Food without Borders: Proustian Anthropology and Collaborative Storytelling with an Experimental Sixth-Grade Class in Paris
Dr. Christy Shields-Argelès, in collaboration with Beth Grannis
“Food without Borders” is a collaborative ethnographic film project that I, along with filmmaker Beth Grannis and students from the American University of Paris, carried out with a mixed bi-lingual/mono-lingual sixth grade class in Paris. In this blog post, I discuss the manner in which David Sutton’s work on food and memory provided a theoretical and methodological frame that allowed us to identify and use co-feelings related to the shared experience of displacement as both a platform for collaboration and a frame for storytelling. In the conclusion, I also discuss collaborative tensions that characterized the project and make suggestions for using the project’s films in food anthropology classes.
For the past six years, Maurice Ravel, a public junior-high school in Paris’ twentieth district, has been engaged in a civic experiment of sorts. At Ravel, bilingual students who test into an International Baccalaureate program in English (OIB) share all but their English literature and history classes with local sector students who follow the traditional French Baccalaureate pathway (OFB), and are therefore learning English as a foreign language. As such, these classes contain at least two groups of global youth: the OIB students, who generally travel across borders as the children of middle and upper class professionals, and the OFB students, who are often the children of working-class and immigrant families. Bringing these students together is done with the idea that working together will benefit all, and yet class participants also struggle to live and learn together in a context that is, of course, also shaped by wider social, political and economic structures and inequalities.
I am a food anthropologist and Associate Professor in the Global Communications department at the American University of Paris (AUP). Beth is a filmmaker and Deputy Director of the non-profit Filmmakers without Borders, and at the time of the project was also an MA student in AUP’s Global Communications program. During the 2017–18 school year, we designed and directed a collaborative ethnographic film project for the OIB-OFB sixth grade class at Ravel. AUP’s Civic Media Lab and Filmmakers without Borders provided support for the project. Over the course of several months, we led the class through a series of anthropology and filmmaking workshops, in French and English. Together, we produced a class film, which consists of twenty-eight ethnographic vignettes (one for each student), and is in four languages (French, English, Chinese and Italian). In each vignette, a child tells the story of a food or a dish that connects them to the past, a place, a people and a sense of belonging. The film’s stories were collected within reciprocal OIB-OFB interviewing pairs, and each student took a small camera home to film the preparation and/or consumption of their dish, using the filming techniques taught to them in class.
Working within the traditions of participatory filmmaking and collaborative anthropology, Beth and I aimed at privileging the sixth graders’ voices. We felt this to be particularly important in the current context. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, the centralized French education system became an arena of intense institutional reform. President François Hollande immediately instated mandatory “civic and moral instruction” for grades K through 12, and Emmanuel Macron’s government has followed suit with a series of important structural changes, including an overhaul of the central (and strongly symbolic) baccalaureate exam system. Within this context, OFB-OIB class participants are instructed on civic values like mixité (social mixing) and vivre ensemble (which might best be translated as “living together harmoniously”), but have little opportunity to speak of their own experiences and knowledge of living with difference, within their families, their communities and their school. Beth and I did not want to speak at these sixth graders, but help them to tell their own stories, and reveal the rich and dynamic identities and relations they are building within multi-lingual and multi-cultural environments.
From the onset, we designed the project as a collaborative process. We aimed to work in dialogue with community members (students, teachers, families) as well as encourage collaboration among the sixth graders, who had only just met four weeks prior to our arrival. We framed and modeled collaboration in a variety of ways. For example, as an anthropologist, I paid particular attention to language. I used folk concepts (like vivre ensemble) to create space for the discussion of different experiences and perspectives. Language was also central when teaching in-depth interviewing techniques. Are your words expressing judgment? Do you formulate open-ended questions so your partner can respond in their own terms? Beth relied more on movement and visual imagery. She drew from a Common Core curriculum developed by Filmmakers without Borders in 2014 for students who do not speak English. She adapted this pedagogy to the Ravel classroom. So, when teaching different camera shots, she stood in front of the class and called out technical terms, like “close up”, while framing her face with her hands. The children copied the movement, and repeated the term. They then worked in pairs, and moved around the classroom to practice the different camera shots with a partner. In such activities, a student’s literacy (in English or French) was not an issue, as they were learning together and working towards a shared goal.
Beth and the class gesturing a “close-up” shot.
Another important component of the project was getting AUP undergraduate and graduate students involved as “student-mentors”. AUP students are a decidedly international group (with over 100 nationalities represented in a student body of 1200 students). In this particular project, five students were American, one was Columbian, and another was French. They all spoke English (though two were non-native English speakers), had varying levels of French (fluent to beginner), and often spoke one additional language (including Chinese, German and Spanish). In the Ravel classroom, the AUP team modeled a multi-lingual and multi-cultural learning commons as well as positive, global identities. At the same time, however, AUP students learned a great deal from the sixth graders. The experience brought them to reflect on their own childhood experiences and encouraged them to formulate questions concerning the role of education or food in current debates and processes of change.
