“It’s Kind of Cool to be a Turnip Expert”: Dr. Clare Sammells on Experiential Learning through Field Trips and Food Experts

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

For the May installment of the Food Pedagogy Interview Series, we hear from Dr. Clare Sammells, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bucknell University. Her popular 200-level course “Food, Eating, and Culture” asks each student to become a “Food Expert” on one particular food over the course of the semester—a technique which brings topical depth to the theoretical breadth of the course.

If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.

Dr. Clare Sammells

Dr. Clare Sammells

Lauren Renée Moore: I’d like to get started by hearing a little bit about your research.

Clare A. Sammells: I conduct ethnographic research in highland Bolivia and with Bolivian migrants living in Madrid, Spain. My main research areas are the anthropology of tourism and the anthropology of food. I’m especially interested in how food is used to construct touristic experiences and ideas about heritage. So, I consider touristic restaurants and how the cuisine that’s served to foreign tourists in Bolivia is in conversation with the food people are eating in their homes and in other contexts. In Spain, I researched Bolivian restaurants that cater largely to Bolivian migrants, and investigated the challenges of producing Bolivian food in that context.

LRM: What kinds of student does the course attract?

CS: I have a lot of second semester seniors, some of whom are interested in food from the point of view of other disciplines, and some of whom have an open elective and think food sounds awesome. I agree! Most of my students are not anthropology majors, and many have never taken a course in anthropology before.

LRM: Could you tell me a little about your institutional context?

CS: Bucknell is one of the largest liberal arts colleges, located in Lewisburg, PA, which is a town of about 12,000 people surrounded by agricultural areas. We have a large Mennonite population in the area. Many who live here participate in Community Supported Agriculture programs, where they buy vegetables and fruits directly from farmers. Many people here garden, can, and engage with producing food very directly.

LRM: What do you want students to get out of this course?

CS: One of the things I do want them to get out of this is a basic understanding of the subdiscipline of the anthropology of food…. so the things that we anthropologists take for granted like, how is food a symbolic part of human existence? What do food taboos mean? How can we think about commodity chain relationships? What are the economic structures that influence what foods we have access to? Those kinds of questions.

But given that so many of my students are not anthropologists, I have a more general goal, too: I want them to think critically about where their food comes from, who’s growing it, and how one can be an ethical consumer. I would hope that after this class, they wouldn’t just go to the supermarket and pick up strawberries and buy them, but might actually think about who is growing them, what kind of chemicals are going into their production, and whether people are getting a fair wage. And I hope that my students would have some idea of how to go about finding answers to those questions.

I want them to have a better understanding of anthropology, but I also want them to be ethical eaters.

LRM: Do you feel like students leave the class as more ethical eaters?

CS: Oh, absolutely. Many students take the class because they’re already concerned about this issue. I have a lot of vegetarians in my class, for example. All the students bring in a dish once during the semester, and they socialize each other into being explicit about whether the dishes have meat in them, or dairy, or gluten, etc.

One of the things that a lot of students begin to realize in this class is how little they actually know about their food. When I point out that they don’t know where the cucumbers that became the pickles on their hamburgers were grown, or where that cow was raised, then they can see that they really don’t know that much about their food. My goal isn’t necessarily to change their food habits, but rather to encourage them to ask more questions about what they are eating.

LRM: Let’s get into your syllabus. I noticed that you incorporate a field trip. Can you tell me about it?

CS: [I take students to] Owens Farm, about 40 minutes from here in Sunbury, PA. It’s an interesting farm because they are engaging in sustainable meat production of sheep and pigs. The Owens also do a lot of pedagogical events, including a Sheep Camp, where kids stay overnight at the farm during lambing season. When the sheep go into labor, they wake the kids up to help the sheep give birth. They do a lot of programs to get people engaged in agricultural work.

It’s always interesting for me to take my students there. I’ve had students who had never seen a horse in person, who didn’t know that sheep made noise. I lived on a farm in Bolivia, so all that seemed really obvious, but it’s not necessarily part of all college students’ experience to interact with animals in that way.

LRM: There’s an assignment attached to that field trip. What do you have students do in that assignment?

CS: At the time we do this field trip, we’re also reading Warren Belasco’s Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. It’s a wonderful book, and he talks about how people have historically thought about the future of food. So I ask my students to think about Owens Farm as a very direct response to some of the industrial agricultural practices we see in our world. What is the alternative this farm presents for the future, in terms of how we could think about meat production? So I have them write a reflection paper on that experience.

LRM: You don’t allow computers in your classroom. Could you talk a little about that?

CS: I don’t allow computers in any of my classes. If I had my computer on in the classroom, I know I’d be on Facebook. So, I think it’s unfair for me to expect my students to not be on Facebook. It’s my personal quirk. I feel that for 55 minutes they can pay attention to me and to each other. I don’t spend most of my time in class lecturing, so I’m not expecting them to transcribe what I’m saying… instead, I have them sort through problems or analyze readings with each other.

I know people feel differently about electronics in the classroom, and I do make some exceptions. For example, I have them take a modified version of the Food Stamp Challenge. For that class, they bring in computers and work with one computer per group to go online shopping with a budget. But I find for the most part prohibiting electronics works pretty well. I find that if that policy is in the syllabus and I am consistent and clear about it, students accept it. It makes an enormous difference in terms of making sure students are engaged with the class. They’re paying attention, and they’re not distracting each other. I think it’s working pretty well.

LRM: Can you tell me about the “food experts” component of this course?

CS: That’s actually one of my favorite parts of this class. I think it may be part of why so many students might take it… they have snacks in class everyday!

The very first class I bring in food. I try to bring in something that the students won’t immediately be able to identify. I tell them, “If you have an allergy, you can tell me, and I will assure you that this will not kill you. But, other than that, I’m not going to tell you what this is.” Then, I have them write a description of it. I tell them that one of the challenges of writing about food is trying to describe foods to people who have never tried them. Talking about food is always audience-dependent. This time I brought in chuño (Andean freeze-dried potatoes). It was interesting to see which ones of them liked it and which ones were not as enamored.

During the first week I bring in a box with paper slips naming 50 foods. They’re all basic ingredients: chicken, spices like cardamom or cinnamon, grains like wheat or rice, tubers like potatoes or manioc, fruits and vegetables. I have them pull one name out of a hat, and then I give them a week to trade with each other or with the “leftovers” at my office. There’s a little bit of choice, but they all end up with a unique food. That’s the food they follow through for the rest of the semester.

