Tag Archives: teaching

ASFS Pedagogy Award

In a recent post, we reminded you of deadlines for various awards from the Association for the Study of Food and Society. It looks like we missed one that could be of great interest to SAFN folks who teach: the ASFS Pedagogy Award. Fortunately, the deadline has not yet passed, although it is coming soon: February 15, 2019.

From the web site:

“The ASFS Award for Food Studies Pedagogy is given to the teacher of food studies in any discipline who presents a course that uses innovative and successful pedagogical techniques to reach students. These may include classroom exercises and assignments as well as outside projects, trips, and service activities. The course may be taught at the graduate or undergraduate level, for degree credit. Any ancillary evidence of exemplary teaching methods will also be accepted. A cash stipend of $200 accompanies these awards. Winner(s) are acknowledged at the annual conference and in the journal, Food, Culture & Society. The committee maintains the right to refrain from granting either award if applications do not demonstrate excellence.”

Details on how to apply are here.

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Teaching Food with Photos: High Point Food Anthropology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LRM: Fascinating!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Teaching Food and Culture

Teaching Food and Culture. Edited by Candice Lowe Swift and Richard Wilk. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2015. 209 pp. US$39.95, paper. ISBN 978-1-62958-127-9.

Review by Chelsea Wentworth, PhD, MPH
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, High Point University

In Teaching Food and Culture Swift and Wilk present a compilation of papers that use food “to transform research into pedagogy,” arguing that food is a productive medium to Teaching Food Big Coverengage students in the core themes and topics of anthropology. One of the strengths of this volume is the editors’ commitment to all four subfields of the discipline; however, every author demonstrates a commitment to a holistic approach to teaching and research that is reflective of the trans-disciplinary nature of the study of food. Several authors specifically mention that assignments can be adapted to courses in a range of disciplines including gender studies, communications, public health, religion, economics, and history, giving the volume a broad readership. After presenting an overview of the chapters and the goals of the book in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 is an interview with the late and notable food scholar Sydney Mintz. The interview took place via email correspondence and is Mintz’ thorough responses to three questions posed by the editors of the volume.

Section II of the book, Nutrition and Health, begins with a chapter on “Teaching Obesity: Stigma, Structure, and Self.” The authors of Chapter 3 describe the ways they use the topic of obesity to address key concepts in their upper and lower division undergraduate courses on anthropology and global health including poverty, discrimination, and responsibility. While they describe the sensitive nature of teaching obesity and problems that can arise in having students research and debate this topic, more concrete examples of how to avert these problems in the classroom would be beneficial. In Chapter 4, Sept describes how she structures her upper division archaeology course, Prehistoric Diet and Nutrition. Blending biological anthropology and archaeology she links studies of genetic change and the development of taste, with popular culture trends in food such as the paleo-diet. She details a related in-class scenario-building exercise that prepares students for debates on hunting and scavenging. After providing a brief history of the development of nutritional anthropology and the biocultural approach to food in Chapter 5, Wiley outlines the history and social life of milk. A detailed semester-long assignment presented in the appendix guides students through their own single-food project, yet the body of the chapter itself could be strengthened by more classroom examples.

The three chapters of Section III: Food Ethics and the Public offer the most pedagogical insight with discussion of activities and student’s responses to these approaches. First Benson (Chapter 6) describes three different assignments he has used to emphasize the role of food in the study of consumption, explaining how they “…[have] students look inside themselves at their own issues of dependency and habituation as well as upward at the powerful institutions that make the myths and realties of consumption” (111). This balance is carefully analyzed in several other chapters including Chapters 7, 8, and 12 where the notion of linking research and praxis, and demonstrating how the personal is political are emphasized. In Chapter 7 Counihan describes her research and teaching that encourages her students to reexamine the places where food is produced, purchased, and consumed. Using Lancaster’s historic farmers market, she provides students with a central research question, “Does Central Market promote a just and community-building system of food production and consumption?” This guides students through ethnographic research on the intersections of food, gender, class, race, power, economics, and politics. Service learning courses that address these same themes are the focus of Chrzan in Chapter 8. By offering readers a history of her service learning courses, she describes her successes and failures, allowing readers to avoid these pitfalls in their own courses. The active ethnographic requirements of the assignments in these chapters illustrate how students learn to apply anthropology beyond academe in ways that also promotes food justice and democracy.

Finally, the chapters in Section IV: Food, Identity, and Consumer Society discuss identity creation and how food and eating can illustrate “otherness”. Sutton and Beriss (Chapter 9) explain how place, identity, and community can be analyzed through an exploration of restaurants. However it seems that Chapter 9 would be better suited to the third section of the volume. Chapters 10 and 11 accentuate the role of language in the study of food. Stross (Chapter 10) presents a narrative of his syllabus, and highlights several innovative in-class activities. In Chapter 11, O’Connor explains how she uses food to teach semiotics with an emphasis on helping students understand the relationship between theory and method.  In the final chapter, Van Esterick reviews her decades of research and teaching on food, discussing how her research informed her teaching, which in turn informed new research. She writes poignantly about the emotional reactions experienced by both scholars and students through discourse on family, hunger, health, and disordered eating.

