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Dimensions of Waste

Instructor: Dr. Heather O'Leary
Spring 2017

Course Description:

Waste is not apolitical.  Its conception, creation and management are deeply cultural practices.  In this undergraduate seminar, students will learn how local stories integrate to larger, cutting-edge research on waste, gleaned from direct, in-person contact with leading waste scholars. Students will have direct contact with renowned experts visiting for the 2017-2018 Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on Wastelands.  Course content will draw from core texts in environmental anthropology and ecocritical theory.  We will learn to analyze contemporary perspectives on waste by reading scholarly and activist “texts” (publications, author visits, blog posts, etc.) as not only disseminators of facts, but also as cultural artifacts of specific epistemologies of waste. 

Students will produce Mini-Documentaries or Podcasts using their own original fieldwork interviews to demonstrate the flows of waste in the local community.  Students will explore how local community discourse traditions complicate those in academic, governmental and private-sector “knowledge cultures”. Students will develop community-engagement skills through in-class modules that train them in practicing inclusive ethnography, which foregrounds learning from community members as experts of their own experiences rather than as objects of data-extraction.  Students will learn how to modify research projects to meet community needs and perspectives, without losing sight of research directives.  

Students will also rigorously examine the role of the academy in reproducing waste systems.  We will embark on a semester-long discussion of the barriers to sharing academic research and the damage that occurs when the academy isn’t in conversation with the public.  This course ultimately trains students in “translating” cutting-edge theory through not only applied multimedia skill building, but also in directing this process ethically: (i) mapping theory locally, (ii) putting it squarely into dialog with local voices that support and challenge it and (iii) empowering oneself as a lifelong critical thinker about the process of cooperative knowledge practices.