Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2010 (March 24, 2010 at 12:00 am)

Trash or Treasure

March 24, 2010 at 12:00 am
By Katherine Leveling'09

If you took the garbage out this week, you probably did it grudgingly. You threw the heavy, smelly bag into a bin, eager to be rid of a nasty jumble you no longer needed—and definitely didn’t want. You secured the lid, and walked away feeling freer and lighter. The waste was in its place.

Trash or Treasure LondonIf you had taken a Beloit College course called Victorian Garbage, that task might not have been so simple. You might have paused to ask big questions: questions about filth and cleanliness, purity and defilement, worth and waste. How did you decide those objects were garbage? What does it mean to experience disgust? How do we define categories of value and non-value? And how do these categorizations shape our world?

These are just a few of the questions posed in Associate Professor of English Tamara Ketabgian’s multidisciplinary course. Cross-listed as women’s and gender studies, English, and interdisciplinary studies, it explores the Victorian period through a wide array of approaches. Urban planning, medical science, visual art, public health, photography, evolutionary theory, canonical literature, period essays, anthropology, and sociology all come into play.

“It’s kind of like a landfill,” creative writing major Caitlin MacDougall’10 observes. “A whole bunch of topics packed into one class.”

As her simile implies, all these topics hang together under the umbrella of garbage. The course’s unconventional focal point, says Emily Dennis’10, was refreshing. “I liked approaching the Victorian era in a way that isn’t about crinoline—something a little grittier.”

The gritty approach wasn’t just alluring; it was a great basis for exploration. When you ask questions about garbage, it turns out, you’re asking about the way humans view their world. “Waste . . . by definition challenges cultural, psychological, and conceptual boundaries,” Ketabgian writes in the course description. “Indeed, it is impossible to study filth without considering that from which it is presumably excluded: purity, beauty, value, and godliness.”

To dive into these concepts, students read anthropologist Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger. Garbage, it argues, is about categorization. Waste doesn’t fit in the parts of our lives we deem essential or pleasurable, so finding a place for it—both physically and mentally—takes some cognitive adaptation. “What we think of as refuse is actually very present,” explains Dennis, who says Douglas’ ideas have stuck with her long after the course.

Becoming conscious of our reactions to garbage, Ketabgian says, is one of the course’s broader themes. “Disgust seems to us such an intuitive response. It’s really a complicated intellectual and philosophical decision that we can historicize and ally with different kinds of culture. It says so much, not only about the object of disgust but also . . . the people who feel it.”

Students saw this idea at work in the social texts of the Victorian period. Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, for example, shows how impoverished Londoners were seen as human waste, a group society tried to disown. In that context, garbage took on a social justice cast. “[Waste] is a huge social, ethical, and philosophical issue, especially when you think about how humans can classify and denigrate each other,” Ketabgian says.

Impressive in the abstract, garbage was also studied as real, physical filth. As students learned, Victorian London was dirty, plagued by disease-ridden sewage systems and faulty conceptions of hygiene. They delved into the sludge by reading The Ghost Map, a book about London’s 1854 cholera epidemic. The outbreak eased when a doctor traced the illness to a Broad Street water pump, sparking the rise of epidemiology. By reading The Ghost Map and some period health treatises, students found another lens through which to see the Victorians: science and medicine.

They also saw the period, quite literally, through its photographs and art. J.M.W Turner’s ethereal landscape paintings and John Thomson’s photos of London street life were windows into Victorians’ lived experience.

All these disciplinary approaches, Ketabgian says, operate on many levels. The class is an exercise in interdisciplinary work, but it also traces the rise of disciplines themselves. “The 19th century was such a fertile time for disciplinary formation,” she explains. “My students don’t realize it initially, but the course is in large part about disciplinary formation—the classifying or categorizing project that’s inevitably arbitrary, reductive, and incomplete but really interesting. I think [this course] really highlights different ways of seeing and different ways of knowing.”

