them in the course and turn it into a blog-style entry. This requires them to go back to the WIP site, study the underlying genre conventions of the site, and think about how to write with brevity for educated audiences. We workshop those blogs and they make up one of the smaller assignments on the way to finding their scholarly voice to write their longer research paper.

I find that doing these two assignments has two key outcomes: 1) it makes them feel connected to an interactive audience interested in matters they are started to be interested in and 2) it normalizes a focus on labor issues. If I do my work well in the seminar, my students are infected by a recognition of how work shapes our selves, the changing dynamics of work over time, and the significance of interactions in organizations to build, maintain, and change power, dominance, and dignity. WIP has been a key partner in that work.

Link: Karla Erickson’s Work in the “New” Economy syllabus.

Karla A. Erickson is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean at Grinnell College.

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