Several authors reflect that their courses on food attract a diversity of students making teaching both challenging and enjoyable as they learn from their experiences. As students grapple with how to analyze personal experience in an academic context, food becomes a tangible and emotionally charged vehicle for applying anthropological theory. In teaching anthropology courses, this is not an uncommon problem. However, this volume could benefit from deeper discussion of how to handle pedagogical challenges in the classroom. While ethical dilemmas such as students who struggle personally with issues such as food security and eating disorders are regularly mentioned, precisely how these problems are resolved in the classroom is largely absent (with Chrzan’s chapter a notable exception).

This volume will be of most use to graduate students and professors who are preparing to teach new courses, or wish to infuse their existing courses with new assignments, activities, and articles. Nearly every chapter includes expansive reference lists for readings and films, and many authors list website URLs for resources and classroom activities. A major strength of the volume is that most authors describe a specific assignment used in their course that is subsequently listed in the appendix. These assignments are excellent additions to the volume, providing easily adaptable teaching examples for readers.

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“You can’t talk about food without talking:” Aimee Hosemann with a Professor’s Perspective on the Course “Food and Culture”

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

This month, the Food Pedagogy Series is pleased to offer a special pair of interviews. Doctoral candidate and instructor Aimee Hosemann was recommended by one of her students, and both Hosemann and the student, Clara Broomfield, agreed to be interviewed about the class. We will hear first from Hosemann, and then we will hear from Broomfield for a student’s perspective on the same course.

In this interview, Hosemann discusses the use of commensality practicums and a class cookbook in her course “Food and Culture” at the University of Texas at Austin. She also reflects on professors’ responsibilities when discussing their own diets, and the challenges of teaching as a doctoral candidate.

LRM: Before we start talking about the course, I would love to hear a little bit more about your work. 

AH: My work is linguistic and sociocultural anthropology with a Brazilian indigenous group called the Wanano/Kotiria. I’m specifically interested in women’s expressive practices.

About a year and a half ago, I was drawn into reading a bunch of stuff by vegan ultra athletes. I noticed how many professional athletes were moving into vegan or whole foods plant-based diets. They were telling stories that sounded like religious conversion narratives: they reached a moment of crisis in their lives, and found plant-based diets. They’re very powerful in the same way that religious testimony is. What started as a hobby turned into what I’m going to focus on for the next couple of years.

LRM: Looking at your course description, I noticed that the last statement says you will focus on “how flows of dietary images and discourses shape race and ethnicity, gender, social class, and other identifications.” I found that an interesting phrasing, because it seems that many food-related syllabi invert that—they look at race, ethnicity, gender, and social class shaping dietary practices rather than the other way around. Can you talk about that phrasing in particular, and about your goals for the class more generally?

AH: That’s such a great question! One of the things I’m interested in is how all manner of things have semiotic content that people interpret. Thinking about food as a globalized thing, you can imagine food and images of food moving around in different social networks. When people take those things on, there’s something appealing about those objects. I think about how people respond to these things, and how that shapes some of their ideas about themselves.

I think it would have worked equally well if I had inverted those things, but I guess I’m trying to play with the concept that dietary practices, and talk about dietary practices, are enactments of something—like the discourse-centered approach to language and culture, where language, culture, and society aren’t necessary the same thing, but they are constantly reconstituting each other.

I think that that plays in really well to my general goals for the class: more than anything, I want the students to adopt an anthropological mindset, and learn to think about things, ideas, and people as reflective of, and constituting, networks of relationships. The way that I wrote the description and my goals for the class work hand in hand with each other.

LRM: Does that approach shape the topics you address or the order of the content of the course?

AH: They did, sort of. I tried to think about things that students had ready experience with. So we have readings about coffee, and a discussion about the Paleo diet and physical anthropology evidence for or against it. Then, there is another structural element to consider, which is that we used Gillian Crowther’s textbook Eating Culture. I looked in that book for inspiration about things that students might really want to know, and things that are my interests—for example, readings toward the end of the semester, about vegan sexuality, about lacking food when you’re in a detention center a migrant, or the cultural and environmental impacts of the BP oil spill. These were things that I was really interested in at this particular moment.

LRM: It sounds like you are working to keep the content fairly current—these are very current issues, migrant detentions, and the BP oil spill.

AH: Yeah, and those two things especially, it’s not too difficult to think about how they would apply to a student body that largely comes from Texas. The oil industry is absolutely integral to a lot of people’s livelihoods here, and then in Texas we have some family detention centers that got a lot of media attention because they were not doing a very good job of housing people in a humane fashion. I really wanted to be able to think about those things, and the lens of food and food practices is a way to sneak at controversial topics.

LRM: Did you feel like that was effective, like you were able to broach more controversial topics successfully this way?

AH: I think it definitely helped. One of the things that I hammered constantly in my class was the need to understand where our food comes from, and how it is interrelated with other things, like immigration. Migrant Farm Workers AlabamaIf people want immigration reform, they need to be willing to pay more for their tomatoes. In class, we talked about: How important is a tomato to a particular cuisine? Would you pay for this cuisine that includes tomatoes, and what happens if you only want to be able to pay very cheap prices for your tomato? Who actually paid for that?

LRM: I want to back up a little bit: how big is the course, what kind of students enrolled, etc.?

