Teaching Food with Photos: High Point Food Anthropology

After a long hiatus, we return with the next installment in our Food Pedagogy Interview Series. We hear from Dr. Chelsea WentworthAssistant Professor of Anthropology at High Point University, who uses photo elicitation projects in the classroom to engage students, to fascinating end.

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

Please note: An earlier, unedited version of this interview was published in error. The below interview is the intended version. Apologies to Dr. Wentworth and SAFN readers for the error. -lrm

Lauren Renée Moore: Can you start by telling us a little bit about this course, Anthropology of Food?

Chelsea Wentworth: This is a class I taught both at the University of Pittsburgh and my current institution, High Point University. I’ve taught it both as a semester-long class, and a shorter six-week summer class. At High Point, it will be a semester-long class with a May-mester component, which means that at the end of the semester, students will participate in a three-week study abroad where we’ll continue the themes of the class, but in an international context.

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Chelsea Wentworth, Ph.D., MPH High Point University

When I taught it at Pitt, it was an upper-division course, and I had 32 students. Every time it is offered it fills—it’s very popular. The anthropology of food is such an interesting topic now, and students are gravitating towards it. Everybody identifies with food. Everybody has something related to food that’s special, and meaningful, and significant to them. Plus, most of the students who are enrolling in this class love to eat, and they’re interested in talking about how food is personally meaningful. I’ve had a lot of students who were not anthropology majors in this class. I think that the anthropology of food appeals to those students because they need to fulfill the social science requirements for the liberal arts education. Students want a class they think they can apply somehow to their major or career. I try to encourage them to think about the connections between the anthropology of food and their major, and think about designing projects or picking project topics that will help them connect the course material to their career goals. I want my students, in all my classes, to think about what they’re learning here in our class that they can apply beyond the class. How we understand cultural patterns is something that can help us think through our human experiences with others. The material we’re learning isn’t isolated to the class.

LRM: Do you feel like students successfully connect course material to other areas of their lives?

CW: I have some really great projects right now in a medical anthropology class from students who are majoring in psychology. They are doing final projects in which they’re interviewing current graduate students in psychology, as well as professional practicing psychologists about cultural competency training. They’re trying to understand how cultural competency training has changed over time. I have a lot of students who are interested in thinking about how important culture is to our understandings of health, how culture influences health behavior, and then thinking through that in the contexts of their projects and their majors. This easily applies to food studies as many students are interested in food deserts, obesity, urban gardening, food pantries, and food waste.

LRM: How has the Maymester component changed your approach to planning the course?

CW: We are headed to Japan in May 2017! I incorporated more articles that speak to that region of the world because I want the students to be really well prepared to enter that cultural context. I don’t want it to be a glorified tourist trip. So making sure that students understand that specific place is key to helping them prepare and make the most of their experience abroad. I also have a photo-elicitation project. In the regular course that’s their final project, but the Maymester students will continue it during their study abroad. Students will choose a project topic that they will continue while we’re in Japan. They will not only expand their photographic data, but also compare and contrast the experience they have abroad with the experience they had with this project in the United States.

LRM: I’d like to hear a little bit about your work and your background as an anthropologist. 

CW: I am a medical anthropologist, with a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. I also have a Master’s in Public Health in Behavioral and Community Health Sciences. My interest in public health was to learn to speak the language of public health, because as medical anthropologists we are regularly interacting with people who are trained in public health or health-related fields. That training comes from a different perspective than our anthropological training. I believe learning the background and the perspective of public health practitioners makes me a better medical anthropologist.  I work very regularly with public health practitioners—both in my research in Vanuatu where I work with the Ministry of Health, and in my Pittsburgh-based research, with Family Support Centers. In Allegheny County I research how families access maternal and child healthcare services through their use of Family Support Centers.

In Vanuatu, there is a really significant problem with childhood malnutrition. About 30 percent of the kids in urban areas are stunted. Despite a number of public health interventions, there hasn’t really been a change in that number since the 1990s. My research examines the social and cultural factors are that contribute to chronic childhood malnutrition. I have a very broad research question which I have explored in a number of different ways—my dissertation was about how children in urban and peri-urban areas are using community feasts as a coping mechanism for food insecurity. They attend traditional customary feasts that tend to be quite large and last about a week in length, they attend those feasts to help them maintain food security.

