At the beginning of Professor Balmurli Natrajan's anthropology course, he shows his students a simple object, usually a pen.
"What do you see?" he asks.
At first, they describe the obvious: a pen.
Then he urges students to think about the pen's life. What is it made of? Where did it come from?
"They start seeing that there are human beings, dead and alive—some of them barely alive—that have actually gone into the making of that object," explains Mr. Natrajan. "They start excavating some of those things that are hidden."
Mr. Natrajan has been teaching anthropology courses at William Paterson University, in New Jersey, for more than six years, but he says this course is easily the most beloved by his students. It's called "Global Transformations and the Human Condition," and it uses everyday objects to teach students about globalization, development, and how different parts of the world are linked in complex and subtle ways. When he introduced the course three years ago, he had trouble filling the seats and taught as few as 10 students. Today the course has become so popular that Mr. Natrajan is planning to add a section in the spring.
As part of the course, students are required to write a research paper about an object from their everyday lives and trace its journey. They discover how their item was made, the treatment of the workers who made it, and the borders the product crossed to reach the United States. Then they find where it ends up as waste. People have chosen objects as varied as a baseball, a diamond, and a guitar string.
The idea to research objects came partly from Mr. Natrajan's experience teaching globalization. He knew his students needed a way to relate to the material so they wouldn't be limited to picturing faraway places disconnected from their own lives. Most of them had never traveled abroad, and it was a challenge to make students realize that they were already part of a global economy. But when he started assigning the research paper, he says, they began to "rethink the world around them."
"He talks about what's going on around the world and brings it back home," says Paola Valencia-Cadena, a fifth-year student who is writing her paper on silver jewelry. As an immigrant to the United States, she says the class has helped her understand trade issues happening in her homeland of Colombia.
One student this semester is studying iPhones, which contain columbite-tantalite—a mineral that humanitarians have blamed for fueling warfare in the Congo, where it is mined. Another student, Nicole Fetkowitz, is studying tea.
"The British robbed India and China of all their tea, and I'm wondering if it's still going on like that," says Ms. Fetkowitz. "I drink tea all day, every day, so I just want to make sure that what I'm drinking was gotten fairly."
At the end of their reports, the students are asked to develop a strategy to resolve the harms associated with their object. They often suggest solutions like fair trade, sustainability, and smarter resource consumption.
"I don't think a lot of people realize what's going on," says Ms. Fetkowitz. "I want to be a more conscious consumer and figure out how I can help fix these problems."
Mr. Natrajan says the students often teach him things he didn't know. "Every object is part of a web of economy, politics, and culture," he explains. "It's a learning experience for everyone in the class."