Surrounded by objects in our daily life, we are constantly interacting with the material world. The chairs we sit in, the devices we can’t put down, the clothing we wear, the ground we walk on—even the systems that pump the air we breathe—are all designed objects. Some things are outright designed to maximize user experience or to achieve a specific look, others shaped by patterns of use (or misuse). But all things are an incredible reflection of the people who use and make them and the cultures in which they were created. Though we take so much of our surroundings for granted, each object is imbued with a rich social and cultural history. The material world is a strong link to stories of resources, production, gender, class, political unrest, and technological progress, and the study of objects delivers a diverse and powerful history often lost in textual sources.
My love for Design and Material Culture and a belief in the power of objects, architecture, and art to shape and be shaped by the world in which they reside fuels my teaching philosophy. In an age where humanities departments are second place to math and science, I think it’s imperative to enlighten students about the power of thought. My classes do so by teaching and pushing students to consider the ways material goods reveal historical narratives and then reflect on their own culture to probe, to question, to learn how the things they possess or use are part of a larger story. It is this question—how are our cultural views (and those of past cultures) reflected in the material world?—that drives my courses, my lectures, and what I hope to instill in my students.
Through scholarly readings, research, self reflective exercises, and through looking at history from different angles, the core of my teaching promotes questioning and critical thinking. When discussing scholarly readings I often pick two articles with different points of view and steer the class to dissect the authors’ arguments, refer to footnotes, and question the works. Discussion leaders are frequently assigned to read and share additional articles. Reading alone or with a partner encourages students to critically review the material and form their own opinions before a seminar discussion. I find these exercises strengthen students abilities to question readings, lectures, and ultimately better reflect on their own experiences.
To further foster critical thinking, I favor assignments that spark creativity. For example, one of my favorite and most successful final projects asked students to create a mock museum exhibition. The final project called for a curatorial statement, ten pieces with labels, and introductory text. Instead of writing a final paper where many students get caught up in telling the entire history of an object and neglect to develop their own thoughts or ideas, the core of this project focuses on a larger theme. Ultimately the parameters of the project require students to develop a strong thesis and link each object back to that thesis to justify its inclusion in the student’s exhibition.
Through lectures and students’ own work, my courses focus on studying objects in ways that reveal social and cultural narratives and urge students to think deeper about history and written thought. A standard study of the aesthetic progression or historical timeline of the telephone is much less captivating than learning how the device reflected notions of gender and power in the early twentieth century. Looking at objects from perspectives of gender, class, and power highlights the ways in which written sources often fail to reveal intense cultural struggles while objects and visual culture highlight these moments of unrest. While my background focuses mainly on historical topics, the larger ideas can be applied within current cultural contexts, and I encourage students to relate these ideas to their lives. How might a telephone signal ideas of power in our current society? Is it still a gendered object?
Simply put, my teaching philosophy also fuels my own scholarship; it is the core of my academic experience. By studying the larger social and cultural narratives of objects of art and design, my goal is to imbue students with a desire to question the material world around them and become more conscious participants in their own culture.