AH: The class had 46 students. They were a lot of upperclassmen. It was not meant to be a super high-level course, but it assumed that students had some background in anthropology. Anthropology students got the first seats, then people from other departments. There were a number of ethnic and racial backgrounds represented, as well as traditional and non-traditional college students. Many people had worked in some kind of food-related industry, and had some experience with the work of food. That gave us the ability to really talk at a higher level about what the world of food is like.

LRM: 46 students…that’s a pretty large class to think about eating together. Could you talk a little bit about the physical structure of the class?

AH: We were in a relatively small auditorium, with about 80 chairs in it stadium-style. When I was lecturing, I tried to move around the room and get people to move around in their seats to engage. For some of the people down in the front rows, they never saw some of their classmates in the back, so they didn’t always know who was speaking. So I tried to move around as much as possible, and sometimes let them take over the conversation and turn their backs on me, and look upward in the classroom. Our eating sessions helped that, because then people could move around a lot more, and talk to different people.

LRM: You’ve mentioned this “commensality practicum,” and the student who recommended you spoke specifically about this a fantastic aspect of the course. Can you tell me more about it?

AH: It’s actually something I drew on from my high school newspaper class. We sometimes had what were called “interpersonal skills test,” which were times to kick back and let the stress melt away for just awhile. I always thought that was such a good idea, because we could talk and have fun together, and get to know each other as newspaper staff in a different way.

My class was scheduled at noon, and because it was a food class at noon, there had to be some way to integrate actual food on a reliable basis. I was really taken by the idea of having something like a discussion period every so often so that if there were things they wanted to talk about, they had a chance to do that.

LRM: Did everyone bring food to share, or their own lunches? 

AH: Everyone brought food for themselves, or somebody might have a little extra something to share with people who were close by. We had a separate day, when their recipes were due, that people made food to share. They liked that so much that the next week we had class brunch.

LRM: Was there a structured discussion topic for the commensality practicums?

AH: I would start out with an idea. One time, we talked about what kind of structure we might like our class cookbook to take on. Another time, I asked them how they feel about the concept of food as a human right. I would think about something that was in the air, and then ask them to get a conversation going. They would take it from there.

LRM: You mentioned a class cookbook. Can you tell me about that?

AH: Every student had to include a recipe. It could be for anything that they wanted, it just needed to be something that they liked, and I requested that they provide cultural or familial information; pictures if they wanted them; information on special kinds of techniques or shopping, and to really have fun with it. And some of them were absolutely amazing! Some were written bilingually, in the home language and in English. Beautiful photography, beautiful stories. People scanned and took pictures of the original recipe cards. They submitted them through Canvas, our course management site, and I am compiling them into a single document that they will all get electronically.

Taste of UT LRM: It sounds like they were excited about it. 

AH: They were very excited about it! Even if they didn’t show it in class, it came out in the writing. They talked about what the food is like, and how meaningful it is to them. I could really feel the excitement in their submissions.

LRM: Could you talk a little about a couple of the concepts you really wanted to get across in the course?

AH: There were a couple that really took on lives of their own in the course. First, “What is the idea of gender in relationship to cooking?” Professional cooking and domestic cooking are valued very differently. They really got engaged in that, especially thinking about it in relation to coming up with recipes that were good enough for class. Often, they went to female family members to ask for things, and it gave many of them a new way to think about what was happening when people were cooking at home for them versus when they were eating at restaurants.

Another was food as a marker of health and a marker of security. Because we were really trying to get to an understanding of health as something that is subjective, and even though there are things that we can say about health that seem like they’re pretty objectively true, that objectivity actually hides a lot of cultural context.

Thinking about food security and how it relates to issues of health, one of the things we discovered in class conversation is that the university has a lot of food available. They could conceivably eat just about any time they want to, but it’s not actually that accessible to them, either because of time or budgetary constraints. The things they want to eat are too expensive or too far away. Even though there is food around, as college students—even at this university that considers itself a Public Ivy—a lot of them are at least temporarily food insecure.

LRM: Can you talk a little about how you bring in linguistic anthropology to teach food?

AH: I love to use linguistic anthropology with food! And I’m a big fan of Jillian Cavanaugh’s work on salami, and her work with the documentary processes around food production. There’s a piece in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, “What Words Bring to the Table: The Linguistic Anthropological Toolkit as Applied to the Study of Food,” which details how anthropologists who do linguistics have found themselves doing food, and about how those things meld together. You can’t talk about food without talking, and the way that people talk about food—the how, the why, the when—all of these are just as important to the cuisine as the food itself. We spent a lot of time thinking about how what people say reflects ideas about food and their bodies, and what they have access to, what’s appropriate. That adds a whole level of analysis, and a lot of richness.

LRM: Did students latch on to the importance of language in relation to food?

AH: I think they did. One of the pieces we looked at was Paugh and Izquierdo’s “Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction” about dinnertime arguments over food. That piece is so rich because the transcripts are just beautiful, and you really get the sense of the dynamic that’s happening. I was able to show them, by talking through these transcripts, how this discussion about food is emergent but also plays onto particular family histories.

LRM: The student who recommended you commented that this course integrates many “culturally relevant internet sources and films.” I wonder if you could talk about those?

