Beloved Labor seminar runs one last time

There are few things Swarthmore students are known for more than strong work ethic and passion for social justice. Professor of History Marjorie Murphy’s Honors seminar Labor and Urban History seem to tie those things together perfectly. Murphy, who has taught at the college since 1983, works her interest in social history and labor organizing into all her classes, from the American Working Class to Irish History.

Murphy’s teaching style is one that motivates students while they are in her courses and well after, according to Anna-Livia Chen ’16.5. “Marj teaches you a type of learning that I think is very unique and absolutely crucial to maintaining one’s academic spark after a year or two,” Chen said. Chen appreciated Murphy’s ability to immerse her students in the material, even when that meant assigning a lot of reading.

“Though she loads on the readings like pastrami on a Katz sandwich, you aren’t expected to read every single one with extreme depth. Instead, she gives you a variety of materials in the hopes that you will be inspired by one of the many perspectives offered and dive into that author/time period/etc with self-powered zeal,” she observed. Chen also added about Murphy’s teaching, “Many might describe her as not having a filter.”

Murphy’s personalized interest in students as well as labor led to the creation of the Labor & Urban History seminar, which has special relevance to students. Unfortunately, we all have to work for our money and labor is really all around us. As students at Swarthmore, we encounter workers who are necessary to our everyday life, such as dining and EVS staff members.  Many students on campus are workers as well, be it in McCabe, LPAC, or the Lang Center. This is something that affects all of us, and will affect us for the rest of our lives, so why does passion for labor studies seem so absent?

Murphy’s Honors seminar has an enrollment of four people this semester. As this is her last time teaching the course, Murphy decided to run the class despite its small size. Murphy expressed consistent trouble in trying to fill classes about labor and working but has continued to teach about these subjects and believes they are still undervalued.  “I think people get a lot out of hearing the stories of working people and working lives,” Murphy said, and her former students seem to agree, many of whom have moved to careers in organizing.


Murphy immerses her students in the subject matter of the course through community based learning. This style of learning involves venturing out into the world to do different projects to improve the surrounding community. She described some of her early classes talking to different labor organizers, registering people to vote, and also working on individual community organizing projects based on the students’ interests. The ability of students to make real, tangible differences in the world seems to be a running theme in Murphy’s teaching. She describes social justice movements as “unfinished revolutions” which constantly need to be passed down to the next generation in order to maintain the change that has been made. Bringing students out to do this work, and pique their interest in it, is necessary for it to endure.

That said, Swarthmore has a very strong activist community. “Vocal,” “radical” and “passionate” are adjectives that describe most student activists on campus. Places like the IC and BCC are home to students committed to making serious change on campus and beyond. Their commitment to social justice is consistently inspiring and their work has impacted multiple aspects of campus. But is this the best environment for more introverted activists?

Often students who were once considered the crazy liberal in their town are exposed to a whole different level of radical politics they may have never seen before. This could be very intimidating for someone with minimal activist experience. With an abundance of radically outspoken activists at Swarthmore some less radical students can easily feel overshadowed or too intimidated to participate in movements on campus. There’s a whole pool of untapped enthusiasm for activism that can be dominated by more extroverted activists. Murphy makes an effort to empower these more introverted activists, and its results have been significant.

Murphy assigns much of her classwork with the goal of bringing out the activist in everyone, showing them the potential of their own efforts while also laying a groundwork for students’ potential further involvement in social movements. The mobile aspect of these community based learning classes has diminished over time because of the lack of support from the school. Murphy noted that professors aren’t valued for taking students out into the world as much as they would be for publishing a paper or working on research. The time commitment to these projects takes away from research or writing time, and so professors generally less inclined to do it, Murphy explained.

The Labor & Urban History seminar, although under-enrolled, continues for those four students who have taken up the challenge. The conversation about class hierarchy at Swarthmore has not caught much attention, and with Murphy retiring in 2018, labor studies classes like hers may no longer be available as academic settings for such discussion. Many students at Swarthmore have seen first hand the effects of low minimum wage and bad labor practices, whether through their own experience or those of their family or friends. We would all love to believe that at Swarthmore everyone is equal, but the burden of class background is prevalent all over campus. More classes like Murphy’s could open up that academic conversation and offer students a class that could encompass their experience within the class system. A quote by Bayard Rustin that hangs over Murphy’s desk seems to ring true to her philosophy, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”

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