I want them to think of it as a field-to-fork kind of assignment where they are becoming the class expert on something. They address the theoretical themes that we are talking about in class through short papers that are focused on their own food. Once during the semester, they bring in a dish that highlights their food to share with their class. Then they write a paper about the experience of working with that food, and how people responded to it.

They don’t generally cook a lot, and some students have told me, “This is my first time cooking something on campus.” It’s really interesting to see them engaged with the food in an experiential kind of way. That’s really different from just writing about something.

LRM: Can you tell me a little more about the short essays related to the theoretical components of the course?

CS: Each of the paper prompts deals with the themes for the week. Early in the class we deal with things like domestication: what’s the relationship between humans and their food? The first prompt is “Discuss the agricultural and/or environmental context of the production your food, and how that has changed over time.”

Another paper asks them to compare two dishes with the same ingredient that are eaten in different cultural contexts, and to talk about the difference in symbolism between those two dishes. So, they think about how the same food can be invoked in different meaningful ways. Another paper is to think about how their food is affected by globalization, and how it moves through global networks of people and economic systems. They follow one food all the way through.

At the end, I had one student say to me, “I never thought I’d know this much about turnips!” But that’s kind of cool, to be a turnip expert.

LRM: How do you select the foods that make that 50 foods list?

CS: I pick foods that appear in multiple cultural contexts, so they can be compared cross-culturally, and that are part of a global commodity chain of some kind. I also pick foods that I think they’ll be able to find, work with, and cook. For example, I don’t include lobster, because that’s expensive. I also don’t include foods, like llama meat or guinea pig, that would be extremely difficult to find in central Pennsylvania.

LRM: I wanted to jump to a different aspect of the course. I see that you have listed a teach-in day for Martin Luther King, Jr. day. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about that?

CS: That was a campus-wide event at Bucknell University in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day. The challenge to all of us as faculty was to discuss questions of structural racism and structural inequality in the context of whatever classes we were teaching at the time.

I broke from the regular syllabus a bit to talk about food deserts, and to look at Monica White’s work with African American urban farmers in Detroit, and how they’re dealing with food deserts by farming their own food. The D-Town Farmers have an agreement with the city of Detroit to farm in one of the public parks. I showed the students a video interview with one of their leaders, Malik Yakini, and we looked at maps of food deserts in urban areas such as Baltimore.

I started off the class by asking them a series of questions, and asking them to stand up when they agreed. I began with, “Everyone has the right to eat,” and they all stood up. But then we got to questions like, “People should pay for food,” and “Grocery stores should have the right to open up where they think they can make the most money,” this is where we start to see the contradictions. If food is a right, how do we make sure everyone has access to it?

I don’t have the answers to that question, but I wanted them to understand that access to food parallels other kinds of structural inequalities like racism and class.

LRM: One of the challenges instructors face is getting students to pay attention to the syllabus. I notice that your syllabus has a statement about emailing you with a particular word by a particular date for extra credit. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

CS: Oh, yeah! That’s my Easter egg, and I’ve actually started doing that in a lot of my syllabi. The first assignment for all of my classes is to read the syllabus, and I’ve found that a lot of them were not doing that. So I started adding these things. The word changes every time, and I also change where it is in the syllabus. About 1/3 of the class emails me with the word, and I give them extra credit. Even though it’s not a huge thing, I think it gives them the feeling that they’re starting off on the right foot. And it ensures me that they actually have looked at the syllabus. Of course, we all want our students to know what they’re getting into, and to feel like they are agreeing to engage in the same project that we are as professors.

LRM: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the book selections in the course? I know you use Meals to Come, and it looks like you also rely fairly heavily on Noodle Narratives. Could you talk a little bit about that?

CS: They read the The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century,

picture of ramen

which I like because it takes a food that my students are probably more familiar with than they would like to admit (instant noodles) and puts it in cultural contexts that they would not necessarily consider. Instant noodles were developed in Japan, and are consumed in Papua New Guinea, on college campuses, and by many prisoners in the United States. Here in Lewisburg we’re very close to four major prisons, and it’s a major employer in the town, so this is part of our local economy. Noodle Narratives allows us to address [a wide range of] questions.

LRM: Are there other readings that are particularly successful?

CS: I really like the first chapter of Paul Stoller’s The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. I open with that. He and his wife are living with the Songhay, and the chapter describes an intentionally disgusting meal and what that’s meant to communicate.

My students really like this piece. It’s beautifully written and it’s a compelling story. I think the idea of being a teenager who has to communicate in non-verbal ways resonates with them to some extent. The main character who’s preparing this meal is a teenager, and she feels powerless; this is how she’s able to express herself. It gets students thinking about food in a different way. This cook’s goal isn’t to make something tasty and delicious, although she can cook. She chooses not to cook well for a specific reason, and her purpose is correctly interpreted by everyone. That’s a piece I really like to start with because it captures first what it’s like to be an anthropologist, and second, the communicative aspect of food that is so powerful.

Another piece that they found really interesting was Michael Owen Jones’ piece “Dining on Death Row: Last Meals and the Crutch of Ritual.” I showed them a short video about the procedures followed on an execution day, and we talk about that as a ritual. Then we discuss what rituals do, and why are so many people interested in what the condemned eat for their last meal. We were able to use that to talk about things like the structural inequality that exists in our incarceration system, who is put on death row, and why people would be interested in what they’re eating. [The students] had a lot of interesting things to say about that.

LRM: One of the things I’m really interested in is how you have interwoven global topics with things that are going on in North America–like freeganism–that students might relate to.

CS: I think one of the challenges for our discipline is how can we talk about big global processes and yet still think about the daily, lived experience of people who are eating meals with others particular contexts.

The freegans are particularly interesting. We spend a week talking about dystopias and how people envision the collapse of food systems. I show them clips from Soylent Green, for example. We move from that to freegans, who are commenting on waste in our society. I show them Dive: Living Off America’s Waste, a documentary about dumpster divers in Los Angeles. dive_poster-87cbd2d9

There’s a really interesting scene in this documentary in which some of these dumpster divers are confronted by the police. These dumpster divers are all clearly middle class, white, young people with nice cars, and they’re in dumpsters getting food. One of them just walks up to the police officer and shakes the officer’s hand while they film him. The police officer’s really polite to them. I challenge my students to think about whether would everyone in this situation feel comfortable doing that. That’s an incredible position of privilege to feel like you can walk up to a police officer and explain to him that, yeah, you’re breaking the law, technically, but see, you have this political project. And the police officer will be like, “Ok, can you just clean up when you’re done?” Especially in our current context, with the national discussion we’re having about the relationship between the police and African-American men, this moment in the film was really striking.

