Working Class Literature?

By Don McIntosh

What is the working class? That’s one of the first questions students face in Working Class Literature, an English class offered once a year at Portland Community College (PCC). They spend the rest of the term answering it, while taking in and discussing a novel, a play, poetry, and a film.

Developed by now-retired PCC English instructor Rachel Stevens, Working Class Literature, ENG 237, has been taught for the last 10 years by instructor Nick Hengen Fox.

“Thinking about class has returned to a lot of young people’s minds. I rarely have students sitting at the back looking at their phones.” 
— PCC instructor Nicholas Hengen-Fox

Hengen Fox practices what he teaches. While studying for his Ph.D. at University of Minnesota, he was part of an effort to unionize graduate teaching and research faculty. The effort failed, and campus workers remain non-union, but Hengen Fox continues to support the labor movement as an active member of the faculty union American Federation of Teachers Local 2277 and co-chair of the union organizing committee. 

Working Class Literature, which starts in January, is meant to explore the experiences of working class people. Students don’t just talk about the readings but about their own experience of class.

Hengen Fox says he tries to embrace the diversity of labor and move away from the stereotype of the working class as a white man doing manual labor. Year after year, he assigns the unfinished novel Yonnondio in the class, which tells the story of an alcoholic coal miner and his family who migrate from their rural home to a city slum near a slaughterhouse. Author Tillie Olson was a radical union organizer from Omaha, Nebraska. She began writing the book in the 1930s at age 19 but didn’t publish it until 1974, after she’d written several award-winning short stories. 

Students also read Train Choir, a short story by Portland author Jon Raymond that was adapted into the 2008 film Wendy and Lucy. They watch the 2018 Boots Riley movie Sorry to Bother You, which deals with a union organizing campaign and a sinister corporate plot to make workers more obedient. And they read a Pulitzer Prize winning play called Sweat by Lynn Nottage that was first performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. Sweat takes place at a working class bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, and deals with offshoring, race, and deindustrialization. 

Over the years, Hengen Fox says, Working Class Literature has drawn heavily committed union members as well as young people who are just starting to think about the issue of class. Today he finds that young people are increasingly attuned to class issues; The latest Gallup poll shows the strongest union supporters are now people aged 18 to 34.

“Thinking about class has returned to a lot of young people’s minds,” Hengen Fox told the Labor Press. “I rarely have students sitting at the back looking at their phones.” 

Taught remotely, the class begins Jan. 10. Students can register for it starting now and up until the class begins.

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