Category Archives: pedagogy

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

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.


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.

Leave a comment

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

Integrating Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities in the Food Systems Program at the University of Vermont

Today, we will hear from Dr. Amy Trubek, Associate Professor of Nutrition & Food Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences discussing University of Vermont’s Food Systems program. This post is part of SAFN’s Food Anthropology Program series, which features an undergraduate or graduate food anthropology program in each post. If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate a food anthropology program for the series, please email the series coordinator, M. Ruth Dike.

Ruth Dike: When/how did the Food Systems program at the University of Vermont (UVM) begin?

Amy Trubek: The impetus for developing food systems programs came from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). We started with an undergraduate minor in 2008 which is now established with an average of 50-65 minors every year.  We wanted to create a graduate program that looked at the intersection of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities and extend the way that we understand food and agriculture from a systems point of view. So we wrote a proposal for a food systems graduate program. The program enrolled its first students in 2012 and we have had three years of an MS program and next year will be the first official year where we enroll both MS and PhD students.. We currently have enrolled 17 Master’s students and we have 9 that have completed the MS degree.

During this period, a group of new faculty were hired in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who had background in looking at food and agriculture from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives, but especially new faculty with a social science background. Eventually the interest in food systems extended beyond CALS and became part of a university-wide initiative to promote transdisciplinary research.Vermont flowers

MRD: What is the focus of your program and its strengths?

AT: The focus of our program lies in asking students to think about the interdependency and the complexity of the contemporary food system.  Also, we say that in order to really fully be able to analytically capture what happens in a food system, you have to use a transdisciplinary approach in terms of your conceptual framework and research questions and then use mixed methods in  terms of the form, or the ways in which you do research. So, we’re very interested in imagining research in relation to food systems related problems and creating an engaged learning experience. We don’t tend to have students doing purely theoretically driven theses. We have students do work with philosophers, anthropologists, agro-ecologists and others and they might be doing a mix of theoretical analysis and empirical research. The underlying consistency is that we always want the research frame to be posing a question about what is happening in the food system and what might be able to make it a different food system in the future.

MRD: Great. I noticed you use transdisciplinary- is that different from interdisciplinary?

AT: So transdisciplinary research can be defined as when people work together and to come up with a sort of set of problems and research questions within those problems and in that process you’re not holding onto your disciplinary frame- you’re actually moving beyond discipline to work through an engaged process of inquiry. The inquiry is driven by the problem, rather than the disciplinary frame. There’s a theory that if you have an interdisciplinary research team, the anthropologist says, “Well I’m the anthropologist on the team and this is what I do.” Whereas if it’s a transdisciplinary research team, everyone is in the entire process together.

MRD: What roles does anthropology play in your program?

AT: We are actually sort of unusual here at the university having two anthropologists who focus on food, so there are two of us actively mentoring students.  I also teach one of the required seminars for the Master’s and PhD students and we’ve also required a qualitative methods course. Also, I would say that in our graduate seminars we rely on an emergent open-ended research inquiry approach very similar to the discipline of anthropology. We want to think about understanding food and agriculture not solely from an individualistic frame or a market commodity frame.

MRD:  Would you like to talk about why you decided to do both an undergraduate and graduate degree program?

AT: I think there’s a real consensus here at the University of Vermont that food systems is a very important framework for learning and doing for the future. There’s a commitment to do that idea of addressing the complexity by using systems thinking, of moving outside the box and arguing that it would help both the academy and people on the ground if we could become more sophisticated and complex thinkers around food from a systems point of view.vermont flower

MRD: Could you talk a little bit more about what the systems point of view is?

AT: Well, you don’t want to bracket your thinking, or as is often said “stay in your silo.”  So you don’t say, “I’m interested in consumption, and I’m just going to look at consumption and the meaning of rituals and food, from the point of view of what happens- consumption of food in a ritual. But instead, with systems think you are encouraged to say, “Wait a second, how does that food in that ritual somehow work in relation to other issues in the system such as the way that food is produced or the way that food is transformed?” “How might meaning be produced through the entire system?”  So it’s pushing students and faculty to say, “Wait, am I being too simplistic, do I need to understand and incorporate other elements of the system if I’m going to try to make sense of the structure and meaning of this ritual.”

