About the Course


Over the past two decades an interdisciplinary concern with objects and ‘things’ has given rise to a new field of material culture studies. Scholarship in this area has focused on questions of how objects mediate social relationships—ultimately how inanimate objects can be read as having a form of subjectivity and agency of their own. However, even as material objects travel through space and time, and play an important role in the identity politics, little of this work in material culture studies has focused explicitly on questions of the role of objects in the (re)production of diasporic and transnational identities and communities. The purpose of the course is to bring these areas of study together and explore how objects participate in, shape, and express diasporic and transnational experience. We will explore how objects connect people, across time and space, with their own historical selves and examine the historical agency of particular objects and collections in mediating transnational and diasporic experience. The course focuses on the culturally defined and socially regulated processes of circulation, transaction, and use to examine the ways in which diasporic communities

The course is designed to:

• help you develop an understanding of theoretical approaches to objects and material culture;

• apply that understanding through empirical work in diasporic contexts;

• enhance your ability to critically evaluate, analyze, and summarize texts and debates and present them in a written form

• To expose you to well-developed research projects and a range of methodological tools with which to analyze and understand processes that contribute to the production and reproduction of transnational processes and spaces;

• develop critical perspectives on the study of diasporic and transnational processes.


The course is organized around thematic modules. For the first few weeks we will focus on theoretical perspectives toward objects and material culture. This lays the ground for thinking empirically about objects in the context of diasporic communities and transnational processes. In each module we will read a series of articles dealing with particular objects and, where relevant, I will invite guest speakers to add insight to issues raised in the readings. In sessions with guest speakers, I expect you to engage with the speaker in a respectful but challenging way and to come to class with questions.

Class Sessions: This is a reading intensive course that will be run as a seminar. This means that each class will be structured around readings, which will form the basis for class discussion (schedule below). I will provide context for each weeks reading and some backdrop for discussion. If you have questions about the meaning of the readings we are discussing, please feel free to raise them in class. If we don’t get to address your questions in class, I’ll be happy to discuss them with you individually. I would like discussion to be student initiated as much as possible. To encourage this, one student will open each discussion with a ‘review of the readings’. These should be commentaries rather than summaries and should be oriented toward generating discussion. That is, you should identify questions and quotations from the readings that will serve as the focus for class discussion, and identify what you take to be the key insights developed in the readings for that week. This isn’t a formal presentation but your reflection on the readings. You should also offer your thoughts on how the week’s readings relate to each other and to material already covered in the course. Also feel free to highlight any part of the reading that you found to be particularly challenging or provocative. These reviews should not be complex or unduly long. The intent is to allow others to quickly comprehend your points and to initiate and maintain discussion. Feel free to use notes but an informal discussion of your thoughts is most effective in engaging your classmates. Remember that effective informal presentations require preparation. You need to know, in advance and in detail, they key claims you wish to make and your reasons for making them to be able to effectively communicate them to your classmates. You and I will then be responsible for leading the discussion. Depending on the final enrolment, weekly discussion may be moderated by pairs of students.

Reading: This is an intensive reading course, the success of which depends on close and careful engagement with the relevant texts. Please take a careful look at the reading requirements before committing yourself to this course. This is a seminar course built around discussion and the success of those discussions relies on an ongoing engagement with the course readings and with each other’s work. It is important that you not only keep up with the readings each week, but that you read with both an appreciative and a critical eye. The quality of discussion will depend to some extent on your ability to contextualize the readings, so I expect you to read these articles dialogically; meaning that you should read not only to extract information but to acquire knowledge – as we move through the course, read for relations between discussions and for points and counterpoints that extend discussions beyond the boundaries of each article. Identify the effective qualities of each reading and try to articulate why they are effective. Also, read in a way that allows you to appraise and document the quality of the authors’ arguments. What claims is the author making? Are these supported with reason and evidence? Does the author rely on or appeal to generalizations that should be brought into question? Also, as you’re reading, think about methodology. On what methods of ‘data’ collection do authors rely? What’s the usefulness of the method? What kind of information is produced and how is knowledge built around that information? Think about how you could use similar methodological approaches in your own research projects.

Participation: As the course is built around discussion, participation is important. I expect it of all of you and have included a participation grade. Participation includes regular attendance; a demonstration that readings have been completed and commentaries carefully prepared; insightful contributions to class discussion, cooperation and tolerance for differing opinions, attentive listening, and respect for each other. For each class meeting you should come prepared to specify a passage or an idea from the reading that you found interesting or provocative and be able to explain your reasons for selecting this to the class. You should also be prepared to discuss how a particular reading aids or confuses your understanding of the issues we have been addressing in the course.

Using the Blog: You should use this blog to post your weekly commentaries. These should be uploaded to the blog no later than 9pm on Monday nights. At some point in the day on Tuesday, I expect each of you to read through at least 4 of the commentaries of your classmates and offer a comment on their remarks. This allows you to get a better understanding of what each other are taking away from the material and allows me to better focus class discussion around your insights. If you cannot attend class, it is essential that you talk to me as soon as you know that you will not be able to make it, especially if you are responsible for leading discussion for that class. Always feel free to e-mail me or to phone me. If I am not in the office, leave a message. I check e-mail regularly.

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