At the center of all the chaos and turmoil of 2020 has been the essential worker on the front lines—from healthcare workers treating those infected with COVID-19 to service workers of all kinds who have kept us fed, supplied, and safe while putting their own safety at risk, all too often in jobs which are precarious and underpaid. Working-class life, experience, and precarity have has perhaps not been more central or important in recent memory. And that means that Working-Class Studies has never been more relevant.
Ordinarily, the Working-Class Studies Association (new window) would announce its annual awards at its conference, but this year’s conference – marking our 25th anniversary in Youngstown, Ohio – was postponed for a year because of the pandemic. But the awards won’t have to wait a year.
As past-president of the WCSA, I chaired this year’s Awards Committee. Having served as a reader for various award categories in the past, I know that historically we draw a wealth of strong submissions that reflect the range and diversity of work in this field. This year was no exception. If the work submitted for our annual awards is any indication, Working-Class Studies is in excellent shape as we wind our way into whatever the future holds.
I also know the time and care that goes into reading award submissions. Those gracious enough to offer their time and expertise for this task this year are most appreciated and have my enduring thanks.
The nominees for the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism were diverse in focus and affirmed the depth of work taking place in the field. The winner, Alison Stine’s “The Last Days of the Appalachian Poverty Tour, (new window)” garnered high praise from the judges, who called it “reflective and hard-hitting” and noted that it makes visible “some of the main characteristics of impoverished communities, without over generalizing or stereotyping.” Another judge wrote that Stine “Provides a complex analysis that includes both the oppression and pain but also the resilience and community of working/poverty-class life.”
The depth and breadth of work nominated for the C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences made for tough decisions, but the winner was Christopher R. Martin’s book No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (new window). As one judge wrote, the book “examines the shifts in journalistic trends that parallel both deindustrialization and the conservative political turn from the late 1960s onward.” It considers “the increasing preference for upscale (middle- and upper-class) readers at the expense of labor reporting and stories by and about working people.” Martin traces how conservative politicians and business elites used “the term ‘job killer’ . . . to undermine work meant to protect the social safety net, union efforts, environmental protections, and the like . . . and demonstrates that it is precisely those CEOs lauded in mass media as ‘job makers’ who are the real job killers.” Another judge praised Martin for “identif[ying] reforms that promise to restore the visibility and voice of the working class, to the benefit of the media, the working-class majority, and indeed, the country as a whole. This book deserves the widest possible audience!”
The winner of this year’s John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences was Pamela Fox’s essay “Born to Run and Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” from Popular Music and the Politics of Hope: Queer and Feminist Interventions (new window). As one judge wrote, the essay offers “Rich analysis and very useful movement between the musician autobiographies, theories of autobiography, and how the latter have to be complicated by a class analysis. Popular music narratives and experiences form a counter narrative to power, a ‘politics of hope’ in contrast to dominant narratives of class and disability, class as disability. Her suggestion of ‘reparative practices’ should be taken up in working-class studies and fleshed out.”
The submissions for this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative included short stories, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. The winner was Jodie Adams Kirshner’s Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises (new window). Judges had high praise for the book and its subject matter, describing Kirshner as “a self-appointed defense attorney for Detroit’s leftovers. Her knowledge has depth and heart.” Another judge wrote that the book is “Excellent nonfiction work on the undoing of Detroit” that “follows key players through the story with insider knowledge of the world she depicts. Rigorously researched. Important work. Exemplar we could turn to in envisioning other working-class stories of place.” A final comment highlights the book’s relevance and quality: “Without succumbing to a single point of view, Jodie Adams Kirshner brings together a wide cast of those most affected and thereby opens the case of and for Detroit and our other large cities suffering financial strain. This is a book is worth reading for its essential story as well as its eloquence of style.”
There were two winners for this year’s Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award for a Book about the Working-Class Academic Experience: Clever Girls: Autoethnographies of Class, Gender and Ethnicity (new window), edited by Jackie Goode, and Allison Hurst’s Amplified Advantage: Going to a ‘Good’ College in an Era of Inequality (new window). Of Goode’s collection of autoethnographic essays, most by British working-class women, one of the judges writes “It is a wonderfully evocative collection that really opens up the experience of class transition to the reader, positively inviting the reader to tell their own story – a wonderful use of autoethnography, and a great book for working class students and faculty alike, as well as having some appeal to a general public.” The book also garnered appreciation for its focus on female working-class subjects. Hurst’s book was praised as “particular timely in terms of the recent admissions scandals.” A second judge said: “This is a hugely important book. By looking at different types of students in the American liberal arts college tradition, it demonstrates clearly and vividly that the situation for working class students in higher education is not simply one of equal opportunities or even equal access.”
In the final award category, the Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation went to Melissa Meade for her work In the Shadow of ‘King Coal’: Memory, Media, Identity, and Culture in the Post-Industrial Pennsylvania Anthracite Region. The book “considers the intersections of race/ethnicity and gender in its examination of identity formation and also considers the ‘environmental classism’ which is a result of polluted and poisoned landscapes.” One judge commented that Meade’s project shows how working-class stories “provide the working-class subjects with agency.” Another described the work as “soundly theorized, yet poignantly human and personal. A new vantage point on an oft-studied region. The trope of the decades-long fire smoldering under this region of the country resonates powerfully in our current political environment.”
Congratulations to all the winners and to those whose work was nominated! This year’s submissions were indeed a strong collection of diverse, powerful work that bodes well for the diversity and the cultivated and consistent interdisciplinarity of Working-Class Studies.
Cherie Rankin is a professor of English at Heartland Community College in Normal, IL. She is also a published poet whose work has appeared in Labor: Studies in Working Class History, Dragon Poet Review, and Typoetry, a visual exhibit of poetry at Heartland.