“The Business of ‘The Factory Girl’”

Max White
Northeastern University

Allow me to begin with a digression – an overview of my teaching circumstances, and how I managed to “just teach one” – before I present some of my students’ responses to Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl. As a graduate student at a large institution without a sizeable population of English majors, my teaching opportunities are abundant in quantity, but limited to composition classes. Thus, I taught The Factory Girl in a course not usually associated with literature – at all – let alone early nineteenth-century novels: Advanced Writing in Business Administration. The course fulfills the second of the university’s two undergraduate writing requirements, and “focus[es] on the writing skills necessary for creating effective documents and presentations in the business world,” according to my syllabus. However, the course really is more complicated than a paint-by-numbers approach to memo writing: students “develop expertise in audience analysis, critical research, peer review, and revision” and “generate and pursue lines of inquiry and search, collect, and select sources appropriate to their writing projects,” again, according to the syllabus (here, a combination of my own course description and the Writing Program Learning Goals). Student research and writing provides the vast majority of the course materials, and class meetings consist of lectures, workshops, and roundtables that emphasize research conventions, audience, genre, and style as analytical categories through which students can better understand scholarly and professional writing in their fields. In other words, the course is informed by analytical, rhetorical, and discursive skills that are foundational to the humanities, even as it trains future business professionals.

Of course, undergraduates nearing the completion of their bachelor’s degree often intend to pursue careers that have little to nothing to do with their majors. So it was that this semester’s student research projects came to include a diverse array of topics, such as the role positive psychology might play in training more helpful employees at Whole Foods Markets, the use of micro-targeting software to gather personal information for use in social media advertising, and the design of a proprietary metric for measuring the quality of life in countries around the world. Although my students all were enrolled in the business school, they studied an assortment of concentrations that included finance, marketing, supply chain management, and entrepreneurship and new venture management, among others. Moreover, my students came from Japan, China, Italy, and Spain, as well as different regions of the United States; there were almost as many different writing skill levels and there were students in the class, which, combined with the nature of the course, did limit what we could do with “The Factory Girl.” That being said, my petri dish of pedagogy produced a wide variety of rich reactions to and readings of The Factory Girl.

I assigned the first chapter of The Factory Girl as a text for students to incorporate into their final portfolio introductions, the last writing assignment of the semester. The assignment called for them to “identify and explain two passages that comment on the ways in which work and workplace environments shape social interactions and relate those interpretations either to your own work experiences or relevant research findings that you produced this semester.” Also, I pointed to Duncan and Ed’s statement that “The factory,” in Savage’s novel, “designates a different social and moral environment [than Mary’s] traditional community … the factory is a place where one makes entirely new acquaintances.” Although my students were not trained in literary studies at the post-secondary level, my assignment asserted that “As students of business engaged in the process of research writing, you are all quite qualified to provide commentary on the ways in which writers and workers make sense of changing societies and environments.” The assignment, then, asserted the relevance of Savage’s portrayal of nineteenth-century factory life to twenty-first century business students’ work and research experiences; my students did not disagree, and while their work was not always ambitious, it was not disingenuous.

One of my more ambitious students considered Mr. Seymour’s statement to Mr. Burnham that “It is … highly important that, in unfolding the rudiments of religion, the manner and language should be easy and natural; never made wearisome by long lectures, (for it is difficult to keep the attention of a child fixed on one subject), but instilled by striking, frequent, and incidental hints” (11). The student – whose aforementioned research report explored micro-targeting in social media – cited evidence she gathered, which indicated that “American people… view commercials as a waste of their time, and are less likely to pay attention if they view them as long and confusing.” In light of this evidence, she asserted that Mr. Seymour’s suggestion “that a lecture should be ‘inspired by striking, frequent, and incidental hints’ is directly [applicable] to the way companies should advertise today [through micro-targeting].” She continued, “The trick is to make the decision [to make a purchase] less conscious and more subliminal; showing a problem the audience can relate to and trick their minds into thinking that solving the problem through your product was their idea, not [the marketer’s].” This student’s insight to Mr. Seymour’s message asserts the importance of skilled oration to a successful preacher, and likens a successful sermon to an effective advertisement. It would have been an interesting comment to consider in a literature class, where it would have been appropriate to discuss the entire novel.

Another student identified strongly with Mary’s father’s dying wish, that Mary “not work for any one, or with any body, who is not good; for then she may forget her Bible, and your advice, and go astray after all” (5). The student described how, as a teenager, he received a similarly-inspired reprimand from his own father, who stopped him from paying for his own lunch and buying Christmas presents for family members so that he could save the money for the future and concentrate on schoolwork. The student identified the common theme of investing in one’s self, and noted that “This chapter [shares] concerns … in terms of growing up, wanting to make money and wanting to help pay for themselves” with many contemporary college-aged readers. Earlier in the semester, this student had produced a final research project that examined failed family businesses in order to devise a succession plan for his own family’s business, a property management company. Because of his work and research experiences with family business, I think, the contrast Savage portrays between the community of the factory and the community of the family was quite obvious, to him. A third student – whose research project proposed to incorporate positive psychology into employee training at Whole Foods – explored Savage’s portrayal of peer pressure. She observed that although Mary “doesn’t give in to the peer pressure to join her coworkers out [after work], she struggles toward the end of the chapter with her decision.” The student added that Mary’s struggle with her decision to decline Nancy’s invitation speaks to the emotional conflict that people often feel when “entering a new environment that they know very little about” and they “want to fit in.” Although these observations do not extend beyond straightforward plot analysis, they nonetheless reveal a student discovering concerns that her own research – conducted in a class for business majors – shares with a lightly-read nineteenth century novel.

I think that my students’ writing demonstrates that what we often think of as discipline-specific work speaks to students, scholars, and professionals in other fields and industries. Moreover, my students’ necessarily innovative uses of the text suggest that they found ways to critically engage The Factory Girl despite their relative unfamiliarity with literary studies. In the era of the neoliberal university, this evidence offers reassurance – especially to graduate students and junior faculty – of our work’s enduring relevance, in spite of institutional reform that often cuts funding from humanities and social sciences departments. Projects like “Just Teach One” – projects that promote new and engrossing humanities pedagogies – will be vital to the future of both our scholarship and our profession.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *