Teaching About Class

Many people tell us that they want to teach more about class but say that they’re not sure how to approach the subject. Class is a complex concept, involving economic and social structures, conflictual relationships, aspects of identity, and cultural patterns. Different scholars use different definitions of class, and they use different kinds of resources and methods to study how class works. A good starting place for both faculty and students are some accessible readings and an overview chart, both created for YSU’s graduate course in Class and Culture.

Class Theory Readings

While many books and essays discuss class, I have found these to work well for my students.  They are readable, reasonably clear, and of manageable length for advanced undergraduates and graduate students at a largely working-class university.  – Sherry Linkon

Patrick Joyce, ed.  Class, Oxford University Press, 1995.

A collection of excerpts from a wide range of theoretical discussions of class, from Marx and Engels through contemporary critics.

Jack Metzgar, “Politics & the American Class Vernacular,” in New Working-Class Studies, Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo, eds.  Cornell University Press, 2006.

Connects ideas about class to recent politics and the ways that the media typically talks about class.  Provides a useful introduction to the idea of class as culture.

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society,Oxford University Press, 1976.

The section on class offers a useful overview of approaches to class, with lots of references.

Erik Olin Wright, Class Counts, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Provides a very readable overview of ideas about class structure and class formation.

Michael Zweig, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret,Cornell University Press, 2000.

Offers a clear, contemporary overview of a Marxist approach to class.

Class Theory Table
Category Class as status Class as power Class as discourse Class as culture
Sources Max Weber Karl Marx & Frederick Engels Post-structuralist theories Raymond Williams, Basil Bernstein
Focus of analysis Multiple aspects of individual life






Economic role and relationships – owners have the power and means to exploit workers in order to generate a profit; workers are compelled to sell their labor in order to survive Representations



Popular narratives & discourse

Family and neighborhood



Attitudes, values, beliefs, and experiences

View of Conflict Present but not primary – class as differentiation Inherent and central – class relations give us contrasting interests Present but not central – discourse reflects class conflicts, conflict is worked out through discourse, and discourse may limit or shape how conflict works Present but not central – much attention to conflicts based in attitudes or behaviors; conflict is acted out through behavior and affiliations
Possibility of changing one’s class Yes, through education, job changes, and changes in behavior Yes, by changing one’s position in the economic system, but this is rare Focus isn’t on what class one belongs to; more on analyzing how class is represented in the culture Partially, similar to ethnicity – people can change class position, but the culture in which one grew up influences one’s patterns of thought and behavior throughout life
How many classes are there, and how sharply are they divided? Multiple variations of upper, middle, working, and lower; some models suggest variegations between these – upper-middle, lower-working, etc. – and scholars vary in how clearly they think these categories are differentiated Three, very clearly separated: owners, workers, petit bourgeois (small business owners, professionals) Multiple with very fluid boundaries – sees class categories as defined by and through discourse, but different ideas exist about whether these categories exist before or as a result of discourse Tends to focus on working and middle class and defines their differences in terms of attitudes, behaviors, and experiences


Text Analysis Rubric

In our teaching, we use a wide range of representations — maps, photos, poems, popular songs, statistical data, and so on.  We’ve found, however, that students read these materials better if they can approach unfamiliar texts of all kinds with a common set of questions.  We also found that if we ask the same kinds of questions about different types of representations, then students can more easily recognize and analyze the connections among these texts.  To help them do this, we designed the test analysis rubric.

The rubric poses questions about why representations were created, their content and structure, how they were used, and what experiences, assumptions, biases, and knowledge we bring to them.  We’re currently writing an online textbook using this approach to critical reading to analyze the experience and meaning of work, building on our experience teaching Work in America.

We hope you’ll find the rubric useful in your own courses.  Below includes the questions plus two examples.  If you click on any of the colored icons in the examples, you’ll see our notes toward analyzing the Kenneth Patchen poem and the Michael Williamson photograph.

Category/Question Description
What is the content of the text?
Think holistically first – what does this text represent? What story does it tell? But also think in specific terms – what are the elements of this text? What pieces – symbols, images, words – does the text include? What related elements or details might have been included but are left out?
How is the text organized? 
How would you describe the order or organizing system that holds this text together? It might be chronological, large or small scale, cyclical, or random – or something else. How would you describe the relationship between the elements of the text? What connections are emphasized? From what perspective do we view whatever is represented here?
What was the intention of the creator(s) of this text?
In order to understand the intent of the text, you need to know who created it and the creator’s situation and perspective. Who were they? Was the creation of this text prompted by some specific event or problem, or was it a matter of self-expression?
How was this text used?
Here, too, you need to identify the users. Who was the original audience for the text? Why did they turn to this text – for entertainment? information? How did they make use of the text? Did they carry it with them, view it in a museum or magazine, use it as a tool for their work?
What do you bring to this text?
What memories or ideas do you have about the content or situation of this text? What information or feelings from your own experience influence the way you respond to this text? What assumptions do you bring about this kind of text and how to make sense of it?

All of this may sound rather abstract, so let’s look at a couple of illustrations.

“The Orange Bears,” a poem by Kenneth Patchen

Mike Williamson’s photograph

Class in the Classroom: Strategies and Resources

The following ideas were developed by participants in the 2006 “Class in the Classroom” Summer Institute, sponsored by the Center for Working-Class Studies with support from the Ford Foundation.

  1. Read and discuss “The Golf Links,” poem by Sarah Cleghorne
  2. Discuss bell hooks’s book, Where We Stand: Class Matters
  3. Analyze Visual and Oral Histories of Southerners
  4. Class Quiz
  5. Exploring how marketers view class in specific locations
  6. AFL-CIO Website
  7. Using newspaper articles and photographs to explore class and language
  8. Using poetry to initiate conversations about class
  9. Discuss class issues in the UN Declaration on Human Rights
  10. Analyzing class in specific situations using a social systems map
  11. Borrow lesson plans from the New York Times “Class Matters” site
  12. Films for classroom use
  13. Online Resources for Teaching About Class