My last term teaching was very unusual, to say the least. Scheduled to retire from the City University of New York (CUNY) at the end of the Spring 2020 term, my normal rotation had me teaching a masters-level course in labor history at the School of Labor and Urban Studies (SLU), a course I had taught many times before. It was just a matter of chance that this course came up as my last, but I liked the idea, because when I went to graduate school, nearly a half-century earlier, my aim had been to teach working-class students labor history. It would be completing the circle to end my career doing exactly that. Also, if my last class was at Queens College or the CUNY Graduate Center, where I had done most of my teaching, stopping would seem like a bigger deal, I thought, with more of a need to mark it as an occasion, which I did not want to do.
Just over half the twenty-one students in my labor history course were working-class, a typical SLU mix of public employees and private-sector union activists, mostly female, mostly non-white, mostly middle age. They included members of the Teamsters, AFSCME, UNITE HERE, and a couple of CWA locals. The other students were younger, mostly white, and about evenly male and female. They included one student from the CUNY Law School, one from the Hunter College Urban Policy Program, and a handful from the Union Semester program, which brings young social justice types to New York to intern at a union while taking courses at SLU.
For the first seven weeks, the course seemed routine. The sessions went pretty well and the work was not particularly onerous. Still, nothing happened that made me feel retiring was a mistake.
Everything changed when the Coronavirus epidemic began hitting New York. By the second week in March, things were beginning to shut down. My reading group, set to meet Monday, March 9, cancelled. My family was supposed to do a group cooking class – a present to me from my daughters – two days later, but we cancelled because my older daughter was feeling sick with what, in retrospect, we suspected might have been COVID-19. I had taken my bicycle from the house we rent upstate to the city to be serviced and fretted that the store would close before I could retrieve it.
By the time my class met on Tuesday, March 10, it was clear to me that in-person classes would have to be ended soon. I told my class that evening that we might not be able to meet in person the next week and made sure I had everyone’s correct e-mail address. Within a couple of days, CUNY announced it was moving to distance learning (what pretty-much everyone called online teaching). My wife was still going in to her office by subway, with my daughters and I increasingly anxious about it. That Friday she drove. After some agonizing about where to settle in for the epidemic – mostly about the fear that entrance and exit from the city would be shut down, along the Wuhan model, separating us from our children – we decided to go upstate. Friday night we had dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, figuring that it probably would be the last time we ate out for a while. Rules had been announced that restaurants were supposed to distance diners and fill only to half capacity, but the place was pretty crowded. Saturday morning we packed up a lot of stuff and drove upstate. My wife had a meeting scheduled for the following Tuesday, which she felt she had to go to, so we thought we might come back soon for a couple of days. As it happened, we did not return to the city for two months, and then only briefly.
To facilitate the transfer of classes online, CUNY instituted a week-long teaching hiatus. Since I already was using Blackboard, an online teaching site, to have students post comments about the reading assignments, I had something of a leg up, but I never had used its video conferencing feature (I did not even know it had one), nor had I ever participated in any sort of video conference. I sat in on a couple of online training sessions, played around with the program, and picked up tips from colleagues online. When I felt confident that I could do a live online session, I sent out a long email to my students explaining how we were going to proceed, including detailed instructions for taking part in Blackboard video sessions. I decided that more than anything else I had to convey to the students that I understood that there were many things that they had to deal with that were much more pressing than the course and that I did not want school to be a source of anxiety.
In that first message and at every subsequent class I made it clear that they should do what they could with the readings and the assignments but not worry at all if they could not get course work done. I signaled that no matter what they did or did not do going forward, they would all do OK in terms of a grade.
For the first online class session, I set myself up in makeshift bedroom office, with water, coffee, and cough drops at hand, after practicing the process repeatedly, amid considerable anxiety. I had no idea what to expect — many students had not responded to my e-mail, as I had asked them to — but it proved pretty amazing. There were some technical difficulties, but just about everyone showed up. During the two weeks since we had last met, the Union Semester students had scattered to the wind. One had returned to Tanzania, two to Canada, one to her childhood bedroom in her parents’ home in Oklahoma, another with his girlfriend to the South. Three of my students had lost their jobs. Moira, a stage hand active in her union (IATSE), determined to see more women in leadership, had been laid off, as had been almost every other member of her local, with Broadway and the Javits Convention Center shut down. Mariana, a South American immigrant, lost her job at a midtown Manhattan hotel after twenty-three years in the industry.
The topic for the class was a discussion of William Attaway’s novel, Blood on the Forge, an explosive look at labor and race relations at a Pennsylvania steel mill during and after World War I. When I teach the book, I usually break the class into discussion groups, to try to get everyone involved. Meeting as a whole, online, we managed to discuss the book reasonably well, all things considered, though some students had trouble staying connected. Students had made a real effort to inhabit the situation of the characters in the only work of fiction we read in the course. Its tragic end, when racial violence overcomes any chance of class solidarity, seemed to confirm for many of them, especially but not only the African American students, a somewhat fatalistic belief in the fundamental role of racism in American life.
The next week I tried breaking into online discussion groups for part of the class session, though managing it on my end was so complicated I have no idea how it worked and never tried it again. With the initial rush of reconvening behind us, that class was something of a slog. As I quickly learned, a two-hour online class session is exhausting. I needed a stiff drink after every class.