AH: What with having a Facebook or Twitter feed, I saw all these interesting things. I’m always looking for interesting snippets to show people the connection between journal articles and real life. Then, I got a Netflix account last semester, and went through their entire holding of food movies. One of the hits of the class was the French movie Haute Cuisine, HauteCuisine-teasebecause it’s such a beautiful depiction of the gender issues between a private home cooking, and high-status chef cooking. The food photography was beautiful, the talk between the characters about food was beautiful, and it just really nicely tied together a lot of things in the class.

LRM: Were there any other films you felt were particularly successful? 

AH: A Year in Burgundy was good. We watched that while we were having brunch, and that was really cozy. Both of these movies are very cozy movies. They just make you feel warm, and want to engage with other people, and so that set a really good tone for talking, and appreciating what landscape does for food, what culture does for food. Both of those worked really well. Jiro Dreams of Sushi also went over really well.

I sent out links to a lot of things through Canvas, or through our Facebook group, so that people could look at them on their own time.

LRM: Can you tell me about the Facebook group?

AH: Yeah! It was a student suggestion in the last few weeks of class. Some of the core members of the class got along together really well, and they really wanted to have a way to keep in touch with each other and keep sharing materials. I think about 16 members of the class have joined up now and have been trading videos and having discussions about different things. I’m hoping to use it to keep touch with anyone who takes a food course with me.

LRM: Do you also incorporate those extra media items into class time?

AH: Yes. Luckily with food, things come up. For example, in Crowther’s textbook, there’s a discussion of Appadurai’s work on gastro-politics, and how being a daughter-in-law in a Tamil family can be a very difficult position around food. Well, the week after we talked about this, this news story came out about a daughter-in-law who was feeling very put upon by her in-laws, and didn’t like them messing around in her marriage. She had been urinating into their tea every day for a year to get back at them. Her mother in law was so angry, and wanted her arrested or to sue her for justice—but part of Appadurai’s point with gastro-politics is that, while the mother-in-law thinks she is having particular impacts on her daughter-in-law’s food experiences, the daughter-in-law can also approach this through subversion and claim her own kind of power in relation to her family food situation. That was one that I brought in, but students like to bring things in, too.

LRM: Do you feel like students’ interactions with the world changed as a result of the class?

AH: One of the questions they could answer on their final exam was about something that they learned about food and cultural relationships, and what kind of knowledge gaps they had before the class started. So far, what seems to be very strongly coming through in their answers is that, for a lot of them, they hadn’t really thought of food as a cultural entity, or that it was bound up in other things.

That’s an interesting thing to reflect on, because if you think of food as existing outside of social and linguistic relationships, that says interesting things about your own food history. A lot of students have starting thinking about the fact that white bread, or Starbucks Coffee, or other things that seem ubiquitous actually refer to a whole bunch of other things that they didn’t even think about.

LRM: Is there anything in the course that you didn’t feel worked well, or that you won’t continue?

AH: One of the things I want to do is get the class down to a size where I can have them doing journal reflections a few times over the semester. I’ve done that in other classes, and it’s one of the single most highly rated pedagogical things that I’ve done in any class.

LRM: Can you tell me a little about how that works in other classes?

AH: The journals are their own personal reflections, on what’s really making them angry or that they have a question about but don’t want to talk about in class. So, they write 3-5 journals over the course of the semester of about 3 pages. They submit them electronically, and then I give them fairly substantial comments so that we have an actual conversation about where they are. At the end of the semester, they have this record of how they’ve change as human beings.

LRM: You’re teaching a 2-2 schedule, and you’re ABD. Do you have any thoughts or reflections on teaching these classes while also working on a dissertation?

AH: I have a lot of thoughts about that! One of the things that teaching a 2-2 does, very obviously, is slow down your progress on your dissertation in certain ways. But it also is a lesson in time management. You have to figure out very quickly what your work style is. Do you need extended periods of time to work on certain things, or can you work efficiently in short bursts? That’s been really interesting, and it’s been interesting thinking about moving on to a tenure track position–because it’s not exactly going to get any easier from this point on. So, it’s been kind of a baptism by fire, and it really does make me consider, “is this something that I actually want to do?” On the positive side, teaching things that I’m very interested in has been actually really beneficial for my research in a lot of ways. The students get excited about it, and they ask a lot of questions, and we have really good conversations. And seeing people who are just getting introduced to my work, and find it interesting and ask me questions, then gives me new things to write about.

LRM: Do you talk about your own work in your classes?

AH: I do. I trend vegan in my own diet, and there are particularly strong reasons why I feel that way, and I will talk about them. I also have sort of a complicated worldview about food, because I am also in favor of responsibly hunting. I talk about the complexity of that, but I also try to shy away from talking about my own dietary practice too much, until a student asks me directly what I eat.

Partly, that is because my perspective as an anthropologist is, “I’m not here to tell anybody how to eat.” It’s also because I don’t know anyone else’s health or nutrition status, and I don’t want to be seen as giving definitive answers for what is or is not appropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to use my position as the professor to convert people to veganism. I’ll talk about why I think veganism is interesting, and why vegans believe the things that they do across the wide variety of vegan beliefs, but I would never tell a student, “you need to be vegan.”

LRM: These hesitations about not wanting to impose your own dietary views—do you talk to students about that?