We talk about the difference between dumpster diving with your four-figure video camera and private car, versus someone who actually needs that food. My students talk about how, on the one hand, they want to reduce food waste. But on the other hand, they’re also part of the society we’re in, and their ability to do that is structured in certain ways.

LRM: Do you have any final thoughts?

CS: I think one thing that has really worked for this class is getting students to cook and to eat. I think often, especially those of us who work with college students who live in dorms who might not have their own kitchens, we can be hesitant to insist that they cook because of those structural constraints. At the same time, I have found that they are excited to do that. They come to class and talk about trying out recipes on their roommates, borrowing tools, putting out grease fires. One of the great things about food is that we can engage all the senses. It’s one of the reasons I like to have food in class, because just talking about food makes you hungry!

LRM: This sounds like an engaging and exciting class. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

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Filed under anthropology of food, culture, Food Studies, teaching

Robert M. Netting Best Student Paper Prize

The Culture and Agriculture section of the American Anthropological Association invites anthropology graduate and undergraduate students to submit papers for the 2015 Robert M. Netting Award. The graduate and undergraduate winners will receive cash awards of $750 and $250, respectively, and have the opportunity for a direct consultation with the editors of our section’s journal, CAFÉ (Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment), toward the goal of revising the paper for publication. Submissions should draw on relevant literature from any subfield of Anthropology, and present data from original research related to livelihoods based on crop, livestock, or fishery production and forestry and/or management of agricultural and environmental resources. Papers should be single-authored, limited to a maximum of 7,000 words, including endnotes, appendices, and references, and should follow American Anthropologist format style.

Papers already published or accepted for publication are not eligible. Only one submission per student is allowed. Submitters need not be members of the American Anthropological Association but they must be enrolled students. Students graduating in the Spring of 2015 are eligible. The submission deadline is August 31st, 2015. Submissions should be sent to Nicholas C. Kawa (Ball State), nckawa@gmail.com.

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Filed under AAA, agriculture, anthropology, awards, foodways

“Would you put oregano on your posole?” Lois Stanford on teaching “Food and Culture Around the World” and using New Mexico’s diversity in the classroom

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

This month, we hear from Lois Stanford, Associate Professor of Anthropology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Dr. Stanford teaches a popular upper-level undergraduate course titled “Food and Culture Around the World.” In our interview, she describes how she uses New Mexico’s rich ethnic and culinary diversity to engage her students, the three-project structure of the class, and her film recommendations for the classroom.

If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.

Lauren R. Moore: Before talking about teaching, can you tell me a little about your research? I attended your presentation at the AAAs last year, in the food sovereignty session put on by Culture & Agriculture, I really am interested in some of the work you’re doing with seed saving.

Dr. Lois Stanford: Yeah, I’ve gotten really interested in it. I’ve done a couple of workshops with Native Seeds and I have a colleague here at NMSU who is a plant breeder. He works in traditional open-pollinated varieties of corn. I’m really interested in working with him, and with Native Seeds, to work with farmers and how they use [seeds]. I think there’s a lot of possibility for working with [farmers] in a way that would be useful to them. One of the things Native Seeds does is keep really good records on the seeds they are reproducing, but not enough from the farmers’ perspective. They don’t have the resources to look at how communities respond to them—you know, what kind of food they’re making, and what people prefer. I think there’s some potential there.

LRM: Tell me a little about this class, ANT 360: Food and Culture Around the World.

LS: Most universities have courses that are general education, because they want students to broaden their perspectives. At NMSU, we have classes that are general education at the freshman level, but we also have classes at the junior/senior level. These juniors and seniors are required to take at least one class outside of their college. It regularly draws from all over the college, and outside of Arts and Sciences. This class is also an elective for several of the majors in dietetics and nutrition and the College of Health and Human Services. Many students are studying dietetics or nutrition. They often go on to work in issues in public health or social work or dietetics. I just hope the class will get them thinking about these things more broadly, and will affect how they work and how they think about things, as well.

I try and get [students] to think about the relationship between food and culture, the way our culture shapes how we look at food, and how we use food to communicate and create social bonds—to really think about food differently.

Since this is a Hispanic-serving institution, I’d say easily half of the class is Hispanic. So, a lot of what we talk about is how much food has been an important part of their lives, their families, their identities. That’s something that I think really helps them look at food differently, too.

It’s a class I teach once a year; it fills within 24 hours after the registration opens up. It’s students who haven’t had anthropology; they’re also not students who are used to reading a lot of material, and they’re not students that have lots of experience writing. So, it’s kind of a class where I have to do a lot of teasing and cajoling. I’m using a new textbook, Gillian Crowther’s Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food.

Crowther coverIn the past, I’ve used Counihan and Van Esterick’s Food and Culture: A Reader, which I really like. When I teach anthropology students and graduate students, it’s a really, really good book. But the students in this class… Counihan and Van Esterick sent them right over the edge. They can’t read the articles and put it all together in a framework, so I’m using a different text for that reason. I have to structure things much more than I would with anthropology students or with graduate students.

LRM: Syllabi are such a great resource, but one of the hard things about consulting syllabi is that you don’t always have a sense for how the classes function day-to-day. I wonder if you could give us a picture of what one day in your class looks like?

LS:  I tend to be very structured. The class is run in a lab, so there are tables, and everyone is sitting in order. And then, it depends on what we’re doing in class… over the course of a week, I would do a lecture and would do a PowerPoint (I can’t lecture without PowerPoint). I have lots of pictures, and I tend to lecture standing in front of the slides and then asking questions and drawing people into the conversation. And then, those days are interspersed with films. When we have films, I usually give students a list of questions for stuff that they’re supposed to watch, and we then have a discussion after we a watch the film. We tend to alternate between something that’s more structured, like lecture with discussion and participation, and films that are followed by group discussions.

LRM: How do you have the course organized?

LS: First, I’m a cultural anthropologist. I know a lot of scholars may teach food from a biocultural perspective. I have the biocultural for one week at the beginning of the semester, and then we talk about subsistence and hunting and gathering lifestyles. Then, I domesticate food, and we talk about the fact that food is cultural, because most of what we eat is food that was domesticated. Then, I talk about food and history, followed by food and social relations.

Towards the end of the semester I move into talking about the transformation of traditional food systems. So, talking about globalization and the industrialization of food and the impact that has on us and on our health. We talk about some of the movements that can be looked at as forms of resistance to that industrial food system. So, talking about food and borders and identity, and then talking about local food systems.

LM: How does the New Mexican context shape the course?

