Work Forces Workshop: The City of Pittsburgh as Pedagogical Tool

Maria Lis and other workshop participants at the University Library System, Archives Service Center, during the Work Forces workshop


Work Forces Workshop: The City of Pittsburgh as Pedagogical Tool

Author: María Lis Baiocchi

PhD student in Anthropology and Work Forces workshop participant

The history of Pittsburgh as a center of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, its relevance to the history of the labor movement in this country, and its identity as a distinctly working-class city are some of the most interesting things that any non-Pittsburgh native gets to learn about this city when deciding to move here. At least that was the case for me when I decided to move here to do my PhD in Pitt’s Department of Anthropology. At the time, my work did not involve addressing issues of labor at all. It has been fortuitus that my research trajectory changed to put labor, and specifically household labor, at the center of my doctoral project while doing my PhD in a city where labor has historically taken center-stage.

The Work Forces Workshop was an in-depth exploration of Pittsburgh’s rich labor history and culture through the prism of archival collections and art exhibitions. It is not an understatement to say that taking part in it transformed my view of the city. Work Forces underscored the potential of Pittsburgh for labor-related research projects through a range of onsite experiences. For instance, we looked into the Left Ephemera Collection in the Frick Fine Arts Library. Visiting the archive in the Bost Building of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, we examined (among other notable materials) notebooks documenting the accidents of workers in one of Pittsburgh’s steel mills which revealed the laboring conditions in this city at the height of its industrial age. I was struck by an interview with a household worker who used to work at Fallingwater kept in the Heinz History Center. 

Perhaps most interestingly, Work Forces showed the ways in which the city itself and its surroundings can serve as pedagogical tools for teachers addressing the topic of labor broadly conceived in their classroom. An instructor teaching an introductory social theory course covering foundational Marxist concepts could benefit from taking students on a field trip to the Carrie Furnace or the Tour-Ed Mine to drive home abstract ideas about labor conditions imparted in the classroom. Anyone teaching on the anthropology of labor could very successfully draw from the University Art Gallery collection to discuss material covered inside the classroom. In sum, labor scholars and labor teachers of any background, including and especially anthropologists, stand to benefit from engaging with Pittsburgh’s rich material culture not just in research but also in teaching. Work Forces served as a fantastic invitation to do just that.      

  • Graduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh