huge piles of trash at a landfill



A First-Year Tutorial offered fall 2021 and 2020, taught by Kelly Maynard, associate professor of history

This tutorial is about stuff — about the physical objects and environments that surround us. At a superficial level, this is a course about consumerism and accumulation, about the habits we have developed in an early 21st-century world driven by interconnected global markets.

A stuffed toy bunny

But we also consider waste, deprivation, and the vast inequities rooted in historical encounters that these more recent habits have perpetuated. Further, we ask what does stuff mean? How do our individual, physical bodies actually interact with things through our senses? What is the relationship between form and function in the objects we choose and use? How have the collection and curation of objects over time contributed to hierarchies of value? How does our stuff help us shape deeply personal narratives, identities, and memories? What symbolic roles do things play in our communal lives, in our shared rituals? How do we think about stuff in relation to environmental crisis, sustainability, and a global community? Through the lens of stuff, then, we encounter the material world in a digital age.


Why I Wanted to Teach This Topic

I chose this topic because, as a historian, I'm interested in expanding the stories we can tell about the past if we look at sources beyond what traditionally has been collected in archives. "Stuff" seems to fit the bill. With support from the Mellon Humanities in Action grant recently awarded to Grinnell, I have been working with advanced student researchers on a series of new classes in material culture studies, of which stuff is but the tip of the iceberg. Finally, I love supporting hands-on, experiential learning through the body and the senses, especially in the throes of a virtual world accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

– Kelly Maynard


Why I Chose This Tutorial

Tali Berk '24

To Consider Our Attraction to Objects

I have always been interested in why there is this attraction to physical objects, and why that system of object-loving is in place. When I decided to take the class, I was thinking mostly about consumerism in America and why it is so prevalent, but I was pleasantly surprised when I found the class taking a global lens and looking at the issue of consumption through all different kinds of people and cultures. Over the course of this tutorial, I have done a lot of introspection on how my location might impact my relationship with stuff and how the American nation is only a fraction of consumers in the world. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to think about this issue beyond how it pertains to me and to grow my worldview to think in a more inclusive and holistic way.

– Tali Berk ’24

Meredith Benjamin

To Explore Something Interdisciplinary

I chose this class — truthfully — because of how random it sounded. "Stuff." No fancy words, no subtitle, just "Stuff." I was intrigued. Tutorials are such a fantastic opportunity to explore something random — something niche, something interdisciplinary, something that doesn't fit neatly into boxes — and I decided I wanted to steer into that as much as possible. I liked the idea of being in an environment where my classmates were as drawn to that idea as I am. And I must say, it paid off. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to introduce me to Grinnell. Professor Maynard created such a lively, thoughtful learning environment even amidst the unnatural conditions of a virtual classroom. My classmates and I had spirited discussions spanning everything from consumerism to environmentalism to ancient philosophy to museum curation. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to take this course with this group of people.

– Meredith Benjamin ’24

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