LS: Because of where we are, [there are issues with] trying to revive the local food system and improve food security. It isn’t really food studies like Indiana University…we’re in a very poor state, in a Hispanic-serving institution, we’re in a public land grant institution, and we are in the middle of a drought. We have food production issues, we have a very low income and very ethnically diverse population… the context makes food studies much more applied.

I think a lot of people don’t really realize how important food is to them and to their own identity. In many other areas of the country, they might look at New Mexico and say, “Well, they eat Mexican food.” But, here in New Mexico, food is a really important marker of the geography of the region and your identity. When people start talking about those issues toward the end of the semester, they’re starting to loosen up a little, and they start realizing how important these things really are.

People who come from northern New Mexico think the food’s really different down here. We use more chile, it’s spicier, we use more oil; we’re influenced by Mexican food. Northern New Mexico is very “comida la ranchera,” it’s more peasant food, stews, and they just use red chile. The Mexicans who immigrate across the border, they make their enchilada sauce with red chiles but also with mulatos, anchos [dried poblanos], güeros [banana peppers] and different kinds of chiles.

All these kids recognize that the tastes are different. So the minute you start talking about ethnicities and boundaries and borders, you start asking, “do you use yellow cheese or white cheese?” “What kind of chile do you use?” “Would you put oregano on your posole, or would you put cilantro?” They realize how we use these things to create boundaries and differences, and it really is important to them. It’s a lot of fun.

WhitePozoleDF

White pozole with oregano.

Also, because here in New Mexico… I don’t mean any disrespect, but it’s not Vermont! We have kids that are Hispanic from northern New Mexico, who never considered themselves Mexican. They’re Chicanos, they’re descendants of Spanish. We have New Mexican border culture down here. We have immigrants, people from El Paso who are Hispanic and have grown up on the border, and have immigrants from Mexico. And I’ll often have Navajo or Mescalero [students], or students from the Pueblos. All of a sudden people start talking about their own experiences.

I think it’s really interesting for the white kids, too, because we have a tradition of farming in New Mexico, and many of them… they don’t have to go back far before they start realizing their own ancestry and their own foodways. They may be third or fourth generation immigrants. They don’t speak the language, they don’t have any ties, but often times food is that last thing that you kind of hold on to a sense of your family and who you are. They never really thought about it that way. They have a culture, too. I like to tell them, “those of us from the South, we have culture too!”

LRM: This sounds like it gets to be a really lively point in the course. Do you have particular activities that get these kinds of discussions going?

LS: One of the things we do at the end of the semester, when we’re talking about ethnicity and borders, is I have a PowerPoint slideshow, and we go through and talk about “What is a burrito? What do you put in a burrito?” Because in California, where I grew up, we have “California burritos,” where you put the rice and all of this stuff in them. And the students are like, “Oh, god! That’s disgusting!”

california burrito

California Burrito

Then I talk about posole, and ask, “Your posole, is it white or is it red?” They get into these arguments about what kind of cheese you’re supposed to use. Are you supposed to sauté the rice before you put the tomato sauce in it or after? At that point, they really realize how important these little tiny differences are, and it’s because we make them important. We assign value and importance to them.

They also do a series of projects in class. The first project they do is to write a history of a food, they have to pick a food and write a short history of it. The second project they do is an observation at a meal. They have to document how the food is used, what kinds of social values are being reinforced through the sharing of food and how it’s organized. The last assignment is an interview with someone with a list of questions I provide that focuses on someone either from their family or somebody from another ethnic group, someone who is an immigrant or who has grown up in a different food culture. It’s a narrative interview to look at how that individual uses food as a way of maintaining their ethnicity.

LRM: What kinds of questions you have students ask in that interview?

LS: Well, if somebody’s immigrated, students ask what kind of foods they ate while growing up? What kinds of challenges did they have trying to maintain those foods when they came to the United States? How did they find them, how did they learn how to fix the foods, who taught them? Do they still eat these foods? When do they eat them?

What we find a lot here is that when people assimilate, they don’t fix traditional foods on a daily basis. But for feast days, for Día de Los Muertos, there are tamales all over town. Everybody has to have tamales for Christmas, and it’s a really big deal whether you make them yourself, or if you go buy them…that’s considered cheating. That’s a really big deal.

A lot of times, the kids don’t realize how much of those foods are still a part of their cycle. It’s part of the seasonal cycle, not what they eat everyday. But when it’s somebody’s birthday, when it’s Lent, it’s really important that those foods are served.

LRM: Is there one assignment or one section of the class that students seem to enjoy the most?

LS: I think it’s probably the interview. I think that it’s often an interview they do with someone who’s a member of their family. So it’s often educational and also more rewarding. But it’s also towards the end of the semester, and I think that we all get a little loosened up moving ahead.

LRM: Is there anything that you have kept consistent throughout the years of teaching the course that really seems to go well every time?

LS: The three projects have worked fairly well. With the history of a food, they don’t have to go out and talk to people. There are so many websites now. I post a link to the food timeline, and the Smithsonian’s got a lot. They can get their feet wet, you know… start thinking about these things, but they don’t have to go out and interview somebody or do something that engages. So, I think that’s a good start. Then, the other two projects involve them in doing a little anthropology… one is an observation, and one is an interview.

LRM: Is there anything that you have tried and jettisoned?

LS: When I first started teaching the class, I moved very quickly into local foods and organics and alternatives. And, this is a generation of kids that have grown up at McDonalds, and most everybody shops at Wal-Mart. You know, and some of them are gardeners, and some of them have a very different relationship with food, but I feel like it’s very important to not be too judgmental, to not be too dogmatic, to lead people into thinking about these things as opposed to beating them over the head with it.

I also like to talk about the contradictions and the realities of our lives. We can’t all be pounding corn and making tortillas every day; we’ve got to do something else. And they may occasionally see me at Wal-Mart, picking up laundry detergent. I think that trying to get people to think critically and reflect on it, and to not be too heavy into the organic kind of stuff. That’s definitely improved my teaching evaluations.

And the text reading, too. I loved Food and Culture: A Reader, but it just didn’t work for that audience. I’m hoping that this one works better!

LRM: Do you feel like there’s anything you do differently with this group? While they aren’t anthropology majors, they are juniors and seniors. Does that change your approach at all?

LS: Yeah, in the sense that they’re older, they’re more mature. We often have students who are returning students, so they often have families, they’re parents. We have a lot of veterans, we have a long tradition of military service with students coming back to finish their degrees. So I feel like maybe one of the reasons I like the class is that although they may not be aware of the concepts and may not have had the anthropology, a lot of them have had world experiences. They’re raising kids, and thinking about these kinds of things in their own lives. They served in the Middle East and they’ve been exposed to other cultures… so they’re not anthropology students, but they’re grown ups. That experience is nice.