What I see in my own research collaborations is that systems thinking moves me beyond the way that I was trained in anthropology to become a broader and more flexible thinker. It’s been an interesting process for me to increasingly work on mixed methods projects and to really see the benefit of understanding what a larger scale quantitatively-based study might do for capturing some elements of the problem that I’m trying to look at. I’m doing a transdisciplinary project with a number of people from food science and nutrition and anthropology. We’re looking at a concept of food agency where we’re trying to capture how people become empowered to act in relation to meal preparation. I really see the benefits of embarking on both a fine-grained qualitative interview and observation approach but also working on developing a scale of food agency. I think there are things that we can do with the large scale that will both elaborate upon and extend anything that I could do if I just did it as a qualitative project. I think that’s the type of thing that really happens when you take a systems approach.vermont students

MRD: It’s more holistic- you get a broader point of view. Do most students attend the program full time or part time?

AT: For the Master’s program you can choose and we have about 20% part-time students but the PhD will be a full-time program. But we’re definitely moving the design of the program such that you could do it part time and where you wouldn’t always have to be resident here, sort of a hybrid. But it’s going to take a while to move it in that direction. That’ll probably happen over the next 5 years.

MRD: Are any courses being offered online right now?

AT: Yes, Food Systems & Public Health is offered online. We are also going to have an on-line graduate certificate in agro-ecology that students can pursue as part of the Master’s or PhD probably starting next year. It will be almost all online with maybe one or two intense small residency courses.

MRD: How would you describe the diversity of the students in your program?

AT: We definitely have disciplinary diversity with students coming from disciplines as far afield as anthropology, animal science, engineering, and music. We also have both traditional students and returning professional students. In terms of ethnic and racial diversity of the makeup of the student, we track Vermont, which is not typically diverse but we do have Latino students and one international student now.vermont cheese 1

MRD: What ties do you have to the local Vermont community?

AT: We have a number of different ways in which we have ties to the local community. At the undergraduate level, we have the food systems internship program. So you can get internships with different organizations in the area working in food, agriculture and/or food systems change. In the graduate program we have a required applications seminar for the Master’s program and it’s optional for the PhD. The seminar is a service-learning class and every year the students work through issues with a community partner on a project rooted in an issue of Vermont’s food system. In Vermont, we have a universal composting law that’s starting in about a year. So last year students worked with the Solid Waste Management District and the Natural Resources state-level department on social media campaigns and other issues regarding the most effective way to reach consumers. This year students will work on a project with the Vermont Land Trust on persistent multigenerational issues relating to land tenure in the state. One of the great benefits of living in a small rural state like Vermont is that there is a lot of interaction between the university and the community because it’s a small place and everybody knows each other.

MRD: Is the applications seminar the same as the immersion credit?

AT: So the travel immersion experience is a separate thing for Master’s students where students are to have some kind of immersion experience where they’re in an environment where they’re looking at or thinking about the food systems from the view of a particular environment. It can be a class and we’ve had a class that is called Milk to Maple, which is Vermont’s food system and that’s been a travel immersion class all around the state. We have something called the Break Through Leaders class which is a class where people from all over the United States and the world come together and it’s a credit and non-credit course where they have experiences exploring Vermont’s food system and developing leadership skills. This year we’re starting a travel immersion graduate class on food and migration in Mexico and in Vermont. They’re going to experience both what the food system is like in Mexico and examine the fluid dynamic migration system between Mexico and the United States, not just of people but also of foods. The requirement can also be fulfilled through an immersion internship experience.

MRD: How much is tuition for your program? Are there scholarship or fellowship opportunities?

AT: For the Master’s program it’s a 32-credit program and it will cost approximately $45,000 for out-of-state tuition and about $20-25,000 for in-state tuition. We have a limited number of fellowships for the Master’s program and we will have assistantships for the PhD program because we’re going to fund all of the students we accept into the PhD program. We believe in fully funding for four years, if you come in with a Master’s. If you don’t come in with a Master’s we will try to fund you for the full time, which will probably be around 5 years.

MRD: What’s the length of the PhD program?

AT: It’s going to be a 3 to 5 year PhD program depending if you come into the program with a Master’s and what you study. If you’re not going somewhere else to do research, it’s going to be a different experience.

MRD: That makes a lot of sense. How many fellowships are there available for the Master’s students?

