Teaching: Mapping Transnational Toy Routes

I’m teaching an American Studies course this summer on conformity and rebellion in youth culture.  A major component of youth culture in America over the past century has been the near constant creation of new toys.

An assignment for the course was an investigation of America’s toy culture, and included two parts.  Part 1 asked students to dive into an experiential analysis of a chosen toy by thinking about what the toy means for youths in our culture:

Toy Paper: Toys are an essential component of youth culture in modern America and, as argued by Roland Barthes, “toys always mean something, and this is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life.” 

First, read this excerpt from Roland Barthes’s Mythologies on toys.  Choose a toy from TIME Magazine’s “100 Greatest Toys” list released prior to the 1990s, and write a 250-word paper in which you put that toy into conversation with Barthes’s argument.  Visually analyze the toy – how it looks, how it moves, what it says, the target audience, marketing strategies, etc.  Describe the experience of playing with that toy and the meanings and myths it reinforces (you might want to visit your local toy aisle and make a purchase).   Post your response along with a Youtube video or image of an advertisement for that toy on your Tumblr.  This advertisement should be a primary source and not a secondary source.  Hashtag it #amst201youth  #amstpurdue  #amstproject

Second, students were asked to jump to current day to investigate the labor behind the toy. How does these toys, mere material objects, claim space in hidden, global ways?

Students are asked to choose any toy out on shelves today and investigate how the toy is constructed.  Where is the toy made?  What is its path to arrive in a store in the US?  How is the toy made?  What is the experience like for workers making this toy?  Post your 250-word paper along with at least 2 sources (not Wikipedia), and a photo or video depicting a worker constructing/holding the prepackaged toy on your Tumblr using the correct hashtags.

Because most Americans never realize the often multi-thousand mile journey a toy has to make before it is gender-segregated on WalMart’s toy shelves, I had hoped that students would particularly reveal transnational trade routes.  And I was thrilled with the response!  To visualize this, I composed a Google Map with markers and paths from their factory locations to Purdue University, where the class is offered.  Take a look:

A map I created to visualize how many of America's toys originate, trade hands, and cross maths around the world.
A map I created to visualize how many of America’s toys originate, trade hands, and cross maths around the world.

What’s your favorite toy and where does it come from?  How can we learn about our global patterns of consumerism by tracing the factory-to-store paths of our most treasured toys?  My sister’s childhood favorite was the the troll:

20150112233420-troll

Interested in learning more about our course?  Follow the hashtag #amst201youth on Tumblr or check out my instructor blog for the course here: http://amstyouthculture.tumblr.com/

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