LRM: You mentioned that you use films. Do you have particular films that you’d recommend?

LS: I really like the… they are dated now, but the PBS series that was done on food, The Meaning of Food, that Marcus Samuelsson interviews and narrates. They’ve got three parts: Food and Life, Food and Family, Food and Culture. They do these short vignettes, so they’re thematically organized then you get to see these different cases.

I’ve shown Food, Inc. before, and thought that was a little “rhhm-rhhm-rhhm-rhhm” (heavy handed).

I really like an ABC News special that Peter Jennings did (it’s really old now [aired in 2003]) called How to Get Fat Without Really Trying. It’s about the industrialization of the food system. Very Marion Nestle-ish—how they convince you to eat more and you don’t even realize it. They’ve got some great quotes, where some of these advertising people are talking about how they changed the formula of cranberry juice so there’s no cranberry juice in it, but people can’t tell the difference! And they just say these things…. it really gets the students going.

A really nice film that’s on the Center for Urban Pedagogy website that’s called Bodega Down Bronx. It’s nice, because we’re so Mexican and rural and border here, it’s a nice cultural difference.

And there’s also a really nice film called Ingredients about local food systems. It’s organized around the whole annual cycle, with local production coming full circle. It’s very nicely done, and it really focuses on CSAs, locals, and organics. And it’s in Washington state, with white people in Birkenstocks and stuff. So we watch that and everybody really likes it, and then I say, “What’s not in here? What’s missing?” and they’re like, “There’s no Mexicans in here!” There’s no desert, except for maybe a short five-minute clip in Tucson. So people have the sense that it’s not… it’s really good, but how does it get extended? How do other people participate in it? But it’s a really nice film, I like it.

And, I use a series of films that… well, I’ve done work in Mexico on food as cultural patrimony, and so there’s a short film that Mexico’s tourism department did and then presented to UNESCO as part of their food as their heritage. And then France did one, and France presented it. And so we watch the two of them, and they’re very different because Mexico is presenting its indigenous heritage, the farming, and the land. And then France…well, it’s all Paris, it’s French and Parisian, it’s urbane and cosmopolitan, so they’re presenting a different national image. It’s a nice contrast.

LRM: For instructors who are developing a food-related course for the first time, do you have any thoughts or suggestions for things to consider?

LS: I think the syllabi that have been provided by SAFN are a really good place to start because you can really see how different instructors have approached the same topic. Somebody who has a background in nutrition or who has more of a biocultural background, there would be different elements that they would include, and the course would be organized in a totally different way. I think it would help somebody who’s starting out to see what the different options are. Play with the syllabus, and make it yours.

LRM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

LS: In addition to the undergraduate program, we have a Master’s degree, and we have a graduate level minor in food studies. New Mexico is a really neat place because there’s so much really interesting fieldwork that the students can do right here. Some students have done stuff that is food security related, designing curriculum for a school or something like that, others have done projects that have been more like food studies. I had a students who did a MA project on an ethnography of the matanzas, which is the tradition of the ritual slaughter and roasting of pigs for a feast. I had another student do an ethnography of an old, Hispanic, border restaurant, interviewing and cooking with the sisters who are behind the restaurant. We’re in a really culturally diverse area, where there’s a lot of opportunity for students to do really neat research, even at the beginning graduate level.

LRM: Thank you so much for your time!

 

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AAA 2015 Urgent Deadline Reminders!

From the SAFN program chairs for the 2015 meetings of the American Anthropological Association:

The deadline for submitting proposals for panels and papers at the AAA meetings in Denver is fast approaching—April 15th. You must be a member before signing up, so don’t wait until the very last minute. However, SAFN can allot one membership and registration waiver to a “guest” who will be presenting in one of our panels or workshops. To be eligible this person might be a non-anthropologist or be employed outside the US or Canada as an anthropologist. If you are interested in applying for a waiver, please fill out the form accessible on the AAA website at http://aaanet.org/meetings/President-and-Program-Chair-Waiver-2015.cfm, and email the form to USuvarnakar@aaanet.org BY TOMORROW APRIL 1. We would also appreciate you sending a copy to us at jgross@oregonstate.edu. We must tell you that we have not been able to open the form on our Macs, so if you have the same problem, please contact Ushma Suvarnakar at the AAA.

We’d also like to remind you to be sure to select SAFN as the first, second, or third reviewer (first step on the submission form) if you want us to consider sponsorship or co-sponsorship. Know also that you can apply for a refund of registration fees by October if your proposal is rejected.

Joan Gross and Arianna Huhn
SAFN 2015 Program Chairs

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Interrogating the “Authentic” Local Ethnic Restaurant

M. Ruth Dike
University of Kentucky

I moved to Lexington, KY last August to start a PhD program in Cultural Anthropology. After a few months, I decided to ask my fellow graduate student Daniel, who grew up in Cholula near Mexico City, about where I could find “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington. I wanted to know because I thought it would be nice to take my fiancé, Mario (who grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico until moving to the US in the 4th grade), to a restaurant that could remind him vaguely of his mother’s cooking (however futile that may be). Daniel obliged and even drew me a map of “Mexington” (no joke, that’s what Lexington calls it) with three “authentic” restaurants on it.

It was awesome that Daniel was so willing to show me places of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington but thinking back on it now, this wasn’t the best way to ask where to find less-Americanized Mexican food, or any type of international cuisine for that matter.

A few weeks later, we did end up going to Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez with a few other friends late on a Tuesday night. Below is a picture of my meal:

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

What even makes food authentic? Is it how long it’s been cooked in a certain way in a certain country? How far do we go back to look? 50 years? 1500 years? Are all the regional versions of couscous in Morocco just as valid as an imaginary “national” version of couscous? Is Neapolitan pizza more Italian than Sicilian pizza? Are we looking only at “authentic” Mexican food in Mexico or also in the US? Is Mexican food served in other parts of Latin America “authentic”?

When writing this post, I have to recognize my own privilege in being able to ask Daniel where “authentic” Mexican restaurants were in Lexington. Why don’t people ask me, “Where can we find “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis?” Am I any less knowledgeable of American food (having grown up in Memphis) than Daniel is of Mexican food? No, but we don’t expect Americans to make broad sweeping generalizations about a monolithic homogenous cuisine like we do for Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Moroccan, French, or other types of cuisine. We have regional varieties of American food but don’t realize that other countries are just as regionally diverse (thanks Olivia for this point). So maybe we should ask ourselves, would I ask that about American restaurants of my American friends?