These ways of seeing and knowing converged in the course’s main piece of canonical literature, Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Highlighting issues of class, wealth and poverty, and the multifaceted operations of cities, the novel provided a story and a context for much the students had learned.

“You could see aspects of everything that we’d talked about in that book,” says Kate Hermanns, a senior music major. “Physical garbage, wealth as garbage, disgust between classes and the way that gluttony is just as disgusting as dung heaps. I think that book really worked well in the class and people were always making connections.”

Trash or Treasure TamaraThe text was so magnetic, perhaps, because it tackles the Victorian era in the same way students did: through a variety of lenses and approaches. “It’s such a vastly encyclopedic book,” Ketabgian explains. “There’s this incredibly intricate social network and, ultimately, through all kinds of social and emotional and economic transactions, everyone is connected. Dickens wants us to have, as the character Mr. Venus would say, ‘a panoramic view’ of it all.”

A panoramic view is, in many ways, what interdisciplinary work aims to achieve. As English major and women’s and gender studies minor Naomi Salmon’10 observes, topics in isolation can only tell us so much. “The world isn’t really separated into academic disciplines. So much is lost trying to contend these spaces. The reason for learning isn’t to know everything about, say, Charles Dickens’ individual life—it’s to branch out from that.”

Ketabgian echoes this thought, adding that progress—in the Victorian period and throughout history—stems from interdisciplinary collaboration. “That kind of hybrid interdisciplinary thinking, the kind of thinking that we really encourage at the College, that is the kind of thinking that has allowed people to make a change for the better. A lot of the big discoveries in the sciences, the really exciting theory in social sciences, the groundbreaking work in the humanities—it’s not ‘pure.’ It has to do with precisely that cross-fertilization, that mixing and blending of different fields.”

Students saw this “cross-fertilization” not just through the course material, but also through fellow classmates. “Part of the reason I loved the class so much was because everyone brought something different,” says MacDougall. “People came from so many different perspectives.” Students represented backgrounds ranging from women’s and gender studies to journalism to sociology to environmental biology to English to mathematics. That variety of interests was most clear, perhaps, in some stunningly creative final projects.

Dennis’ project, for example, was “Meat Market: Victorian England’s Cultural Reckoning with the Female Flesh.” She showed how representations of women were correlated with language about meat-heavy diets—both channeled anxieties about temptation and indulgence. Michelle Donahue’11 explored misreadings of Darwin, popularized in the Victorian era, that highlight disgust with ‘lower’ evolutionary beings. Hermanns explored something that’s routine to us, but life-changing in the Victorian period: electric light.

“I wanted to do something about space and the way that spaces were constructed,” she says. When she read that electric light was new to Victorians, she was fascinated by the distance between her own experience and theirs. “It sounds really silly, but how do you live without electrical lighting?” she asks. Her project not only allowed her to explore an interest in urban planning—it also changed her habits.

“I’ve really tried to cut down on my computer time,” she says. “If I’m on there too long, I think how [the Victorians] would be appalled if they could see me typing for hours on this backlit screen. More than a lot of classes, [Victorian Garbage] made me think about myself.”

Experiences like Hermanns’ speak to the impressive reach of the course. Victorian Garbage wasn’t about a narrow focus on one period; it was about exploring a period to discover the wider world, to understand different ways of knowing that world. “I don’t see my primary goal as producing a lot of little Victorian studies experts,” Ketabgian says. “I want my students to have the ability to make arguments on different sides, employing different points of view and real flexibility, real versatility.”

Those skills, MacDougall thinks, make for the most satisfying education. “Every interdisciplinary course I’ve taken has been the most rewarding,” she says. “It’s classes that cross-reference other fields of study that really stick with you. Maybe because that’s what I want to do anyway: I want to see the relevance in fields of study and understand how they apply to each other. This school really seems to encourage and value that.

Katherine Leveling’09 majored in literary studies at Beloit and is currently an intern in the College’s Office of Communications and Marketing. She plans to go to graduate school in English.

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