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!


Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, pedagogy, teaching

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

  1. Jason Miller

    You make reference to a collection of SAFN syllabi in the introduction. Is that accessible anywhere online? I’d love to see Susan’s Syllabus. The course sounds fabulous! Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of March 22 | Savage Minds

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