Traditionally, families will bring a gift to the hosting family, and often times that includes food. And all of that food then kind of gets accumulated, and is used to produce large meals. It’s helpful in ensuring that the host family can feed everybody who comes. But with the influx of people moving from outer islands to the city, there’s a lot more people who live in close proximity to each other and so those networks of kin and close friends are really widened, with all these additional people who are living in the area, and people in urban areas don’t have the same access to garden lands that they did in their islands or in other parts of the country. So they have less food to contribute to something like a wedding or a funeral feast. There’s kind of a double problem with kids who come, without their families contributing anything—that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

 

LRM: This is a pretty writing-intensive course, with 30 to 40 students. How do you manage the kinds of projects and assignments that students are doing, in terms of grading?

CW: There are a couple of parts to this. Students turn in reading responses throughout the semester. Those are only one page. Typically, what I find is that I have to provide quite a bit of feedback for the first couple. Once they get the feel for how to effectively write this assignment, the later reading responses are much easier to grade.

I manage the grading for longer assignments by giving them milestones. They have to turn in a one page topic and cover sheet first, where they explain the topic and the question they want to answer, and they have to list some course readings that they plan on referencing in their paper and write a sentence or two about why that particular course reading will be helpful to them. I can make sure early on in the semester that they have a good project with a good question and they’re on the right track. When they get further into the project, their overall work is significantly better and easier to grade. I also require students to do either a peer review or a writing self-reflection with their draft, so they have to turn in a full draft in advance of the final paper. When they do peer review, I hand out ten questions that the reviewer has to answer. Those questions ask them to do things like: highlight the areas where the analysis is the strongest and write why. Highlight the areas of the paper in another color where the analysis is the weakest and explain why. Find the thesis statement and rephrase it in your own words. And then the students have some really tangible ideas to think, ‘Okay this is what I need to do to revise,’ or, ‘This is what I thought my thesis statement was and my partner wrote something totally different, so clearly I need to do some work on that.’ They get very good feedback from each other, and then they turn in higher quality papers at the end. That helps me with the grading.

LRM: Tell me a little bit about the food and nutrition activity. What is that?

CW: I give them some choices about themes from class they could look at more closely. For example, for one activity they participate in and write about a celebratory meal or feast. They attend an event and then answer specific questions about what role food played in the larger celebration. In the Fall semester it’s great because the students all pick Thanksgiving. It gets them to think about something familiar in a much more analytical way than they’ve ever thought about it before. I also gave them an opportunity to think about food and gender. I have students visit restaurants and make observations about the gender dynamics in the restaurant. so, who’s eating what, who’s ordering what, who tends to be the servers, and who tends to be the host and hostess, and did you see the manager, and are there gender roles being enacted here? Another option was to keep a food diary for themselves. They had to keep a log of the food they ate, and then they had to go through and analyze it. There are questions at the beginning—for example, generally how healthy do you think your food is, or how would you describe your eating habits overall? And then they have to write it down for a week and then go back and look at it. The point of that activity is to look at everyday experiences with food, and to think about them and analyze them through the lens of the topics that we’ve been learning about in class.

LRM: Tell me about your photo elicitation work, and how you use it in your course.

CW: I use visual methods in my own research, and I have done a lot of work with participatory visual research in a process that I call visual-narrative elicitation. This has participants thinking about and taking pictures, and also there are components where they have to caption the photograph, write the significance of the image, participate in a discussion group about the process of taking the pictures and learning from each other—looking in a small group at the other photographs that people have made, and then participating in some pile sorting activities with the photographs. In my research, it’s a much longer process that helps gather data that I can’t access using any other method. I wanted to give students an opportunity to get a taste of working with photographs as a type of data and method. Since they pretty much all have cellphones with cameras, it doesn’t really take any extra equipment. In this project they’re taking the pictures rather than finding participants to take the pictures for them. I give them some ideas about possible topics, but they can pick anything that they want.

This is a project that I have also done in my Introduction to Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies class. The concept of the project can be applied to any class, you just need to direct the students toward a research question to drive the process of collecting photographs. I also help students make the connection between course content and the process of making the images. For example, I had a student who was really interested in gender and food. She did this fascinating project where she went to different, high-traffic areas of campus with a pizza that she had purchased.  As people walked by, she told them that they could have a piece of pizza for free if they were willing to let her photograph them with the piece of pizza. What she found was that none of the male students turned down the pizza once they found out they had to have their picture taken. When they realized that the catch was you have to let me take your picture, none of the male students said “Oh, never mind, I don’t want this pizza.” But she had a number of female students who said, “Well I’m gonna turn down the pizza if I have to be photographed with it, I don’t want it anymore.”