Collaboration was also built on “co-feelings” related to the experience of displacement. My understanding of co-feeling is inspired by the work of Renato Rosaldo (1989). He writes about how experiencing the death of a loved one – and, in particular, the rage that accompanies it for a time – repositioned him in the field, and allowed him to understand the people he was working with, as well as human death rituals, in a new manner. So, by co-feeling I mean that different people can share a set of feelings that result from a shared human experience. In this way, co-feeling can help form a bridge of understanding and empathy. Of course, this bridge must be built and navigated with care because emotion can also mislead in a number of ways. For thinking through the feelings associated with displacement, and then conceptualizing them as a platform for co-feeling within this project, I also drew inspiration from David Sutton’s work on food and memory in Greece. In what he calls a “Proustian anthropology”, Sutton theorizes the processes first described in Proust’s “madeleine” passage, drawing particular attention to the feelings of estrangement and loss that accompany displacement. He also examines how “foods from home” temporarily assuage these feelings by allowing for a ritual “return to the whole”, or a mutual tuning-in and sense of connection.
In France, sixth grade is the first year of junior high and so involves changing schools and sometimes neighborhoods, as well as changing rhythms and workloads. In addition, in this particular class, many students (and their families) had moved across (or currently lived across) national borders. So, French sixth graders in general – and this group in particular – can be a nostalgic bunch, in the midst of missing other places (e.g. old schools, other countries) and times (“when I was a kid”). We therefore hoped that this particular topic would be equally engaging and meaningful for all. We also hoped in this way to reposition the students away from all sorts of opposed identity categories that frame their daily interactions (e.g. OIB/OFB, English speakers/French speakers, good students/bad students) into a shared subject position of a 6th grader in a new school, who loved a tasty dish that connected them to people they loved.
“Madeleine foods” spoke to other project participants too. I have long included Sutton’s work in my AUP classes because my expatriate students are usually experiencing similar emotional difficulties, and are also toting suitcases filled with foods from home. Their ability to identify with the Greek migrants on this topic often spurs their interest and engagement in class. Within the frame of this project, AUP students tended to see the Ravel kids as fundamentally like them, in large part due to their similar experiences of displacement and food as a powerful vector of reconnection. This, I felt, was an important first step towards working collaboratively. Finally, this entire project took place in France, where “Proust’s madeleine” is a common cultural reference. In initial meetings, for example, when I explained to teachers and administrators that the project aimed at helping the children tell their own “madeleine” stories, this was instantly recognized as culturally and intellectually meaningful. It enabled teachers to become active participants from the on-set and develop, even before we had fully designed our own workshops, a series of related lesson plans.
Of course, it is one thing to use shared experience and feeling as a platform for mutual understanding and investment, but it is another to construct a story, or in our case a set of twenty-eight stories, with a common narrative form and force. Here I was guided by Sutton’s assertion that such “madeleine” foods help us “return to the whole”. I began the first anthropology workshop with a three-minute film Beth made for my Food, Culture and Communication class entitled “This place doesn’t exist anymore: Food and memory among Syrian refugees”. The film is focused on Saad, a Syrian refugee, who talks about his life in France through the lens of cooking and food, and speaks in particular about a dish he calls “rice with peas” in English. After watching the film, I wrote “Saad” and “rice with peas” in the center of the whiteboard, and asked students to share what they had learned about him in the film. Student responses were written on the board. After they were done sharing, I circled groups of words, and named each bubble: people, places, activities, objects/ingredients, time, senses, and emotions. I then gave students a worksheet with an empty “mind map” similar to the one I had just drawn on the board. There was a space for their name and their dish in the center and then bubbles around this center circle in a daisy pattern labeled with the descriptive category names. The AUP student-mentors and Ravel teachers moved around the class and helped individual students brainstorm their ideas and fill out the map. In this way, the first anthropology workshop was spent reflecting upon the self (though in relation to a Syrian refugee). In the second anthropology workshop, I turned to interviewing and drew on Spradley’s descriptive interviewing techniques in particular. I identified the same descriptive categories (people, places, etc.) as areas for which they could elaborate open-ended questions for their interview partners. In other words, the second anthropology workshop was focused on reaching out to another and encouraging him or her to tell their story. During the interviewing sessions themselves, which took place in a separate, longer session, OFB-OIB students, working in pairs, interviewed one another while an AUP student-mentor took detailed notes so as to help the students develop ideas for b-roll images to collect in their homes. B-roll provided a unique opportunity to layer sequences of images that evoked these same descriptive categories. In short, the twenty-eight vignettes in the final film are a product of a collaborative storytelling process that used anthropological perspectives to first frame self-reflection and then an encounter with an “other”.
