July 21, 2020
Terry Easton, past WCSA president
The WCSA, an international network of scholars, activists, and artists interested in working-class issues, offers lifetime achievement awards to those who have made significant, long-running contributions to the field of Working-Class Studies.
Janet Zandy’s body of work fuses the lived experience of working-class people with theoretical sophistication and commitment to democratic ideals. For over thirty years, her scholarship has provided foundational ideas and texts for the emergence of working-class studies as a field. In Calling Home: Working-Class Women’s Writing (1990), Zandy challenges canonical notions of literary value when introducing readers to the lived and imagined experiences of working-class and poor women writers. In Liberating Memory: Our Work and Our Working-Class Consciousness (1994), Zandy reveals the power of memory and identity as a usable past through voices of academic and cultural workers from working-class origins who had migrated to middle-class institutions or settings. Emerging from an expanded version of the 1995 special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly on class, What We Hold in Common: An Introduction to Working-Class Studies (2001) connects the visionary with the possible through scholarship, creative writing, educational initiatives, syllabi, and bibliographies from new and established writers and workers. In Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work (2004, Honorable Mention, John Hope Franklin Prize in American Studies), Zandy creates a juncture where seemingly disparate voices and events coalesce to enable meditation on the architectonics of human bodies, particularly workers’ hands, the body part that provides “lucid maps to the geography of human complexity” (1). Zandy’s collaboration with Nicholas Coles, American Working-Class Literature: An Anthology (2007), offers an astounding collection of 150 non-canonical and canonical writers of varied races, ethnicities, genders, geographies, and religious backgrounds across 400 years of cultural expression, and has become an essential sourcebook for working-class studies pedagogy and historical reclamation.
After developing a course in photography and writing in 2005, Zandy turned her scholarship toward photography, probing how class shapes the history of photography. She published two articles in exposure, “Photography and Writing: A Pedagogy of Seeing,” and “Seeing Beyond Dirt: The Language of Working-Class Photography,” a study of photography by and about workers that received the Society for Photographic Education award for outstanding historical and cultural writing on photography in 2010. Zandy received an Ansel Adams Research Fellowship and Peter E. Palmquist award for research on women photographers Hansel Mieth and Marion Palfi at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. Her book on Mieth and Palfi, Unfinished Stories: The Narrative Photography of Hansel Mieth and Marion Palfi, was published in 2013. Zandy also published on photographer Milton Rogovin in New Labor Forum and Transformations. Forthcoming in the Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies is “Mapping Working-Class Art,” a chapter that led to her current project, Common Art/Common-ing Art, a book on class, art, and workers that identifies power relationships and constitutive elements of working-class art expressed in presentations of laborers, slaves, peasants, servants, sowers, planters, and reapers in printmaking, painting, photography, and sculpture.
Pedagogy is another component of Zandy’s contribution to the field of working-class studies. As a professor in the English Department at Rochester Institute of Technology (now Professor Emerita), where for many years she taught up to nine courses a year, Zandy guided several generations of undergraduate students through analysis of the intersections of class, gender, race, sexuality, and environmental justice. With a devotion to teaching as energetic as her attention to writing, Zandy’s students learned how to see themselves as part of something larger. In an end-of-the-semester reflection in her New American Literature course, a student responded to Zandy’s prompt drawn from Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about the purpose of education (“to know oneself better through others and to know others better through oneself”): “We rarely are pressed to look at the world through other people’s eyes. We are allowed to sit in our quiet comfort zones and dwell on our own lives. Therefore, when given a book where the characters’ lives are so dramatic and filled with emotion the only way to give justice to the work is to leave our comfort zones and become a part of the text ourselves.” Akin to Lewis Hine’s work with a camera, so too did Zandy’s classroom labor enable students to cultivate a new way of seeing, a class-consciousness, and a sense agency.
In 2020, as we create a world – a text – where empathy bends the moral arc toward justice, Zandy’s scholarship, historical reclamation, and pedagogical legacy are central to a field that demands answerability through dialogic approaches to texts, art, and political terrain, widely defined. Read one of her books, talk to her at one of our conferences, or join her in Rochester, New York, for Workers Memorial Day, an annual public gathering that commemorates the thousands of workers whose deaths, injuries, and occupational illnesses result from their jobs; in this heteroglossic space where workers names are read aloud, testimony unites the living and the dead where the past is remembered, current struggles are acknowledged, and worker safety is demanded.
In 1995, at the Working-Class Lives/Working-Class Studies Conference in Youngstown, Ohio, Zandy presented on “traveling working class.” She describes the conference as a “jubilant occasion” where she and others felt a “new trajectory” that “validated the importance of carrying the best of working-class values, ethos, and knowledge into the academy, and of using that rich, complex, even discordant heritage to expand what constitutes knowledge.” To her delight she realized that people no longer had to work in isolation, but instead had allies, “builders from inside and outside working-class lived experience” (What We Hold in Common ix). Since that touchstone 1995 conference, Zandy’s light continues to shine through generations of scholars she has mentored. In her oeuvre, Zandy illustrates that working-class voices are tools of resistance to class domination and cultural elision. Let’s cinch up our shoes and keep traveling working class as we honor Janet Zandy for her work in forging a multi-voiced, mellifluent, and discordant collective designed by, for, and in the interests of working-class people.