Ed Weathers on his “Ordinary Objects” course.
The purpose of this class was to give students an appreciation for the history, engineering, and meaning of ordinary things. For this class, I had each student choose an ordinary object at the beginning of the semester. This would be the object on which they would write a series of papers during the semester, leading up to an original research paper with an original thesis. They could choose from a list of objects I gave them (attached) or an object they came up with on their own. I didn’t let two students choose the same object. (They chose by giving me a list of objects in order of preference.) The object could be almost anything without too big a history. Students ended up choosing such objects as these: the penny, the cigar, shampoo (some objects were really “stuff”), the arrow, barbed wire, the saw, the brassiere, and the ball point pen. During the semester, each student wrote the following series of small research papers about their object:
1) the etymology of the word for the object
2) a brief history of the object
3) an in-depth description of the engineering and design of the object
4) “fascinating facts” about their object
They also did an official proposal (in real proposal format) describing their final paper. The final paper was to be an original research paper with an original thesis, hypothesis or question. Examples: “If you owned one penny from each year pennies have been made in the U.S., what would those pennies be worth as collectibles today?” “Would it be possible to make a smokeless cigar, and would it sell to cigar smokers?” “Would a dry (water-free) shampoo be successful in the student marketplace?””Is the brassiere a sexist article of clothing?” “The arrow as an object of environmental responsibility.” I encouraged students to build on information from their smaller papers during the semester, plus other research (like surveys, expert interviews, etc.) to research their final paper.
During the semester, we read a book called *One Good Turn*, which is a popular history of the screw and the screwdriver, and a series of articles, poems, essays, and book excerpts about everything from yo-yos to oranges to pencils to paper clips. There is much wonderful writing about ordinary objects, especially in this era of the “microsubject” book.
This class was one of my most successful 1106 classes. It allowed students to focus on something they chose for themselves, because they had an interest in it from the beginning. It allowed those with an interest in engineering to focus on the engineering of their object, and those more interested in, say, sociology, to focus on the social meaning of their object. Some students got sick of their object by the end of the semester, but the vast majority gained a
real appreciation for ordinary things and realized that any object is a “text” worth analyzing and otherwise appreciating.