AH: Yes. That came up, too, a couple of weeks ago, when there was a story about a professor who was vegan who does use her classroom as a space for evangelizing for the lifestyle. I brought that into class and said, “what do you think my responsibility is, what do you expect to see out of me?”

LRM: And how did they respond? 

AH: They responded that they absolutely did not, under any circumstances, want me to tell them how to eat.

LRM: How would you compare this to the ways some professors might advocate for local, organic, or sustainable foods when teaching about food? 

AH: I have heard about some programs where there is more explicit focus on local and organic food sources, and push people to shift their dietary practices that way. It does seem like a more widely accepted thing, if you were to evangelize for a particular diet.

However, in another class I talked to students about this. We talked about how, once you start talking about local, organic food sources—never mind even vegan stuff—you’re often dealing with people who are white and upper middle class, and their dietary experience may be very disconnected from some of the students in their classrooms.

I may have students from the Rio Grande Valley, or from underprivileged backgrounds. When they go home, they may live in a food desert. I can tell them all the reasons why local and organic food might be preferable, but I also tell them, “If you can’t afford to do those things right now, do what makes you feel like you’re doing the best that you can with the opportunities and the money that you have. You can only do what you can do.”

LRM: How do students respond to that position? 

AH: The students themselves are very critical of a lot of the food discourses that they hear. They understand that people might think them to be good ideas and very socially transformative, but they also understand that there are people who get excluded for structural reasons. They were as openly critical of those kinds of things as I might have been.

LRM: In some of the readings you’ve assigned, you touch on topics of moral judgments of obesity. Do you feel like students’ sensitivity and critiques of local food discourse is extended to the way they understand discourses around obesity, as well?

AH: Oh yeah. There’s a video from Spokane Public TV, “Our Supersized Kids” about supersized kidschildhood obesity. When we watched it, they identified a lot of things that even I hadn’t noticed. For example, while there is talk about the unhealthfulness of obesity, there is also a lot of bullying of kids who are perceived as being unhealthy. A lot of it is framed as their fault. They caused it by virtue of being obese and unhealthy. If they would change themselves, then everyone else would change. That’s a very common logic that underlies a lot of victim blaming. The students were really able to identify those very quickly.

LRM: Aimee, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. This seems like an excellent course, and I am excited you’ve opened your teaching to commentary from a student, as well. It will be wonderful to have varied perspectives on the same course.

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Filed under anthropology of food, Food Studies, teaching

“It’s Kind of Cool to be a Turnip Expert”: Dr. Clare Sammells on Experiential Learning through Field Trips and Food Experts

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

For the May installment of the Food Pedagogy Interview Series, we hear from Dr. Clare Sammells, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bucknell University. Her popular 200-level course “Food, Eating, and Culture” asks each student to become a “Food Expert” on one particular food over the course of the semester—a technique which brings topical depth to the theoretical breadth of the course.

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

Dr. Clare Sammells

Dr. Clare Sammells

Lauren Renée Moore: I’d like to get started by hearing a little bit about your research.

Clare A. Sammells: I conduct ethnographic research in highland Bolivia and with Bolivian migrants living in Madrid, Spain. My main research areas are the anthropology of tourism and the anthropology of food. I’m especially interested in how food is used to construct touristic experiences and ideas about heritage. So, I consider touristic restaurants and how the cuisine that’s served to foreign tourists in Bolivia is in conversation with the food people are eating in their homes and in other contexts. In Spain, I researched Bolivian restaurants that cater largely to Bolivian migrants, and investigated the challenges of producing Bolivian food in that context.

LRM: What kinds of student does the course attract?

CS: I have a lot of second semester seniors, some of whom are interested in food from the point of view of other disciplines, and some of whom have an open elective and think food sounds awesome. I agree! Most of my students are not anthropology majors, and many have never taken a course in anthropology before.

LRM: Could you tell me a little about your institutional context?

CS: Bucknell is one of the largest liberal arts colleges, located in Lewisburg, PA, which is a town of about 12,000 people surrounded by agricultural areas. We have a large Mennonite population in the area. Many who live here participate in Community Supported Agriculture programs, where they buy vegetables and fruits directly from farmers. Many people here garden, can, and engage with producing food very directly.

LRM: What do you want students to get out of this course?

CS: One of the things I do want them to get out of this is a basic understanding of the subdiscipline of the anthropology of food…. so the things that we anthropologists take for granted like, how is food a symbolic part of human existence? What do food taboos mean? How can we think about commodity chain relationships? What are the economic structures that influence what foods we have access to? Those kinds of questions.

But given that so many of my students are not anthropologists, I have a more general goal, too: I want them to think critically about where their food comes from, who’s growing it, and how one can be an ethical consumer. I would hope that after this class, they wouldn’t just go to the supermarket and pick up strawberries and buy them, but might actually think about who is growing them, what kind of chemicals are going into their production, and whether people are getting a fair wage. And I hope that my students would have some idea of how to go about finding answers to those questions.

I want them to have a better understanding of anthropology, but I also want them to be ethical eaters.

LRM: Do you feel like students leave the class as more ethical eaters?

