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Theories of Material Culture: Two Highlights

I am now concluding my graduate course Theories of Material Culture. I have taught this course several times previously and I always enjoy it. This year, the students who gathered with me were more diverse than usual. Beyond the normal folklorists and cultural anthropologists, there were practicing artists, a learning scientist, a fashion scholar, and an ethnomusicologist. In comparison to past instances, this made the course simultaneously more interesting and a more challenging exercise in translation. I am thankful for the chance to work with students whose interests intersect with mine in such stimulating ways. Interacting with these students was a big highlight of my distractingly busy semester.

Intentionally, I have made the Theories of Material Culture a weird course. In response to students who rightfully complained about constantly noting how key book-length works were often mentioned* in our courses but not assigned, the only readings in the course are books. Many books. Experience shows that, as part of a more diverse reading diet, this course pattern helps students in noticeable ways later–during qualifying exams, research planning, and dissertation writing. Some works have reappeared in different versions of the course, but some are always new to the course and occasionally some are new to me. This semester, I added two titles that, while I had not yet read them because they were brand new, seemed like sure bets. And they were. The were most beloved by the students and they provoked particularly rich discussions. These were Pravina Shukla’s Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015) and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

I cannot spare the time now to comment properly on these two excellent books, but I note here that they were highlights for me and for the students. I eagerly recommend them to you. Of reviews of Costume, I like the one written by Brandon Barker for JFRR. For The Mushroom at the End of the World, I note Eugene N. Anderson’s review in Ethnobiology Letters. (These two journals are both wonderful open access publications, by the way.)

* Particularly unnerving to students is the faculty habit of mentioning canonical books as if everyone in the room had not only heard of them previously but had read them and long ago assimilated their lessons. (I know I to am guilty of this tic too.) Books do of course get assigned in our classes, but usually a smaller number are balanced with a mixture of works in other genres. This normal pattern is true of my other courses too.

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