Categorizing the Things in Tim Obrien’s “The Things They Carried”

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When I teach introduction to literature, I almost always teach Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  And when I teach that I have traditionally begun the class period by writing a list of objects from the story as students call them out.  We then talk about what the objects mean and what they say about the characters, and we’ve generally attempted some work at categorizing them.  As I kept going back to this way of teaching the story semester after semester, I realized that I was doing the bulk of the intellectual work — I was leading the students to an answer I wanted them to reach, rather than pushing them to explore the items and think about the way that they all fit together to make up the whole of the story.

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Categories of objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Tools; apparel/gear; emotional items; weapons; and food.

So the most recent time I taught the story, I tried an experiment – and while I admit it needs a bit of fine-tuning, I think this is something that can work well.

For this lesson, I needed index cards, markers, and lots of masking tape.

1. First, I had students work in pairs to come up with a list of items from the story.  I encouraged them to identify items from different sections of the story –not just from one paragraph or one page.

2.  Students then wrote the items on the index cards.  On the front, they wrote the item, and noted the page number and the weight (if it was listed).  On the back, they wrote the category that O’Brien gives the item (i.e. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity”) and the person who carried the item.  Each pair had to complete 25 cards.  (Note: I think 25 cards was too many for the particular class session that I tried this, though I’m not sure if that’s a function of my overestimation of what students could get done or if it’s a function of my overestimation of how many students had done the reading.  I’m also not sure that the information on the back was entirely necessary.  I’m still mulling that over.)

3. Next, each pair joined another pair to form a group of four.  I then directed the students to swap cards with other groups: 25 cards went to one group, 25 to another.  The end result was that each group had 50 cards written by other groups.  The groups eliminated any repeats and then worked to sort and categorize the items, according to what they saw as commonalities among the items.

4. We then worked as a class, listing the categories and  narrowing them down – for example, one group listed apparel and another listed gear so we folded the into a single category.  I wrote the major categories on index cards, taped them to the wall and then the students worked to put their cards under the appropriate classification.

One of the things that we noticed while doing this is that students had different ideas about some of the objects – are those objects that hold superstitious value really necessary items? Is Kiowa’s hatchet a weapon or is it more of an item with emotional significance?

This assignment also gave us the opportunity to really visualize the number of objects that the characters in the story carry (and that’s why I’m not sure that the problem was really that I gave the students pairs too many cards).

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Recreational items; tools/utilities; and apparel/gear.

Ultimately, this exercise was designed to help students slow down and pay attention to details, to read carefully what the O’Brien’s characters “think” they’re doing, and to take note of what the narrator actually presents to us about the actions of the characters.  We were able to focus on the material as a metaphor for the emotional experience of the characters, and the students’ physical interaction (even if through the place-holder of index cards) drove home the importance of those details in the story.  Even if we could not feel the weight of the objects, we could more firmly visualize their impact in our analysis.

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Weapons.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.