University of New Orleans
A few years ago I received an angry email from a student, informing me that she was dropping my “Food and Culture” class. It was early in the semester and we had just had a vigorous discussion about how food is defined in different societies. The eating of cats and dogs had been raised and we had explored why “pets” are often distinct from “food.” But what really set her off was our discussion of eating horses. The discussion, which drew in part on a blog entry I had written on the topic, infuriated that student. Her angry note stated that she would not participate in a class that allowed the discussion of anything as inhumane as the killing and eating of horses.
I was surprised by this on many levels. First, I should point out that in nearly two decades of teaching, this is the only student I can recall dropping a class because the content offended them. Second, anthropology is by its very nature a discipline in which students may encounter practices and ideas that they find shocking. The whole point is to understand the full range of human behavior and thinking, allowing us to get at some putative idea of what makes us all human, while also helping us think more critically about societies in general. The “Food and Culture” class is an advanced undergraduate course and most of the students who take it have already had introductory level anthropology, so they should be aware of the nature of the topics that may be discussed. Third, tastes in food, even within one society, can be very different. I was raised to eat ketchup on macaroni and cheese (the bland Kraft variety). I have learned over the years that this practice is viscerally repulsive to many people. When we cross social and cultural boundaries to discuss food practices, beliefs, etc., we are bound to encounter things that are a lot more challenging than that. Things like killing and eating horses.
And yet it is too easy to assert the cross-cultural nature of anthropology as a license to challenge our students’ sensibilities. In the case I mentioned, we were not mostly focusing on foreign cultures. It is true that Americans do not generally eat horse these days, but they have eaten horse in the past and the practice has waxed and waned over time. While we require our students to practice cultural relativism in trying to understand other societies, it is legitimate for them to raise ethical concerns about practices within their own society. One of my intentions in raising the issue in the class was (and remains—I still use the topic) to show that the things we designate as food reveal deeper questions about how we make sense of our world. Horses are, in the U.S., ambiguous animals, not entirely work animals anymore, not necessarily pets. Confronting that ambiguity in our own culture is supposed to make students uncomfortable. I want them to understand that our own society is just as “exotic” and potentially shocking as any other. I also want them to learn to analyze the cultural categories and social structures that frame our practices with animals (food or otherwise). If they are going to make ethical decisions about such things, they need to understand them at a deep level.
So I now include a warning on my course syllabus. I guess it is a “trigger warning,” although I was not aware of that term when I started using it. It reads:
Warning: In this class you will be exposed to ideas and practices that may be radically different from those you find familiar and comfortable. You may read about or see images of people engaging in behavior you find shocking. This is of course standard for anthropology, but because this is a class about food, the possibility is perhaps higher than usual. If you are unable to tolerate being exposed to such difference, this class is not for you.
Nobody, as far as I know, has dropped the class because of this warning. I have a colleague who has used a similar warning on all of his syllabi for decades. I sometimes suspect that these warnings may actually attract students. Maybe it gives our classes a reputation for being risqué. We dare you to take them.
At the same time, my classes need to be welcoming to all students. I have vegans, vegetarians, halal-observant Muslims, kosher-keeping Jews, Creoles, Cajuns, aggressive fans of bacon, and people who seem to subsist on energy drinks. Because I teach in New Orleans, I also have a lot of students who work in food-related jobs, especially waiters, bartenders, and line cooks. I have students who come from rural backgrounds and many who have family who work in the seafood industry. They already know a lot about food and I learn quite a lot from them every semester. But I also try hard to provoke them out of their comfort zone and, for the most part, they seem happy to be provoked. Our students do not demand coddling and, I doubt that many do anywhere, despite the fantasies of pundits. On the contrary, they are eager to learn and participate. Sometimes they shock me out of my comfort zone too.
So I include the statement above in my syllabus as both a warning and a challenge. If they accept the challenge and stay in the class, then my job is to make sure the class really does provide them with an opportunity to learn. The class is about food, so I need to ensure that they are learning to think carefully about what food is and how food choices are shaped by history, political economy, and culture. But the class is also about practicing critical thinking. Do they feel encouraged to raise questions and challenge me and each other in the class? Can they turn their readings into thoughtful analyses? Can they express those analyses in class and in writing? These critical thinking and writing skills are learning objectives for many good liberal arts classes and they are also the key to success in a lot of careers. Oddly enough, the student who dropped my class over a discussion of horse meat was sort of on the right track. She understood that deeper issues were at stake. She even wrote about them in her email telling me that she was leaving. But she should have stayed in the class so that others could continue the discussion. That, after all, is what learning is about. You have been warned.