CS: Oh, absolutely. Many students take the class because they’re already concerned about this issue. I have a lot of vegetarians in my class, for example. All the students bring in a dish once during the semester, and they socialize each other into being explicit about whether the dishes have meat in them, or dairy, or gluten, etc.

One of the things that a lot of students begin to realize in this class is how little they actually know about their food. When I point out that they don’t know where the cucumbers that became the pickles on their hamburgers were grown, or where that cow was raised, then they can see that they really don’t know that much about their food. My goal isn’t necessarily to change their food habits, but rather to encourage them to ask more questions about what they are eating.

LRM: Let’s get into your syllabus. I noticed that you incorporate a field trip. Can you tell me about it?

CS: [I take students to] Owens Farm, about 40 minutes from here in Sunbury, PA. It’s an interesting farm because they are engaging in sustainable meat production of sheep and pigs. The Owens also do a lot of pedagogical events, including a Sheep Camp, where kids stay overnight at the farm during lambing season. When the sheep go into labor, they wake the kids up to help the sheep give birth. They do a lot of programs to get people engaged in agricultural work.

It’s always interesting for me to take my students there. I’ve had students who had never seen a horse in person, who didn’t know that sheep made noise. I lived on a farm in Bolivia, so all that seemed really obvious, but it’s not necessarily part of all college students’ experience to interact with animals in that way.

LRM: There’s an assignment attached to that field trip. What do you have students do in that assignment?

CS: At the time we do this field trip, we’re also reading Warren Belasco’s Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. It’s a wonderful book, and he talks about how people have historically thought about the future of food. So I ask my students to think about Owens Farm as a very direct response to some of the industrial agricultural practices we see in our world. What is the alternative this farm presents for the future, in terms of how we could think about meat production? So I have them write a reflection paper on that experience.

LRM: You don’t allow computers in your classroom. Could you talk a little about that?

CS: I don’t allow computers in any of my classes. If I had my computer on in the classroom, I know I’d be on Facebook. So, I think it’s unfair for me to expect my students to not be on Facebook. It’s my personal quirk. I feel that for 55 minutes they can pay attention to me and to each other. I don’t spend most of my time in class lecturing, so I’m not expecting them to transcribe what I’m saying… instead, I have them sort through problems or analyze readings with each other.

I know people feel differently about electronics in the classroom, and I do make some exceptions. For example, I have them take a modified version of the Food Stamp Challenge. For that class, they bring in computers and work with one computer per group to go online shopping with a budget. But I find for the most part prohibiting electronics works pretty well. I find that if that policy is in the syllabus and I am consistent and clear about it, students accept it. It makes an enormous difference in terms of making sure students are engaged with the class. They’re paying attention, and they’re not distracting each other. I think it’s working pretty well.

LRM: Can you tell me about the “food experts” component of this course?

CS: That’s actually one of my favorite parts of this class. I think it may be part of why so many students might take it… they have snacks in class everyday!

The very first class I bring in food. I try to bring in something that the students won’t immediately be able to identify. I tell them, “If you have an allergy, you can tell me, and I will assure you that this will not kill you. But, other than that, I’m not going to tell you what this is.” Then, I have them write a description of it. I tell them that one of the challenges of writing about food is trying to describe foods to people who have never tried them. Talking about food is always audience-dependent. This time I brought in chuño (Andean freeze-dried potatoes). It was interesting to see which ones of them liked it and which ones were not as enamored.

During the first week I bring in a box with paper slips naming 50 foods. They’re all basic ingredients: chicken, spices like cardamom or cinnamon, grains like wheat or rice, tubers like potatoes or manioc, fruits and vegetables. I have them pull one name out of a hat, and then I give them a week to trade with each other or with the “leftovers” at my office. There’s a little bit of choice, but they all end up with a unique food. That’s the food they follow through for the rest of the semester.

I want them to think of it as a field-to-fork kind of assignment where they are becoming the class expert on something. They address the theoretical themes that we are talking about in class through short papers that are focused on their own food. Once during the semester, they bring in a dish that highlights their food to share with their class. Then they write a paper about the experience of working with that food, and how people responded to it.

They don’t generally cook a lot, and some students have told me, “This is my first time cooking something on campus.” It’s really interesting to see them engaged with the food in an experiential kind of way. That’s really different from just writing about something.

LRM: Can you tell me a little more about the short essays related to the theoretical components of the course?

CS: Each of the paper prompts deals with the themes for the week. Early in the class we deal with things like domestication: what’s the relationship between humans and their food? The first prompt is “Discuss the agricultural and/or environmental context of the production your food, and how that has changed over time.”

Another paper asks them to compare two dishes with the same ingredient that are eaten in different cultural contexts, and to talk about the difference in symbolism between those two dishes. So, they think about how the same food can be invoked in different meaningful ways. Another paper is to think about how their food is affected by globalization, and how it moves through global networks of people and economic systems. They follow one food all the way through.

At the end, I had one student say to me, “I never thought I’d know this much about turnips!” But that’s kind of cool, to be a turnip expert.

LRM: How do you select the foods that make that 50 foods list?

CS: I pick foods that appear in multiple cultural contexts, so they can be compared cross-culturally, and that are part of a global commodity chain of some kind. I also pick foods that I think they’ll be able to find, work with, and cook. For example, I don’t include lobster, because that’s expensive. I also don’t include foods, like llama meat or guinea pig, that would be extremely difficult to find in central Pennsylvania.

