Family Work Histories: Centering First-Generation and Working-Class Students in a Sociology Course

González Wahl / Teaching Sociology / Jun 12, 2023

Man and boy sitting on fence at a farm

First-generation students often feel alone on college campuses. These students can find themselves excluded from organizations, traditions, and spaces that require financial, social, and cultural capital they may not have. In the author's Sociology of Work course, they use a family work history project to center and validate their experiences. Using census records and other sources, students reconstruct their parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ experience in the workplace. The histories of my first-generation students, in turn, provide the lens through which we collectively build a sociological analysis of the way that work shapes the trajectory of our lives. More specifically, these histories have taken us from farm and factory to the low-wage service sector, revealing both the troubles facing those without a college degree as well as their resilience. Overall, students describe this as a deeply meaningful project that confirms the pedagogical value of storytelling, particularly for first-generation students.