And yes, I have had people ask me where to find good barbeque in Memphis (my choice), but the fact that they know to ask about barbeque because I’m from Memphis shows that they actually recognize America’s regional diversity. The way we use “authentic” in everyday life masks the regional variety of our local ethnic restaurants.

Why has no one ever asked my fiancé Mario (who has lived in Memphis since the 4th grade) about “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis? Is he less knowledgeable about American cuisine than I am? Nope. But sometimes I ask Mario to guide me through all of Mexican cuisine and culture. I realize now that it’s not fair to ask my international friends and family to represent an entire place and culture anymore than it’s fair for them to expect me to represent all of American culture.

There can be a complicated relationship between Americanized ethnic food and those from the culture that a restaurant might be trying to represent. Jiayang Fan, for instance, admits in The New Yorker that she loves General Tso’s chicken, but feels embarrassed about ordering it in Chinese restaurants. Mario loves Taco Bell. He doesn’t call it Mexican food but he does go there during the day.

Our friends and I thought the meal at Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez was delicious. I was impressed with the variety of meats offered and the distribution of ingredients in the burrito. Mario thought that his meal was tasty but that the carne asada in his burrito could have been a little fresher (we did go around 8 pm). I was reminded that Mario grew up having tasty carne asada at various weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms throughout his life and had a much wider range of experiences with it than myself. Also that his mother is a cooking goddess.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

We need to stop using the word authentic in a way that homogenizes ethnic cuisine when we ask our local Cultural Tour Guide** (ahem, friend) about local international restaurants. Instead of using the word authentic, you could ask, “What region do you think this Chinese (or Italian or Mexican or French or Pakistani) restaurant most identifies with?” “Are there any restaurants here that serve food that reminds you of home?” “What local restaurant has the least-Americanized food from your culture?” or simply: “What do you recommend around here to eat?”

Or you can use asking about “authentic” cuisine as a starting point for a deeper conversation about other cuisines. I think all too often we use our knowledge about sushi or pho to show our cultural capital without actually knowing much about another culture.

Eater.com editor Joshua David Stein says that, “there’s nothing more authentically American than inauthenticity.” Perhaps instead of searching for authenticity in ethnic cuisine, we should be searching for the complicated lived experiences of our international friends.

I’d like to thank Daniel V., David B., and Olivia S. for their insightful comments about this blog. This blog was inspired by another awesome article about food cultures written by Amy S. Choi as well as graduate seminars in the Gastronomy program at Boston University and the Anthropology program at the University of Kentucky.

*By international I mean any immigrants/visitors from other countries.

**The term “Cultural Tour Guide” was introduced to me by Olivia Spradlin, who heard it in a Gender & Women’s Studies graduate class at the University of Kentucky.

Ruth Dike considers herself a food anthropologist and recently started her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her here and reach her at mruthdike@gmail.com.

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Food and Work in the Americas

labor_12_1_2_CovPRINTfinal

Sent to us by Steve Striffler (Anthropology, University of New Orleans):

Food and Work in the Americas, a special issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History in the Americas, edited by Susan Levine and Steve Striffler, Volume 12 Nos. 1-2  May 2015

From the introduction:

Food studies is now a large and important field of research for scholars, journalists, activists, and others who have become increasingly interested in the history, culture, and politics of food. A sizable literature has emerged in the last two decades, largely from social scientists, which explores food from a multiplicity of angles, including foodways and identity, agricultural policy, the industrialization of food, nutrition, the body, commodity chains, alternative food systems, and globalization. Interestingly, however, very little of this recent work has taken a historical look at food and agriculture as sites of work. Workers remain marginalized in general, and historical treatments of labor and workplaces are even less common.

Labor historians, by contrast, have long considered food-related work sites. Classic studies of meatpacking occupy a central place within broader discussions of industrialization. An even larger literature has explored the variety of work and workers on farms, plantations, ranches, and haciendas throughout the Americas, shaping how we understand agrarian life and capitalist transitions. More recently, labor historians and others have moved further from agricultural production, beyond the farm or processing plant and into (food-related) domestic and service sector work sites. Yet, for the most part, these studies do not engage with food itself, in a broader sense, as a critical element in class, gender, ethnic, or racial life.

Our aim in this special issue of Labor is to challenge labor historians to think about food and work in ways that not only include the production of food itself, but the production and reproduction of working class life. We are interested in the work of food, its central location within the broader fabric of working class life, and the relationship between the two, but also in the connections between the production of food, the reproduction of working people, and the very nature and trajectory of capitalism itself.

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Raising the Bar for Introductory Classes: Susan Rodgers on Challenging and Changing Students through “Food, Body, Power”

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

Welcome to the inaugural interview of SAFN’s new Food Pedagogy Interview Series. Each month, we will feature a food scholar who teaches a course related to food or nutrition. They will share tips, tricks, and cautionary tales from their classrooms. If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.

2015 kicks off with an interview with Susan Rodgers, Professor of Anthropology at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Rodgers was the 2013 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching/CASE Massachusetts Professor of the Year. Though Rodgers’ own work focuses on the politics of art and literature in Indonesia, she has developed a challenging and provocative food class for first and second year students at her college. She speaks here about the course, successful components and cautionary tales, and why anthropologists should have high expectations for introductory classes.

SAFN members can access the syllabus Dr. Rodgers discusses here through the SNAC 4 resource page.

Lauren R. Moore: Can you tell me a little about how this course got started?

Susan Rodgers:  First of all, I’m not an anthropologist of food. My work and publications are on very different things. I’ve worked with the Angkola Batak people of Indonesia since the mid 1970s on issues of the politics of print literature, and minority arts in Indonesia in general.

I came to Holy Cross to help the school set up a new anthropology program in 1989, after teaching at Ohio University for 11 years. About 7 years ago, the college made me the Garrity Chair, which is a rotating, endowed professorship [during which] you have to design a brand-new course that speaks to issues that the Garrity family was interested in—social justice issues, basically, and fine liberal arts teaching with challenging texts. At the time, I was using a lot of Paul Farmer’s work in a freshman seminar. I was really impressed by how well Paul Farmer’s work teaches to first and second year students, so I decided to create this Food, Body, Power course. It’s an anthro of food course, but undergirded very explicitly with Paul Farmer’s understanding of the structural violence of poverty.

