Most students are accustomed to getting information from the printed page. But in the Interdisciplinary Studies course "Artifacts of American Culture: Meaning in Things," undergraduates learn techniques that enable them to "read" American artifacts and patterns of behavior as cultural texts.
This undergraduate course, taught by associate professor Christine Levenduski, rests on the premise that artifacts, the built environment and patterns of behavior-such as the way homes are arranged-reflect human values, ideals and assumptions. "I'm interested in manmade objects and concrete evidence of human presence or human consciousness," said Levenduski, who has a split appointment between the Department of English and the Institute of Liberal Arts.
Through her course, Levenduski said she tries to "encourage students to think about how they might look at, study, touch and research these kinds of objects and built environments and learn something about the culture that produced and used them." In reading an object, for instance, students might look at its construction or creation, function, history or evolution and how its design may have deviated from the norm.
Students are also encouraged to think about the ways objects change in different contexts, Levenduski said. For instance, a candle might have a practical function such as giving light, but its function also can be social or symbolic.
The class, which usually has between 20 and 25 students, involves discussion and research but very little lecturing. To give her students experience in looking at different artifacts, Levenduski assigns them a series of short papers and projects-two dealing with historical subjects and the rest looking at contemporary culture. The course also includes a group project to encourage students to think about learning in a more collaborative way, Levenduski said.
These projects usually combine direct observation with library research. For instance, in an assignment that looks at clothing, students read about the history of clothing and are given some theoretical background. Then they venture into the community, observe what they would label as a subculture and study that group's clothing, trying to understand how the clothing reflects the group's identity and values.
Course materials include five books and a number of handouts, but no single methodology is espoused, Levenduski said. "Basically we're trying to get them to think more broadly about a variety of kinds of things that will offer them information about contemporary or historical cultures," she added, noting that these aspects are usually overlooked.
After some initial hesitancy, student reaction to the course is generally favorable, Levenduski said, noting that "they ultimately end up being fans, I think. I try to explain to them that a lot of the methods and approaches that we're going to be talking about are things that they already know how to do. And it's just a matter of thinking about the right questions to ask and using their own knowledge."
Students usually have some skepticism about that, she said, because they're much more ready to be taught material or content in a traditional manner. But once the students understand that there are no "right" answers and that this is just a way to expand their horizons, they become very enthusiastic and come up with some "incredibly creative ways to approach the topics," she said.
The course also makes the students more critically aware of the culture and the cultural environments around them, said Levenduski. "I've had students tell me after the class is over that they're never going to be able to drive down the highway and look at things along the side of the road the same way again."
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