AT: It’s variable but we do have a particular fellowship called the Food Systems Innovation Fellows Program. Two fellowships will be awarded per year and these Fellows will do work with UVM Dining to do a series of goals and indicators for creating a sustainable and local dining program at UVM. We use the Real Food Challenge but we’re also adding other indicators for saying what we think a dining program should be like at UVM. It’s a part time one-year fellowship, including a 10-hour a week stipend and approximately 9 credits.

MRD: Is the 32-credits for the Master’s program a 1-year program or a 2-year program?

AT: You can do our program in 12 months. Most people are going to do it in 18 months. Basically you can do it starting September 1st and be done by September 1st or you can do it September 1st and be done by December 15th. It’s really like a 12-16 month program depending on whether or not you decide to take classes during the summer.vermont cheese 2

MRD: What sets your program apart from other food studies or anthropology programs?

AT: I think it’s really the fact that we’re really trying to bridge between natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. We try to get students to become competent thinkers and doers around the food system, giving them the intellectual and practical skills that will allow them to successfully navigate. We also have tremendous engagement with the food system and food systems players in Vermont, so you can really learn a lot by being here.

MRD: What do your graduates go on to do after the program?

AT: We just started so we’ve only had a couple years of students but we have somebody working at the USDA as an agronomist, someone working at the Vermont Department of Agriculture, another working the Health Policy Institute that’s trying to integrate food systems work into health policy issues. We have somebody working at a newspaper, a couple of people working at non-profit organizations that are doing food and food-related work, and somebody is a sustainability manager for an institutional dining vendor. They have been able to access lots of different types of jobs.

MRD: That’s great. Do you mostly see your future PhD graduates as more applied anthropologists or scholars rather than just as pure academics?

AT: Yes, I think that our PhD will be robust and rigorous and you could get an academic job from it, but it will be a mix in terms of transdisciplinary approach and disciplinary specificity so it will look a certain way for a graduate.

MRD: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

AT: I think it’s a really exciting and emerging field, ripe with possibility. Although it is never easy to build new ways of thinking and doing about the world, the time seems right for bringing together the last century of disciplinary based inquiry and integrating the best ideas, methods and precepts in new ways for the 21st century, both in the academy but also beyond.

1 Comment

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

Fundraiser Jambalaya

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

I recently asked my food and culture students to write short essays about foods that remind them of places. The objective was to get them to think about the relationship between the two, about how foods evoke particular places, but also about how place can determine how people experience food. This is one of several short informal essays the students write in the class, all of which are meant to get them to personalize particular issues raised by their readings. The students seem to enjoy writing these essays and I certainly enjoy reading them. Most of the students are from New Orleans or from nearby south Louisiana, and the foods they draw on definitely reflect the local cuisine. These little vignettes give me a chance to learn new things too and never fail to spark a lively class discussion.

Sometimes the foods evoke local stereotypes, but in unexpected ways. One student wrote that in her family “we would always boil seafood more than we would barbecue because who wants barbecue when you can have crawfish,” providing some potential insight into why south Louisiana is less invested in smoked meats than other parts of the South. That particular insight was a preface to a story about the experience of buying crawfish at a neighborhood shop on those occasions when the family did not want to boil their own. Another student wrote lovingly of the ambiance at the local grocery store, which is linked to the sublime shrimp po’boys she buys there. Students linked their food experiences with festivals, of which there are many in the area, all of which feature food, even when food is not the theme of the festival. One student IMG_4520evoked his annual pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in pursuit of crawfish bread, an experience so transcendent that “eating this Louisiana delicacy, is like seeing God in my food.” If the food in south Louisiana is divinely inspired, perdition may lie outside the region. One student recalled her visit to Grapevine, Texas, through the deeply disappointing New Orleans-style food she ordered at a restaurant, an experience that resulted in tears and anger. Lesson learned: the foods of south Louisiana are best when produced and consumed in the region.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, kin relations are often linked to food and place. “Mawmaw’s shrimp stew,” only available at one grandmother’s house, for instance, recalled fondly by one student. Another asserted that there is a special terroir for the only cornbread she tolerates, which is made by her grandmother in North Carolina, during family Christmas visits. Efforts to reproduce the recipe out of season in New Orleans have been dismal failures. Consuming sacks of oysters, both raw and cooked, accompanied by beer and duck gumbo, is linked to an uncle’s driveway. Another student wrote about eating seafood of all sorts at a hunting and fishing club in New Orleans east, where her uncle lived with his family and worked as the club’s keeper. The club, it turns out, is nearly 200 years old, linking my student’s family to very interesting parts of American history.

