What's Up With Your Stuff?

Holly Hughes, Edmonds Community College


In this quarter-long sequence of activities, students will have the opportunity to determine their ecological footprint and explore their relationship with our consumer culture through a variety of activities, including a "service-learning" project with Eco Encore, a non-profit organization which recycles books and media, as well as a member/recipient organization that is involved in local environmental restoration projects.

Learning Goals

Writing Outcomes: Reading and analyzing the effectiveness of a variety of texts (critical reading/critical thinking);
  • Analyzing the effectiveness of different rhetorical strategies using compare-contrast analysis and considering audience and purpose; and,
  • Writing using different rhetorical strategies, including expository and reflective writing.
(NOTE: The students are also writing journal responses and traditional analytical essays in response to natural history readings in the text, Writing Nature, so they will have an opportunity to practice a variety of different rhetorical strategies, as well as think about audience, purpose and context).

Sustainability Concepts: reduce/re-use/recycle, ecological footprint, consumer culture, effective social change models, small actions/large impacts.

Context for Use

This is a quarter-long series of activities that could be used in an introductory English composition class, such as English 101; it could also be used in a coordinated studies class with an English link. It was originally developed in a coordinated studies class linking Biology 105 (Natural History of Western Washington) and English 105, which is similar to English 101.

The focus of the reading in the English 105 class is natural history and sustainability. The purpose of this series of activities is to give students the opportunity to explore their relationship with their consumer culture while providing them with an opportunity to participate in two types of "service-learning" activities:
  1. Eco Encore where reduce/re-use/recycle is the model; and,
  2. An environmental organization where they can participate in environmental restoration and learn about local non-profit environmental organizations.
Possible Use In Other Courses:This assignment has been used in a learning community combining English and biology. A slightly different version of it has also been used in several anthropology classes, adapted to meet the needs of that discipline. It could also be used in a sociology class.

Description and Teaching Materials

This series of activities would be introduced at the beginning of the quarter, carried out throughout the quarter (concurrent with other class assignments) then concluded at the end with a team presentation and by writing several final reflections. The assignments themselves are intended to be discrete, so they can fit in around the usual required essay assignments for English 101. In addition to time spent reading and participating in a discussion board forum on Stuff, the students would be expected to devote 6 to 10 hours to working with Eco Encore and providing service with another environmental organization, as well as giving a team presentation on a local environmental organization's mission and goals and the challenges it faces, both operationally and in terms of this issue it is addressing. (See "Team Project" attachment below).

Students will complete the following activities as part of this quarter-long project:
  1. Compute their ecological footprint using the website footprint.org and write a one page reflection on what they learn. This would happen early in the quarter. (See Reflection on Stuff)
  2. Read Stuff: The Secret Life of Everyday Things, then discuss it in a Blackboard discussion board forum with their classmates. (See Reflection on Stuff)
  3. View "The Story of Stuff" (http://www.storyofstuff.org/) then compare & contrast it with the book in terms of its rhetorical style, audience, purpose and the different media formats. (See Reflection on Stuff)
  4. Write a 2-3 page research or reflective essay describing their relationship with their "stuff." (See Student Reflections)
  5. Research the "Mission and Goals" and one significant issue for one of Eco Encore's recipient environmental organizations, then present their findings as a team presentation to the class.
  6. Participate in the Eco Encore Service-Learning Project: 6-10 hours on the following service learning activities: 1) Helping to collect books and media materials, listing and determining their value for re-sale (3-5 hours) 2) Participate in an environmental service project with one of Eco Encore's participating organizations (3-5 hours)
English 105B Analytic Writing (Microsoft Word 36kB Nov3 11)
Reflection on Stuff: The Secret Life of Everyday Things: Discussion Board Questions (Microsoft Word 32kB Nov3 11)
Service Learning Team Project (Microsoft Word 41kB Nov3 11)
Service Learning Reflection (Microsoft Word 28kB Nov3 11)
Team Presentation/ Report Assessment (Microsoft Word 27kB Nov3 11)
Student Reflections (Microsoft Word 33kB Nov3 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

  1. Stuff was published in 1997, so the information is out of date. I've looked-but haven't yet found-another text to use instead. I'm hoping that Northwest Environment Watch will update it. We talk about this in class and how the students have the opportunity to update it through their own research.
  2. Expect to encounter resistance to the "service-learning" project that students are required to participate in this work outside of class time. I found, however, that almost every student ended up saying it was one of the most valuable aspects of the course at the end (see sample reflections). I used to ask that students spend 10-15 hours per quarter and encountered much more resistance, so I cut back the required number of hours. Six to ten hours seems to be an amount of time that they can fit in to their busy lives. In addition, we made the Eco Encore listing parties more appealing by bringing food and drink (with the permission of the coordinator) and awarding prizes for the team who generated the highest amount of donations for their recipient organization.
  3. Students may feel overwhelmed by having this project running concurrently with other essay assignments. Weekly reminders and a separate schedule of weekly deadlines help with this. I chose to have all the reflections handed in the last week of the quarter after we'd completed all the other assignments for the course, rather than have them due earlier in the quarter, but you might chose to collect them earlier.
  4. I need to acknowledge Dr. Thomas Murphy (Anthropology) and Dr. Hans Landel (Biology) for their roles in helping to develop these assignments. Dr. Murphy, in particular, should be credited with developing the Eco Encore service-learning project which I have participated in for several quarters, most recently spring 2008.


Assessment of Reading: Blackboard discussions are assessed by the depth and quality of the students' responses and their responses to each other. Do their questions deepen the conversation? Do they raise new ideas rather than simply re-stating what's been said? (This is less formal, based on guidelines for the discussion board that are passed out the first week).

Assessment of Writing: The students' reflective essays are assessed according to a rubric that is handed out in advance with the following criteria: thoughtfulness of response, effective use of evidence (quotes from text and their own examples), depth of research (if appropriate).

Assessment of Service-Learning: "Service Log & Reflection": Students are required to contribute 6 - 10 hours to Eco Encore or their participating organization. This will be assessed through their Service Log. Their reflections will be assessed according to criteria distributed in advance: thoroughness in addressing the questions, engagement, use of evidence.

Assessment of Presentation: see Team Presentation assessment

References and Resources


Eco-encore http://www.ecoencore.org/
Ecological footprint: http://www.ecologicalfootprint.org/
"The Story of Stuff" 20 minute video: http://www.storyofstuff.org/


Stuff: The Secret Life of Everyday Things by John Ryan and Alan Durning (Northwest Environment Watch)
How Much is Enough: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth by Alan Durning (Worldwatch Environmental Alert Series)


"The Merchants of Cool"
"The Story of Stuff"