LRM: I wanted to jump to a different aspect of the course. I see that you have listed a teach-in day for Martin Luther King, Jr. day. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about that?

CS: That was a campus-wide event at Bucknell University in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day. The challenge to all of us as faculty was to discuss questions of structural racism and structural inequality in the context of whatever classes we were teaching at the time.

I broke from the regular syllabus a bit to talk about food deserts, and to look at Monica White’s work with African American urban farmers in Detroit, and how they’re dealing with food deserts by farming their own food. The D-Town Farmers have an agreement with the city of Detroit to farm in one of the public parks. I showed the students a video interview with one of their leaders, Malik Yakini, and we looked at maps of food deserts in urban areas such as Baltimore.

I started off the class by asking them a series of questions, and asking them to stand up when they agreed. I began with, “Everyone has the right to eat,” and they all stood up. But then we got to questions like, “People should pay for food,” and “Grocery stores should have the right to open up where they think they can make the most money,” this is where we start to see the contradictions. If food is a right, how do we make sure everyone has access to it?

I don’t have the answers to that question, but I wanted them to understand that access to food parallels other kinds of structural inequalities like racism and class.

LRM: One of the challenges instructors face is getting students to pay attention to the syllabus. I notice that your syllabus has a statement about emailing you with a particular word by a particular date for extra credit. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

CS: Oh, yeah! That’s my Easter egg, and I’ve actually started doing that in a lot of my syllabi. The first assignment for all of my classes is to read the syllabus, and I’ve found that a lot of them were not doing that. So I started adding these things. The word changes every time, and I also change where it is in the syllabus. About 1/3 of the class emails me with the word, and I give them extra credit. Even though it’s not a huge thing, I think it gives them the feeling that they’re starting off on the right foot. And it ensures me that they actually have looked at the syllabus. Of course, we all want our students to know what they’re getting into, and to feel like they are agreeing to engage in the same project that we are as professors.

LRM: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the book selections in the course? I know you use Meals to Come, and it looks like you also rely fairly heavily on Noodle Narratives. Could you talk a little bit about that?

CS: They read the The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century,

picture of ramen

which I like because it takes a food that my students are probably more familiar with than they would like to admit (instant noodles) and puts it in cultural contexts that they would not necessarily consider. Instant noodles were developed in Japan, and are consumed in Papua New Guinea, on college campuses, and by many prisoners in the United States. Here in Lewisburg we’re very close to four major prisons, and it’s a major employer in the town, so this is part of our local economy. Noodle Narratives allows us to address [a wide range of] questions.

LRM: Are there other readings that are particularly successful?

CS: I really like the first chapter of Paul Stoller’s The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. I open with that. He and his wife are living with the Songhay, and the chapter describes an intentionally disgusting meal and what that’s meant to communicate.

My students really like this piece. It’s beautifully written and it’s a compelling story. I think the idea of being a teenager who has to communicate in non-verbal ways resonates with them to some extent. The main character who’s preparing this meal is a teenager, and she feels powerless; this is how she’s able to express herself. It gets students thinking about food in a different way. This cook’s goal isn’t to make something tasty and delicious, although she can cook. She chooses not to cook well for a specific reason, and her purpose is correctly interpreted by everyone. That’s a piece I really like to start with because it captures first what it’s like to be an anthropologist, and second, the communicative aspect of food that is so powerful.

Another piece that they found really interesting was Michael Owen Jones’ piece “Dining on Death Row: Last Meals and the Crutch of Ritual.” I showed them a short video about the procedures followed on an execution day, and we talk about that as a ritual. Then we discuss what rituals do, and why are so many people interested in what the condemned eat for their last meal. We were able to use that to talk about things like the structural inequality that exists in our incarceration system, who is put on death row, and why people would be interested in what they’re eating. [The students] had a lot of interesting things to say about that.

LRM: One of the things I’m really interested in is how you have interwoven global topics with things that are going on in North America–like freeganism–that students might relate to.

CS: I think one of the challenges for our discipline is how can we talk about big global processes and yet still think about the daily, lived experience of people who are eating meals with others particular contexts.

The freegans are particularly interesting. We spend a week talking about dystopias and how people envision the collapse of food systems. I show them clips from Soylent Green, for example. We move from that to freegans, who are commenting on waste in our society. I show them Dive: Living Off America’s Waste, a documentary about dumpster divers in Los Angeles. dive_poster-87cbd2d9

There’s a really interesting scene in this documentary in which some of these dumpster divers are confronted by the police. These dumpster divers are all clearly middle class, white, young people with nice cars, and they’re in dumpsters getting food. One of them just walks up to the police officer and shakes the officer’s hand while they film him. The police officer’s really polite to them. I challenge my students to think about whether would everyone in this situation feel comfortable doing that. That’s an incredible position of privilege to feel like you can walk up to a police officer and explain to him that, yeah, you’re breaking the law, technically, but see, you have this political project. And the police officer will be like, “Ok, can you just clean up when you’re done?” Especially in our current context, with the national discussion we’re having about the relationship between the police and African-American men, this moment in the film was really striking.