One of the most evocative ethnographic vignettes to come out of this exercise this year was written by a student from a jambalaya potsmall town in Livingston Parish, not far from Baton Rouge. Summer time, she wrote, was jambalaya season. And not just any jambalaya. This summer dish was “fundraiser jambalaya,” “prepared on the side of the road, under a white pop up tent, in huge pots heated by propane burners, and always accompanied by Hawaiian Rolls and the chatter of eager volunteers.” She notes the faint whiff of roadside emissions or propane in the food, the mix of overcooked rice, the heaps of jambalaya that was somehow always mushy in the middle, maybe an effect of the Styrofoam clam shells in which it is often served. Eating the jambalaya was part of doing good, the tickets sold by kids, to support the local baseball team or some other cause. And eating it was a social occasion, an opportunity to stand around and chat with the neighbors.

At their best, these essays are not generally about praising the wonderful foods of south Louisiana. Instead, they evoke the atmosphere of place and the social relations the students think about when they describe certain foods. “Fundraiser jambalaya” is unlikely to turn up in any of the guide books or cookbooks published every year for people who want to learn to cook the foods of Louisiana. But its existence tells us a lot about the way of life of people who live in the region. I suspect there are other dishes performing similar roles all over the place. Ask your students.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology of food, louisiana, New Orleans, pedagogy

New Book: Teaching Food and Culture

Teaching Food Big CoverHere at SAFN we seem to be in the midst of a great rethinking of the ways in which we teach about food and culture. Which makes sense — interest in food and related issues is growing rapidly in anthropology and in other disciplines and we have seen the development of many new interdisciplinary programs in food studies. We are, therefore, pleased to announce the publication of a new book on this very topic. “Teaching Food and Culture,” (Left Coast Press) edited by Candice Lowe Swift and Richard Wilk, is a collection of twelve chapters by anthropologists focusing on strategies they use when teaching about food. Hopefully, we will be able to publish a review of this collection in the near future. In the spirit of full disclosure, many of the people involved in this project are SAFN members and one chapter was co-written by SAFN board members David Sutton (our glorious nominations chair) and David Beriss (your blog co-editor). Meanwhile, here is a blurb about the book from the publisher’s web site, which you can visit to learn more.

“With the rapid growth and interest in food studies around the U.S. and globally, the original essays in this one-of-a-kind volume aid instructors in expanding their teaching to include both the latest scholarship and engage with public debate around issues related to food. The chapters represent the product of original efforts to develop ways to teach both with and about food in the classroom, written by innovative instructors who have successfully done so. It would appeal to community college and university instructors in anthropology and social science disciplines who currently teach or want to develop food-related courses.”

And here is the table of contents.

Part 1: Teaching Food

Chapter 1: Introduction: Teaching With and Through Food, Candice Lowe Swift and Richard Wilk

Chapter 2: Interview with Sidney Mintz, Candice Lower Swift and Richard Wilk

Chapter 3: Relating Research to Teaching about Food, Penny van Esterik

Part 2: Nutrition and Health

Chapter 4: Teaching Obesity: Stigma, Structure, and Self, Alexandra Brewis, Amber Wutich, Deborah Williams

Chapter 5: Are We What Our Ancestors Ate? Introducing Students to the Evolution of Human Diet, Jeanne Sept

Chapter 6: Just Milk? Nutritional Anthropology and the Single Food Approach, Andrew Wiley

Part 3: Food Ethics and the Public

Chapter 7: Teaching the Experience and Ethics of Consumption and Food Supply, Peter Benson

Chapter 8: Ethnography of Farmers Markets: Studying Culture, Place, and Food Democracy, Carole Counihan

Chapter 9: Using Volunteer Service in Courses about Food, Janet Chrzan

Part 4: Food, Identity, and Consumer Society

Chapter 10: Teaching Restaurants, David Sutton and David Beriss

Chapter 11: Developing Pedagogies for the Anthropology of Food, Brian Stross

Chapter 12: Teaching Communication and Language with Food, Amber O’Connor

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies, pedagogy

“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

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.


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!


1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, new mexico, pedagogy

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

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