Sophie Webb

Sophie hadn’t expected to pursue a Minor in Labour Studies when she began at SFU. A Joint Major student in History and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, it wasn’t until a Canadian History lecture taught by John-Henry Harter that she encountered the study of work and working people. “And he just happened to mention that he thought we should take [a Labour Studies course] if we liked what had been covered that week.” Not long after, Sophie ended up in LBST 101. “And without sounding too cliche, it was actually pretty life changing. The thing that I really like about Labour Studies is that it kind of follows the same tradition as Gender Studies in that it’s inherently political... There’s a sense in labour history and in labour studies that there are things not working for all people right now, and that should be addressed.”

She continued to find passionate scholarship as she continued to take LBST courses. “I had entered into this foray of people being so engaged with these topics, and particularly with the fact that these were people who weren’t afraid to stand up and say ‘ yeah, this system that we have now doesn’t work. It’s broken, and people are getting hurt.' It was really impactful.”

“My favourite subjects involve women, and women working. Particularly, I like the niches where most people don’t like to look or shine light.” One of her recent term papers was about the history of sex workers in downtown Vancouver for Kendra Straus’s Labour Geographies class (LBST 328). “I had to go so much into the theory and ground myself in both feminist studies and labour studies to understand how I was interpreting this as ‘work’. And of course there are issues where it’s oppressive, but there’s also agency and power all in the same place. It’s one of my favourite types of history in that its still very contemporary, and still very present.” While she was writing that paper in 2016 she watched as the Vancouver police issued an apology to West End sex workers. She realized “this is the point of doing this work. It might not be comfortable for some people, and it might not be what they’re used to calling ‘academic’ studies, but it’s just so important because this is people’s reality.”

Sophie sees Labour Studies as “one of the few places in your undergrad degree where you’re going to have genuine discussion and debate not only with your classmates, but with professors in a way that I think a lot of other disciplines, either because of size or because of tradition that’s not as easy to do. It's one of the places where you’re going to do your best learning.” Now, when she listens to news and politics, she feels that she has the ability to critically examine the issue and who proposed policies will benefit.

Work with Heritage Museums

During the summer months Sophie has been involved in Canada Youth Work Programs. Here she’s had the opportunity to work with museums operated by heritage foundations and societies. She says that she’s been able to shape these experiences around labour by stating in the interview that “this is really interesting to me, and whatever I do I like to infuse the themes of working peoples’ history.” In the past two years she’s been working in museums and has had the opportunity to design some of her own exhibits. “I really put a lot of effort into making sure that at least parts of [the exhibit] talked about working people's’ history.” She was later able to use the experience from one such exhibit as an example in a course paper. She noted that she’s been fortunate to experience a “recursive circle” of using “academic work to get me jobs, and then my jobs were helping inform my academic work.”

Canadian Labour Institute Funded Project

She's currently writing a research and policy paper for the Canadian Labour Institute, an award available through Labour Studies. Her topic is the changing nature of work, focusing on the increase of precarious labour as a result of the feminization of labour, and its effect on contract workers across the skills divide. Both “low-skilled” and “professional” labour are becoming more contract-based and less secure. This research questions what it means when “good,” traditionally white-collar jobs become unstable.

This is her first time doing an externally-based research project. A research supervisor helps ensure that the arguments and policy recommendations are well researched and solidly grounded. The quality of her work and examples have also expanded the research’s projected scope of publication from web-based to some planned circulation among unions as a guide to contract-based labour. She says that she’s still getting used to the idea that she is in a position to make policy recommendations as an undergraduate. “It’s a much bigger paper, physically, than I’ve ever written before.” She says that the support she’s gotten along the way has been instrumental in helping her conceptualize this project as not only something that she can accomplish, but as a project she can do well. This project has allowed her to gain an understanding of the quality of work demanded by professional policy papers. “The fact that I know that about myself now is really fulfilling.”

Favourite Courses

LBST 328 was one of my favourite courses because it connected the question ‘what is labour studies’ to different disciplines, specifically Geography… I was completely new [to geography]. I wouldn’t have been able to fully understand [the topic of sex workers in Vancouver] without acknowledging the geographical and historical aspects of the topic. It’s a class where all these different disciplines were crashing into each other, and instead of making a mess we were making this incredibly interesting collection of information to sort through, and theories to go over.”

LBST 330 - special topics: Labour through Film with John Henry Harter. “You get to do work that when you go home and maybe tell your friends about, they might think that it’s not hard, interesting work, but in reality it’s very engaging scholarship.”