"I get so jealous when you talk about garbage," said a student in my African-American Lit class this morning. Garbage wasn't even on the agenda today, but I made an off-hand comment about how the poem under discussion seemed to be exploring a landfill, which made one student groan and another grin and express the sentiment above.
Why? Because I've already announced that the theme of the senior capstone class I'm teaching next fall will be Garbage. Yes: I'll be teaching the trash class, teaching students to excavate literary landfills. Current juniors are puzzled over how they can possibly spend an entire semester considering garbage, and it doesn't do any good to quote A.R. Ammons ("Garbage is the poetry of our time") or mention how garbage ties together all levels of human culture in, for instance, Don DeLillo's Underworld and Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend--or, more recently, how discarded, neglected, and buried experiences can be retrieved from the trash heap of history to create new narratives, as in Ruth Ozeki's Tale for the Time Being.
Students also seem skeptical when I assert that the need to deal with garbage marks the essence of human culture: groups work together to assign meaning to stuff, placing every material thing, person, or experience on a continuum from "highly valued" to "worthless," and then they make adjustments when those values change. (That old broken-down butter churn is suddenly an expensive antique? Says who?) And of course we'll be dealing with language itself as a compost heap of buried meanings that decay and combine and nourish new growth. We'll read some texts and examine some Garbage Theory (yes!) and then I'll set the students loose on their own research into garbage in (or as) literature.
I try not to bring up garbage too frequently but I can get a little passionate about the topic, so when garbage gets dumped into the conversation, students tend to roll their eyes and groan. A few, though, are envious. We take turns teaching the senior capstone and focus on very different topics, which is fun for the faculty members but not always for the students, who have no choice but to take the class offered in their senior year. Some students find the prospect of spending a semester studying garbage unpalatable, but for the rest--let's get ready for some literary dumpster-diving!