Unmasking the Material World: Discovering Objects as Stories

Fall 2018
Winter 2019
Class Size: 46
50% Reserved for Freshmen
Credits per quarter

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Taught by

Kris Coffey
creative writing, historical fiction, ethnic american literature
2020 Krotscheck, Ulrike
classics, archaeology

Everything people make and use expresses values. Quilts, soap, furniture, tableware, tools, and jewelry can illustrate meaning in one’s life and the time period in which they lived. While some objects are necessary for life and have “everyday use,” others have mythical or symbolic meanings, and some seem to have little meaning at all. However, more importantly than the objects themselves are the stories they tell. From the latter half of the twentieth century through current day, we have witnessed a tremendous pop-culture interest in items categorized as vintage or antique, inspiring a profitable market. As we pull those items out of thrift stores, off EBay, and from picker’s lots and integrate them into our lives, we carry with them the stories of the past and discover connections between how people of the past lived and what’s meaningful to us today. How can unmasking the material world change the way we think about and understand our relationship to the things we buy, make, trade, gift, use, reject, cherish, and interpret? 

This program employs an interdisciplinary approach to expose the stories, values, meanings, and practices found in objects. If material artifacts are products of human conflicts, culture, values, and creativity, then it is possible, through them, to understand the dynamics that are otherwise invisible to us. During the first quarter, this program will examine how objects and values mutually construct each other. By reading works of ancient history, historical fiction and myth, students will learn to appreciate individual and collective undercurrents which can be masked by the material habits that constitute a culture. 

We will take day trips to museums, historical sites, cemeteries, thrift shops, the local shopping mall, and the local garbage dump and recycling center to learn about the stewardship of objects as cherished artifacts, coveted consumer goods, donations, and waste. Each student will write several short critical essays and creative pieces that build towards developing a proposal and writing sample for a term paper to be completed in the winter: either a work of historical fiction or a research article based in historical or archaeological material culture. Students will also be completing weekly seminar assignments. Winter quarter work will focus on each student’s individual project. Students will complete a series of outlines, drafts, revisions, and edits, culminating in a final paper presented in the final week of the program. Students interested in how materiality shapes our world, and how we construct stories from examining those discoveries, will benefit from this program. 

This offering will prepare you for careers and advanced study in:

history, archaeology, creative writing, and the humanities.


Credits per quarter

Online learning:
  • Hybrid Online Learning - This offering delivers < 25% of its instruction online, rather than via face-to-face contact between you and your instructors.

$50 in Fall for museum and site visit entrance fees.

Class Standing: Freshman–Senior
Class Size: 46
50% Reserved for Freshmen

Scheduled for: Day

Final schedule and room assignments:

First meeting:

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 - 10:00 am
SEM 2 D2105 - Workshop

Located in: Olympia

2018-11-02Winter enrollment is closed to new students
2018-08-10Description updated
2018-07-18Required fee reduced to $50 (was $100)
2018-06-11This program now accepts students of all class levels.
2018-03-29New opportunity added.