I ask students to read Farmer pretty seriously and then see if his understanding of structural violence can be applied to issues of food insecurity both domestically and worldwide. He himself hasn’t done that yet to any extent. But I imported the theory from Paul Farmer, and based the course around that. So that’s the origin of Food, Body, Power. I had taught a more broad-based Anthro of Food course for several years before this, but Food, Body, Power is an offshoot.

LRM:  One of the things that drew me to this syllabus in the SAFN materials was how you’re really tackling complex topics and serious readings in a 100-level class. Does the institutional context at Holy Cross relate to the kind of syllabus you’ve created?

SR: Holy Cross very much makes it possible. Holy Cross is a small, highly selective, liberal arts college. We’re like Vassar and Bates and Williams and Amherst…that range. We do get, in general, very, very good students who expect to work hard. So it doesn’t shake them up when they see, for instance, 5 monographs and a whole bunch of journal articles in an Anthro 101 syllabus. That’s kind of the Holy Cross thing.

But, maybe because of my 11 years teaching at Ohio University, I feel that at almost any four-year institution, we can take our first and second year students very seriously, and pitch a course like this to them. I think they rise to the occasion.

You know, in philosophy, the professors are asking their first year students to read very tough material. They don’t flinch from that. When students take a chemistry course, they’re asked to do some pretty challenging thought-work. So, I feel that this has some translatability.

The difference, if I was teaching back at OU, is the size of a class. Here, our 100-level courses are either capped at 25 or at 19. And of course you can ask the students to write a lot more if you’ve got a class of that size versus teaching to 50 or 75 students or even more. The professor could die grading papers. This is a pretty writing intensive course, as most of mine tend to be. If I was teaching it to a larger class—above 25—I would have to scale down the amount of writing that students do. But some aspects of the current version I think would work really well at any institution.

LRM: Weeks 12 through 14, I see they’re doing group presentations. Can you tell me about those?

I always like to have students do teamwork as they go through the course. First of all, there’s four weeks of a condensed anthro of food course at the beginning. They read many chapters from C. Counihan and P. Van Esterik’s Food and Culture anthology. Then they read Paul Farmer, and then Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, and Psyche Williams-Forson’s Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs. So, they’ve already done some pretty heavy-duty things. Then, we have a section where I ask them to apply what they’ve learned, à la structural violence and so on, to issues of famine. All the way through the course they’ve been divided into 5-person teams. I have little assignments that they’ll do. After they’ve done all of that, writing essays and essay tests all along, I have those teams really do something, in terms of producing knowledge for the whole class.

They have to meet, pick a serious food insecurity issue from outside the United States, research it together, and then put together a 25-minute lecture on their selected issue. For instance, child stunting in India: what causes it? After they’ve done that lecture, they take that same critical lens and work together in their teams to identify, address, and lecture again on a food insecurity issue in Massachusetts that also has relevance for Worcester. And that’s at the end of the course.

And that, I think, could be translated to almost any institution, because students just thrive when they’re asked to do teamwork…but not just to do it, but to actually lecture in the class. One thing that makes this helpful is our reference librarian, who runs a 50-minute class for us in the computer-assisted classroom about how to find sources. So, I know they’re armed with the ability to find good sources. As a follow up to these lectures, each student picks a paper topic that has been generated by their team reports, and then they (individually) write a 7-page paper on that.

LRM: Can you give an example of a memorable project?

SR: For some reason, one whole class was fascinated with South Sudan. One of the teams did a really good job looking at basic infrastructure problems in the country, like transferring food from one city to another. That team had a couple of economics majors, and they were able to bring their expertise to the class lecture, which was trying to explain why food insecurity is so dire in Sudan. From our readings, they were already alerted to the problem of how warfare violence can lead to famine, so they brought that in.

LRM: Do they also get excited about the local topics?

SR: One thing I’ve done is ask the Executive Director of the Worcester County Food Bank to come to class and lecture about food insecurity in Worcester County. South Worcester, right down our hill, is one of the most seriously impoverished parts of Worcester. I mentioned it might be something they could look at. That sparked their interest.

One small group last spring did such a good job! They decided to see how food, in a very generic sense, was portrayed in two quite contrastive high schools. One was in a fairly impoverished part of Worcester, and they also picked the public high school in Weston, MA—do you know about Weston?—it’s so prosperous. It’s one of the most over-the-top wealthy parts of Massachusetts. They did it as an experiment. They wanted to see what the school websites told us about food.

In the Weston public high school, oh my goodness. They had a cafeteria that was basically like an organic cafe. It would provide all these different, extremely interesting, sometimes even literally organic meals; very internationalized, sophisticated cuisine; guides for parents as to how to encourage their sons and daughters to eat healthful food and everything. It was a very elaborate, upper middle class take on healthy food and why it’s good for us.

Then, the students were able to contrast that with the almost blank information about food—and relatively little outreach to the parents—in the particular public high school in Worcester. They were also able to follow the weekly menus and look at the tater tots versus the kale salads and so on in the two contrastive high schools. That was really eye opening for the class, I think. We could discuss issues of class privilege and worldview and class-shaped “taste,” in the Q and A part of the students’ lecture.

LRMHave you had things that haven’t gone as well, that you’ve elected not to do again? Do you have any cautionary tales that have come out of this course?

SR: There is one cautionary tale I could pull from my experience. When I taught the old version of this course, the more generic Anthropology of Food course, I took one class period (of a 3 days/week class), and met outside the classroom, and together we walked down the hill into south Worcester. I asked them to walk around this little strip mall, with a Wendy’s hamburger joint, a cigar shop that has a few vegetables and a lot of snack foods, and a very cheap Chinese restaurant. I asked students to walk around for 40 minutes with a field notebook, and observe the food scene. The next class period, two days later, we talked about it.

That kind of fell flat because the students really needed more background on Worcester before that would make sense to them. I think in theory it was a great exercise, but we just can’t assume that they really know much about the local community in terms of SES and class and history.

It’s very important, if you’re going to understand the food scene down at the bottom of our hill, you’ve got to understand the history of the Irish American immigration to that very spot, and the movement of the Irish Americans out to the suburbs, and the ethnic composition and poverty issues now in that area. I hadn’t told them much about that. If I were to bring that back, I would really nest it within a couple lectures—and maybe students’ own web investigations—on Worcester and social class.

LRM: That’s a good point. One of the things I’ve found when talking about food with students, it can easily devolve into class-based stereotypes or normative judgments. I wonder if that’s something you face or if you have any strategies for overcoming it?

SR: I think probably anybody who teaches almost any topic in anthropology encounters this. One of the ways I deal with this is with the readings during the first four weeks of class. For example, this article makes such a hit. It’s really tough, and as the teacher you really have to walk through it point by point, but Alice Julier’s wonderful article, “The Political Economy of Obesity: The Fat Pay All,” really makes students think about their own social class positionality.