The course then went on a two-week break that had been scheduled all along, one week when in inimitable CUNY-style the college followed a Wednesday schedule on a Tuesday and one week for Spring break. My wife and I had planned to take advantage of this long quirk of an interlude with a trip to Sicily, which turned out to be an early COVID causality. Instead, I kept busy writing a couple of short articles, planning a COVID-related labor panel, and acclimating to our new, strange circumstances.
When our course reconvened after nearly three weeks, I began by having everyone say how they were doing. It was pretty dramatic. Some of the younger students kept it short, reporting they were fine, with only mundane inconveniences. One said that he shared his apartment with three roommates and none of them was working. A Union Semester student fretted about finding a job after his internship ended. The two hospital workers taking the course were in bad shape. Both were clerks in public hospitals, not normally involved with patients. Both had been redeployed. One was now escorting families for final visits with COVID patients about to die. The other, the head of a chapter of her union, was working on a ward and trying to pressure both management and higher-level union leaders to get proper PPE for her members. To avoid infecting her son, she had sent him to live with relatives. Both seemed traumatized.
The students who lived in COVID hotbeds in Queens and Brooklyn, with danger and death around them, also seemed highly stressed. Worst off was Mariana, the laid-off hotel worker. She called me a few days before the class (I had given everyone my upstate phone number; she was the only one to use it), saying she could not get the class work done because she was so upset. She lived in a dense section of Queens, a national epicenter of infection, and was too terrified to leave her apartment. She said that she was scared she would die and her daughter back home would have to use up all her money to bring back her body. I tried to reassure her that the last thing she should be anxious about was course work, urging her to just show up.
As we checked in with one another at that class, a sense of attentiveness and mutuality came through, even with the mediation of video conferencing. The level of engagement remained high when we moved on to the regular part of class, which was devoted to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). I had assigned several chapters of Robert Zieger’s The CIO, 1935-55, which I think only a few students read. But many of them read the other assigned reading, an old left-wing pamphlet about the Flint sit-down, which they found a real eye-opener. For my generation of historians, activists, and leftists, the Flint sit-down is part of the landscape, something we all know about, somehow, but for my students it was completely new, a revelation. The students seemed particularly taken by the tactical ingenuity of the strike leaders and the discipline of the strikers. It seemed like something they could learn from and maybe even emulate. All in all, the class was one of the most memorable of my career.
Those last weeks of April were the most difficult period for the students, with a sense of fear, danger, loss, and uncertainty. Some students had family members or friends who died. The two Canadians dropped out of the class and the Union Semester program, keeping open the possibility of reenrolling when things got back to normal. Moira, the stage hand, was so moved by the descriptions by the hospital workers in the class of what they were going through that she got her union colleagues to contribute $500 to buy personal items for out-of-town medical workers who had come to New York to help out. Later she joined a group of unionists sewing masks. At least two students were having real mental health issues from all the stress.
I had been planning to show the class At the River I Stand, a documentary about the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most powerful movies I know, and I was determined to find a way to make it happen. The film is not available for free on any easily accessible website and the DVD I have of it was in my office in a shuttered building. I might have been able to post a downloaded copy online, but the IT people at the university would have no part of it, because it would violate copyright agreements. After hours of working on it, we managed to come up with a work around by which the class was able to watch the movie as a group on Blackboard during our normal class time. Many students said it was a highlight of the course. When I show the film in person, there is usually a stunned silence at the end that makes conversation difficult. Online, for some reason, we were able to have a rich discussion afterward.
Another highlight was a discussion of Upheaval in the Quiet Zone, a history of the healthcare workers union 1199SEIU, written by Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg. Many of my students, both the young social activists and the older ones, knew the union, a big presence in New York labor. Usually lauded by historians and leftists, my students took a more critical view. One announced that years earlier she had been a home health aide, represented by 1199, and it was the worst union she had ever belonged to, completely ignoring the needs of her group. Others criticized the white leftists who had founded and long led the union for the alliances with hospital management they had constructed over the years and their bungling of the transition to a new, non-white leadership. I found myself surprised by how little my students felt the need for deference to such an iconic labor group (though they all acknowledged its achievements) and proud of their independent thinking.
The last weeks of the course were hard to get through, as things settled into a routine. The level of reading and assignment submission varied from student to student and class to class, but overall was considerably below the usual norm, which made discussions, already difficult because we were trying to mimic the classroom experience via video, even harder. Increasingly weary, I was eager to be done with it and to be done with teaching, period. But I continued to find the contact with students enriching. And the students kept showing up, usually every single student or all but one or two, including the union activist now back in Tanzania, where it was 2 a.m. when the class began.
The final class, on “The Future of the Labor Movement,” had some lively discussion of the topic. Students had insightful comments on the reading and thoughts from their own work and activism. But more memorable were the comments people made about the experience of the previous months, of the course and their lives amid COVID. We had bonded, and a real sense of affection had developed among us over the two months since we had last seen each other in person. Saying goodbye felt very poignant. I knew I would miss the students, and I have. At the end of that week, my SLU colleagues held a joint Zoom retirement party for me and tenure celebration for a colleague, a very nice gesture. Over the next week the students’ final papers trickled in. (I had changed the assignment from one that would have required access to a library to a short essay reflecting back on what we had read and discussed over the course of the semester.) On May 27 I handed in my grades. A very odd way to end a teaching career, but one I will cherish.
Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy.
Joshua B. Freeman is a distinguished professor of History at Queens College and CUNY Grad Center and the author of numerous books, including American Empire, 1945-2000: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home (New York: Viking, 2012) and Working-Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II (New York: The New Press, 2000), as well as editor of the 2019 collection, City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York, from Columbia University Press.