University of Delaware professors and students in a variety of disciplines study material culture. Over the past few months, members of a national group called the Consortium for Material Culture have had discussions about material culture pedagogy. A few days ago, I participated in the local discussion. Several professors--such as those in English--noted that when they have introduced objects into their class discussions or assignments, students have panicked in their efforts to interpret how the object can inform the class discussion. If it's not text, what am I supposed to do with it?
I am not teaching in a classroom setting yet, so I couldn't think of anything too insightful while I was learning about these issues. Furthermore, I had little knowledge of what these professors talked about last spring regarding pedagogy in the first place. On the drive home, though, I started thinking about why students didn't know how to approach learning from objects. I recalled feeling panicked as a new student in the Winterthur Program. Fresh from undergraduate courses in American literature and history, I was accustomed to tackling close readings of Herman Melville and Teddy Roosevelt. As a student at Winterthur, not only was I being trained to tackle "close readings" of objects, but I was struggling to read an entire book per week for a graduate history seminar that rarely discussed material culture. In both contexts, I was out of my comfort zone. In the case of connoisseurship training, I was thirsty for text. In the case of the reading seminar, I was dealing with too much text and too few objects. In an ideal world, both of those classes--particularly the reading seminar, as much as I learned from it, nevertheless--could have involved texts as well as objects. Furthermore, it occurred to me that today's average secondary and college education in the humanities includes few interactions with the material world (a few fantastic" adventure literature" courses and a decorative arts course at Penn State being my exceptions). Recalling these anxieties, I couldn't help but think that students such as those noted above by English professors simply needed to be introduced to thinking about material culture using something more close to home.
For instance, I have heard that some of the material culture professors from whom I have taken courses are known to have conducted material culture workshops by asking people to explain to the group why they're wearing the shoes they are wearing. I would imagine they would answer questions such as why they chose the shoe for that day (style, comfort, weather?); where they bought the shoe (the mall; the internet; a thrift store) and why (instant gratification; selection; uniqueness); what they know about its manufacture, etc. My impression is that these workshops are conducted with people who aren't necessarily trained to interpret material culture---just like the English students who aren't accustomed to working with objects. Perhaps these panicked students need a less jarring introduction to the world of objects than we realize. Perhaps today's students are less adept at understanding their material world because they are less connected (and more connected to laptops and iPhones) to it than we, as a society, have been in the past. For instance, the meat many of us buy at the grocery store looks nothing like the animal from which is came.
We try change our messages all the time to appeal to or reach our audience. Maybe it's too simplistic of me, but maybe these students need just that -- someone to appeal to them before they can connect with the stuff.
When I get the chance to teach a class, I will surely learn for myself what works and what doesn't.
More later this week re my Berlin work presentation back in September. In addition, I hope to make the "Material Culture Minute" a weekly feature.