What Julier ends up saying is that obesity works for the elite in America. It provides us a population of workers who the upper-middle class can look down on, make fun of, and underpay. Obesity also works in a sense of blaming and shaming people who aren’t at fault for their problems of overweight. They should be dealt with as people who are being victimized by the social structure, but the way pop culture works is that we can’t see those social structure dimensions, and we look at the personal and think it’s psychological.

Julier sets all that out, and then I take a whole 50-minute period to discuss that one article after the students have read it carefully with reader’s guides—I always give them a reader’s guide. Then, we can talk about social class, and food overabundance, and body and power. Certain of the articles I use in the first four weeks, introducing the topic of anthro of food, can serve that purpose of making the students aware of social class dimensions to food production and consumption, and then they carry that through the whole course.

LRM: You said you give reader’s guides. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

SR: I’ve found that students need a little guidance before they plunge into a tough article or book. It makes them more serious readers if they have a list of say, 5 dimensions of a chapter to look at beforehand. So, using Julier’s article, it would be something like “What does Julier want us to understand about how social class operates in America?” I don’t want to overdetermine what they look at. Not simply asking them to summarize an aspect of a text, but having a question that kind of comes at them a little bit at a slant, that the author himself or herself would be able to answer.

A lot of my colleagues in this department have found that, if you give the students a reader’s guide before they dive into reading an assignment, it makes for much better class discussion. Also, they sort of need it. When I was in college, I don’t think any of my professors gave me a reader’s guide, but I find that students appreciate some guidance from the professor. They need a bit of help, kind of a map. You really want to ask them provocative questions that are kind of fun to think about, so there’s a technique to writing reader’s guides.

LRM: It sounds like reader’s guides are something you do in a lot of your classes. I wonder if there’s anything you do when teaching a food-related course that differs from the way that you approach other, non-food courses?

SR: One thing I probably do more in my food course than I do in my other range of 100- and 200-level courses that seems to work well, is when there’s a really interesting article in the morning New York Times or in the Washington Post or any serious newspaper, I’ll pull off a copy. And I’ll actually make a photocopy of it for every student in the class. I pick out really well-written current stories related to the topic of that day’s lecture, and I’ll actually ask them to take 10 minutes in class and sit there and read it silently to themselves, and then relate it to the chapter or the article that we’re dealing with on the syllabus that day. That seems to really interest them a lot. Then they go out and begin to be more serious newspaper readers themselves, which is an important lesson.

There’s another thing that’s distinctive to Food, Body, Power that works really well in the food class: autobiographical reflections. When I teach Anne Allison‘s wonderful “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus,” after I make sure they understand what her argument is, we relate it to the their memories of the way their family prepared lunches for them at age 5 or 6. Everybody scribbles notes, and we describe it, then we do Anne Allison’s analysis and look for the structural message underneath.

One thing that all of us, including me, say is that our parents would prepare our wonderful, nutritionally balanced meal, send us off to 1st grade, and then we’d trade things… a tuna fish salad sandwich for something yummier, for example. Once we all admit we traded away our nutritious lunch, we ask: what does that really tell you about American culture? Then they discover, well, individual choice is really valorized, standing up to authority is valorized. You can do more of that biographical work in a food course than some others.

LRM: This is a writing intensive course. Could you tell me a little bit about the writing assignments?

SR: This has four 5-page response essays. They’re not research papers… the somewhat longer essay they write at the end is more of a research exercise, but the 5-page response essays are directed to the syllabus readings. It’s to make sure that they not only understand a set of articles, but have a critical perspective on it. The best way to demonstrate that is writing. Often I’ll ask them to pair two of the articles, and what they’re doing in an exercise like that is not only showing me that they’ve read those articles in really tremendous depth–real depth of understanding—but also synthesizing it into something that’s distinctly their own. I want them to take on the voice of an anthropologist.

Another thing with having regularly spaced essays: it means that they’re really keeping up with the readings. It takes a whole lot of grading time. With 25 students, all these essays, and in-class essay exams, it’s a lot of grading. But I find it eliminates the problem of a students showing up to class and not having read. If it means more grading time for me, that’s okay, because I really want them to keep up with the syllabus and to read these texts with some seriousness.

One of the goals of college education is to become a better, more precise, and maybe more creative writer. I tell them this quite explicitly before they write their first essay: I’m really interested in excellent writing, and I’m happy to work on drafts in my office hours and help students become a better writer. So that’s undergirding everything.

LRM: Do you have any final thoughts or suggestions for other teachers?

SR: I would say they should not underestimate their students. Even for first and second year students, you can have a complex syllabus.

Paul Farmer does work very well as a theoretical framework that catches younger students’ attention. A cautionary note, though: students tend to rapidly fall in love with Paul Farmer’s work overmuch, and you have to help them draw back a little bit and be a little critical of his ethically engaged anthropology – what Nancy Scheper-Hughes calls “anthropology with its feet on the ground,” – and with Farmer’s notion of structural violence and his hopefulness about structural change. Students glom onto that and want to run with it, so you have to incorporate some critiques.

Students, they’re college students. They’re serious adults. I think our syllabi should challenge them at that level. Often they can rise to the occasion. But you’ve got to have structures in place to make sure you don’t lose a student along the way. Make sure students who don’t understand the readings come to office hours, that sort of thing. Very time intensive, all these nice things I’m saying!

You want to make sure that once they’ve taken the course, and back they go to their normal life, they never think about food in a simple way ever again. Hopefully they’ll keep that anthropological vision of the social complexity of food. With the power element of my syllabus, I hope they think of issues of social class and social inequality, which they’re going to confront when they’re 30 years old and reading the newspaper, or maybe being a boss in a corporation and hopefully being attentive to adequate salaries for their workers.

The anthropology of food… It seems like such a fun topic. It lures them in. Then you hit them with this heavy-duty economic anthropology and political anthropology, and really pretty sophisticated theory, which they begin to like. And then, hopefully, they’ll use it in their other classes, and in their larger life.

I want to really change their vision of the world, maybe more in this course than in any other course of mine. In this course, I’m not worried if these students never take another anthro course. This is not only for anthro majors. You get students into it by the title, and it could be their one anthropology course. It has allowed the student to talk as a group and reconfigure their understanding of food and body and power. That’s an impact. That’s kind of a public anthropology impact on citizenship, I think.

LRM: Thank you so much for you time, and for inaugurating the SAFN food pedagogy interview series!

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Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, pedagogy, teaching