LRM: Fascinating!

CW: She didn’t give them any direction, she just said, “I’m going to take your picture.” Most of the male students just started eating the pizza and then she took their picture, or they posed with the pizza in a way that showed them eating it—so they’ve got it in their mouth, or they’re turned to the side, or taking a really big bite, something like that. None of the female students wanted their picture taken while they were actually eating. Most of the time, they held up the piece of pizza off to the side in a way, with their body language, that showed they were trying to divert the attention towards the pizza—the pizza should be the focus of the image, not themselves. I call it the Vanna White method. They’re holding it up on display to really put the attention on the pizza, and focus on the pizza, instead of on themselves. Then she wrote this analysis about how she would never have learned that there’s this really gendered pattern of behavior with food had she not done the photographic part of the project. Because when you just offer people the piece of pizza, without the photo component, you don’t see them shifting their behavior in the context of kind of creating an image, or mediating their image or how they will be viewed or received. That’s an example of a really great project where students are rethinking gender roles in the context of food, and what that can tell us about eating behaviors and gender roles in society.

LRM: That’s a fantastic project and an interesting finding. What do other projects look like on the other end of the scale—perhaps where students are less successful, or more rote? 

CW: That would look like a less creative project. Sometimes students just look at dorm rooms, or something like that. So they just take pictures of kids eating in their dorms— the question that they started was less critical, so their answer is less compelling. What I will say about this project is that on the whole, it’s much more successful than any other type of project that I’ve assigned to my students. I think its because it’s so different from anything else that they’ve done, and they really like taking pictures. So they have more fun with it, and because they can pick the topic—they just have to gather data with photographs—they tend to pick something that they care about. The projects as a whole tend to be of a much better quality when they choose the topic.

LRM: Is this something that you would do in a 101 level class, or do you reserve this for your upper-level classes?

CW: I’ve done this in Introduction to Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, which is an intro-level class that has a bunch of first year students.

I really think the difference is the quality of the research question they ask, and then how critically they’re able to look at their data. But first year students are just as capable of doing the project as fourth year students have been. I really structure all of my major projects in all of my classes with milestones—so I scaffold projects in my classes pretty heavily. This is not a project that you can do at the last minute the night before. By requiring students to turn components of the assignment in at several points throughout the semester, the work is more thorough.

LRM: Do you have any particular readings that have been really successful?

CW: I teach Mary Weismantel’s ‘The Children Cry for Bread,’ and the students really like that because it’s very clearly written and she lays the entire process of how food patterns have changed. I also teach Janet Poppendieck’s ‘Want Amid Plenty: From Hunger to Inequality,’ and Robert Albritton’s ‘Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” Those are both really good overview articles of the concept of food systems, and social class, and hierarchy, and access to food and how those are intertwined with larger political and economic systems. In terms of the photo project, I try to teach a couple of articles where people use photographs as research data, so that they can read an example. Carol Counihan has written some pieces where she uses photographs in her writing, so I teach that.

In terms of something that’s been really successful that maybe isn’t as widely known—I teach a number of articles from this book called ‘Consuming the Inedible: Neglected Dimensions of Food Choice,‘ which is an edited volume. I do a class in the middle of the semester that’s devoted to the concept of food and non-food. And that’s something that they haven’t really thought about a whole lot, so we talk about people eating insects, or people eating dirt, and why that might be—why might people do something like that. But then we also transition that into: what types of food do we eat that we might not consider food?  I do an activity in the classroom where I bring in a bunch of things that we would all say are food when we look at them as a whole, but then I ask them to read the ingredients and think about the individual ingredients, and are those things food? I let them eat all the food too—so, I bring in things like candy, that’s full of ingredients that no one can pronounce, or things like Lunchables, which are also full of ingredients that no one can pronounce, but we can see that are meat, and cheese, and crackers in there. So as a whole, we recognize the piece of meat as food, and we think that its edible—but when you read the ingredients list, individually none of those things are considered food. Or, many people would say ‘I don’t really think that’s food, I don’t even know what that is.’ I ask them to think about: is a food item more than the sum of its parts? Or is it different than the sum of its parts? What makes something food, or not? They really enjoy thinking through that, because its a question they haven’t been posed before.

LRM: Those are a ton of great resources. You’re doing so many innovative things with your classes—thank you for taking the time to share them with us.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food education, pedagogy

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