Welcome to Life of Things! 

Our first meeting will be on Tuesday, September 29 at 9:30 am in Library 1326

 If you are waitlisted for the program and plan on attending, please e-mail one of the program faculty for further information. 


Eric Stein  (Anthropology and History)          Lab 2, 3274     867-6434         steine@evergreen.edu

Karen Gaul (Sustainability Studies)  Lab 2, 2253     867-6009         gaulk@evergreen.edu


Program Website: Please log into http://elms.evergreen.edu & select “Life of Things.”

Visit our website for the most up to date information on our programs and to download short readings.  Only enrolled students will be able to access the site.


Short Readings for the first week (posted online in mid September):

Joseph Mitchell, “Hit on the Head with a Cow”

Jorge Luis Borges, “John Wilkins’ Analytical Language”

Sherry Turkle, Evocative Objects, “1964 Ford Falcon”


Major Areas of Study: cultural anthropology, museum studies, sustainability studies, expressive arts.


Class Standing: This program is designed for First and Second year students.


Retreat: During week 4 the program will embark on a three day retreat to the Long Beach Peninsula, from the morning of Tuesday, October 20 until the evening of Thursday, October 22.  Please plan your work schedules to accommodate this trip. 


Program Fees for Fall Quarter: $130 (covers retreat costs and art supplies)


Final Book List, Fall 2009 (Available in the Evergreen State College bookstore)

Marcel Mauss, The Gift

Ann Gray, Research Practice for Cultural Studies: Ethnographic Methods and Lived Cultures

John Ryan and Alan Durning, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things

Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Mary Beth Mills, Thai Women in the Global Labor Force

William Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India


Additional short readings by Jorge Luis Borges, Karl Marx, Thorstein Vebelen, Walter Benjamin, Mary Douglas, Jean Baudrillard, Daniel Miller, and others will be posted to our website beginning in mid September.


Other things to bring: yoga mat, comfortable clothes for yoga, fabric scraps

Weekly Schedule and Classroom Location


Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Reading and Prep Day 9:30-11:30 Lecture/


Library 1326



Peer Review


1-3:30 Film/Art  

Sem 2 C1105

9:30-12:00 Seminar

Sem 2 B2107

Sem 2 B2109


12-2 Project planning

Sem 2 B2105

9:30-11:30 Yoga/

Awareness CRC 314


12:30-3:30 Methods/

Project work

Sem 2 E1107

Project work (Service, Fieldwork, Writing)


*NOTE: Students planning work schedules should be aware that weekly reading responses will be due on Tuesday evenings.  Friday schedules will depend on specific group project needs and are somewhat flexible.  


Program Description

This program is an inquiry into our relationships with material things.  In this three quarter program we will draw from a variety of disciplinary perspectives to explore material things as cultural objects that speak like texts, define social networks, incite desires, and become markers of identity.  We will follow the biographies of material things as they are born in factories or art studios, take on exchange values, circulate as gifts or commodities, and come to rest in museums or landfills.  Exploring things—and crafting some ourselves—will teach us about our economic and social values, our selves, and our connections with the rest of the world.


The Circulation of Things: In fall quarter we will focus on exchange, globalization, and consumption, inquiring into the social obligations wrapped up in gifts and the presumed freedom of commodity markets.  Through visits to garage sales, shopping malls, box stores, and swap meets, as well as our historical and ethnographic studies, we will consider how everyday objects—blue jeans, bicycles, toys, books, coffee beans—travel far from the global locations in which they are created and take on shifting economic and social values within consumer cultures.  Why do we long for such things, and how do they make us who we are as individuals and as a society? 


In addition to our traditional academic inquiry into things, we will explore other modes of understanding material culture.  During fall quarter we will complete two creative projects that will entail making things ourselves and placing those things into various circuits of exchange.  Through the creative projects we will learn several technical craft making skills and relate our experience fashioning material goods back to our theoretical inquiry.


We will also engage in contemplative practice and yoga, drawing on Buddhism and other traditions to develop a clearer sense of awareness of how material things enter into our lives and consciousness.


We view each student as a valuable co-contributor to our program inquiry: the skills you bring into the program will be put to use as we craft things, eat things, create digital media, and build community connections.  



In addition to completing seminar readings, short papers, and ethnographic assignments, each student will take part in one year-long collaborative research and service project with the goal of producing lasting resources for scholars, educators, and community organizers.  These projects include


  • Research on the lifecycle of clothing and goods, and an examination of class, ethnicity, and consumption at the Goodwill “Bins” in Seattle and Tacoma.
  • Historical and ethnographic research on the material practices of immigrant groups in Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle.
  • Forming partnerships with local non-profit organizations to redistribute needed goods to underprivileged populations here and abroad, in relation to principles of human rights.
  • Research into the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of everyday technologies.
  • Creating a digital museum of consumption to serve as an online educational resource that visually represents consumer practices in the U.S. and abroad.
  • Study and engagement with “Zero Waste” initiatives on campus and in the City of Olympia.





Knowing Things: In winter quarter we will explore how things are collected, ordered, and understood through various meaning systems.  We will inquire into a range of things—souvenirs, heirlooms, relics, artwork, and antiques—that enter collections and museums.  We will weigh ethical debates over the return of indigenous cultural property and explore the politics of representing the “other” through the display of displaced artifacts. 


Beyond Things: In spring quarter we will examine the social and environmental outcomes of consumption, and look at the transition from goods to waste.  We will look into dump sites, toxic storage facilities and other spaces where objects are deposited after their owners believe their value has been exhausted.  Taking a cue from gleaners, scrap traders, scavengers, freegans, and other creative waste entrepreneurs, we will look at how “dirt” as a symbolic category may be overturned so that discarded materials can be reincarnated and recycled into new circuits of exchange.  Finally, we will explore the worldview of those who choose to consume incredibly small amounts of things through the Voluntary Simplicity and related movements.


Through projects, readings, and activities, students will learn key principles of cultural anthropology, ethnographic fieldwork, semiotics, museum studies, sustainability studies, and develop potent modes of cultural critique in the course of the program year.   



Faculty Bios

Karen Gaul received B.A.s in Psychology and Theology from Carroll College, an MTS from Harvard Divinity School, and an MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts.  Karen has conducted ethnographic research in the Himalayan mountains of India, the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri, and the amazing mountains of Alaska.  Her work includes analyses of gender and work, verticality and movement, sustainability, development, forest resources and resource distribution, identity, place based studies, and contemplative practice.  Karen is a certified yoga teacher.  Karen longs for the simplicity of having very few possessions, and is continually confounded by all of the stuff in her house.

Eric Stein received B.A.s in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin (1995) and an MA and PhD in Anthropology and History from the University of Michigan (2005).  Eric has studied and conducted research abroad for extended periods of time in Indonesia, The Netherlands, and Thailand.  He is broadly interested in medical anthropology, medical history, science and technology studies, semiotics, memory, material culture, gender, ethnographic representation, and power.  As a former zine writer and recovering garage sale addict, Eric is fascinated with underground exchange cultures and looks forward to bartering with students.

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