The “mind map” used in class to help students identify and describe a memorable food.
The project was successful in many ways. In February 2018, when we turned on the lights after the community screening, parents, teachers and administrators alike were dabbing at the corners of their eyes. This suggested to us that co-feeling was extended to the audience as well (a topic to be elaborated in the future). “Build bridges not walls”, a phrase that quite unexpectedly became the project’s motto, found its way onto the cakes and into the mouths of participants at the final banquet. At a time when Trump’s border wall was all over the French media, this seemed a small but cathartic response. The sixth graders were rightfully proud of their production, and numerous friendships were formed which, I’ve been told, have endured. The class was also invited to present the project at the Premier Festival des Arts de la Scène et du Goût, organized in partnership with the French Ministry of Education and held at a Michelin-starred restaurant and theater, La Scène Thélème. Here the students were able to present their project to other Parisian students and teachers, as well as to the restaurant staff, who then gave them a guided tour of the kitchens and wine cellar. I also feel that the project played a small role in helping Ravel teachers and administrators imagine additional sorts of OIB-OFB collaborations: for example, this year, for the first time, joint OFB-OIB class trips were organized. Beth also went on to write a successful MA capstone thesis about the project, and AUP student-mentors developed a series of “field-based” questions, which some went on to examine in other contexts.
A cake made for the final banquet
However, to represent the project as singularly successful would be both disingenuous and counterproductive. In the future, I hope to also examine the multiple tensions at play in such collaborations. In a recently published article, Yates-Doerr (2019) writes of “awkward collaborations”, where participants use the same words, but mean different things by them. She develops the notion of “careful equivocation”, joining her voice to others who are examining the nature of collaborative work as not necessarily entailing unity of purpose. In the Food without Borders project, “Proust’s madeleine” functioned as both folk and analytical concept throughout, and certainly did not always mean the same thing to all participants. Likewise, as food scholars well know: foods and commensal practices both unite and differentiate. Such tensions were at play through out the project. For example, in an initial meeting, several children expressed the desire to work on crepes. In the final film, however, only a few speak of them. Who came to “own” the crepe stories was part of a negotiation that involved both individual choice and group pressure. The “crepe dilemma”, as we came to call it, could therefore be examined in the future as a space of tension and a process of negotiation. Finally, scholars have recognized the transformative power of emotion, but also examine the manner in which it can reproduce and normalize unequal power relations. What are the limits of co-feeling within such a project? Such questions have yet to be examined for this project.
I’d like to end with an invitation to SAFN readers to view the project’s films and integrate them into their classes. These days, I assign them in a class on food, memory and identity, along with the readings that originally inspired them, including: Proust’s madeleine, Nadia Seremetakis’ The Senses Still, and Sutton’s Remembrance of Repasts. The class allows for a nice diversity of materials and, when including the films, the opportunity to discuss participatory filmmaking and collaborative anthropologies too. I also ask students to carry out a descriptive and narrative interview with a person they feel might share the experience of displacement (in time and/or space). Sometimes students also produce short films from these interviews (in the style of the Food without Border project), and sometimes they produce a story and a recipe, which we bring together into a kind of narrated and illustrated recipe book.
Finally, I am also curious as to how your students might view the class film. In September 2018, Beth and I presented the project to an audience outside of France for the first time (at a food and communication conference in Edinburgh). After spending so much time navigating complex identity questions among this group of sixth graders, who often do not feel entirely French – either because of their own travels or because others question their “Frenchness” – it was surprising to hear an Anglophone Canadian colleague exclaim after the screening: “I found the film to be sooo French! I mean look at all that cooking! And all those vegetables!” And so it goes in the world, I suppose, as we make sense of each other and our times, in an endless cycle of overlapping identification processes.
View English and French versions of project’s films here: https://www.aup.edu/academics/research-centers/civic-media-lab/food-without-borders
Grannis, B. 2018. Food without Borders: A Collaborative and Participatory Ethnographic Film Project with a Bilingual Sixth-Grade Class in Paris. Capstone Thesis, M.A. in Global Communications, The American University of Paris.
Korsmeyer, C., ed. 2005. “The Madeline.” (excerpt from In Search of Lost Time, M. Proust) The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
Rosaldo, R. 1989. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Seremetakis, C.N. 1996. The Senses Still. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Spradley, J. 1979. The Ethnographic Interview. Belmont, CA : Wadsworth Group/Thomson Learning.
Sutton, D. 2001. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Oxford and London: Berg Publishers.
Yates-Doerr, E. 2019. “Whose Global? Which Health? Unsettling Collaboration and Careful Equivocation.” American Anthropologist 121 (2): 297-310.