We talk about the difference between dumpster diving with your four-figure video camera and private car, versus someone who actually needs that food. My students talk about how, on the one hand, they want to reduce food waste. But on the other hand, they’re also part of the society we’re in, and their ability to do that is structured in certain ways.

LRM: Do you have any final thoughts?

CS: I think one thing that has really worked for this class is getting students to cook and to eat. I think often, especially those of us who work with college students who live in dorms who might not have their own kitchens, we can be hesitant to insist that they cook because of those structural constraints. At the same time, I have found that they are excited to do that. They come to class and talk about trying out recipes on their roommates, borrowing tools, putting out grease fires. One of the great things about food is that we can engage all the senses. It’s one of the reasons I like to have food in class, because just talking about food makes you hungry!

LRM: This sounds like an engaging and exciting class. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

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

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

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

Welcome to the inaugural interview of SAFN’s new Food Pedagogy Interview Series. Each month, we will feature a food scholar who teaches a course related to food or nutrition. They will share tips, tricks, and cautionary tales from their classrooms. If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.

2015 kicks off with an interview with Susan Rodgers, Professor of Anthropology at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Rodgers was the 2013 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching/CASE Massachusetts Professor of the Year. Though Rodgers’ own work focuses on the politics of art and literature in Indonesia, she has developed a challenging and provocative food class for first and second year students at her college. She speaks here about the course, successful components and cautionary tales, and why anthropologists should have high expectations for introductory classes.

SAFN members can access the syllabus Dr. Rodgers discusses here through the SNAC 4 resource page.

Lauren R. Moore: Can you tell me a little about how this course got started?

Susan Rodgers:  First of all, I’m not an anthropologist of food. My work and publications are on very different things. I’ve worked with the Angkola Batak people of Indonesia since the mid 1970s on issues of the politics of print literature, and minority arts in Indonesia in general.

I came to Holy Cross to help the school set up a new anthropology program in 1989, after teaching at Ohio University for 11 years. About 7 years ago, the college made me the Garrity Chair, which is a rotating, endowed professorship [during which] you have to design a brand-new course that speaks to issues that the Garrity family was interested in—social justice issues, basically, and fine liberal arts teaching with challenging texts. At the time, I was using a lot of Paul Farmer’s work in a freshman seminar. I was really impressed by how well Paul Farmer’s work teaches to first and second year students, so I decided to create this Food, Body, Power course. It’s an anthro of food course, but undergirded very explicitly with Paul Farmer’s understanding of the structural violence of poverty.

I ask students to read Farmer pretty seriously and then see if his understanding of structural violence can be applied to issues of food insecurity both domestically and worldwide. He himself hasn’t done that yet to any extent. But I imported the theory from Paul Farmer, and based the course around that. So that’s the origin of Food, Body, Power. I had taught a more broad-based Anthro of Food course for several years before this, but Food, Body, Power is an offshoot.

LRM:  One of the things that drew me to this syllabus in the SAFN materials was how you’re really tackling complex topics and serious readings in a 100-level class. Does the institutional context at Holy Cross relate to the kind of syllabus you’ve created?

SR: Holy Cross very much makes it possible. Holy Cross is a small, highly selective, liberal arts college. We’re like Vassar and Bates and Williams and Amherst…that range. We do get, in general, very, very good students who expect to work hard. So it doesn’t shake them up when they see, for instance, 5 monographs and a whole bunch of journal articles in an Anthro 101 syllabus. That’s kind of the Holy Cross thing.

But, maybe because of my 11 years teaching at Ohio University, I feel that at almost any four-year institution, we can take our first and second year students very seriously, and pitch a course like this to them. I think they rise to the occasion.

You know, in philosophy, the professors are asking their first year students to read very tough material. They don’t flinch from that. When students take a chemistry course, they’re asked to do some pretty challenging thought-work. So, I feel that this has some translatability.

The difference, if I was teaching back at OU, is the size of a class. Here, our 100-level courses are either capped at 25 or at 19. And of course you can ask the students to write a lot more if you’ve got a class of that size versus teaching to 50 or 75 students or even more. The professor could die grading papers. This is a pretty writing intensive course, as most of mine tend to be. If I was teaching it to a larger class—above 25—I would have to scale down the amount of writing that students do. But some aspects of the current version I think would work really well at any institution.

LRM: Weeks 12 through 14, I see they’re doing group presentations. Can you tell me about those?

I always like to have students do teamwork as they go through the course. First of all, there’s four weeks of a condensed anthro of food course at the beginning. They read many chapters from C. Counihan and P. Van Esterik’s Food and Culture anthology. Then they read Paul Farmer, and then Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, and Psyche Williams-Forson’s Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs. So, they’ve already done some pretty heavy-duty things. Then, we have a section where I ask them to apply what they’ve learned, à la structural violence and so on, to issues of famine. All the way through the course they’ve been divided into 5-person teams. I have little assignments that they’ll do. After they’ve done all of that, writing essays and essay tests all along, I have those teams really do something, in terms of producing knowledge for the whole class.

They have to meet, pick a serious food insecurity issue from outside the United States, research it together, and then put together a 25-minute lecture on their selected issue. For instance, child stunting in India: what causes it? After they’ve done that lecture, they take that same critical lens and work together in their teams to identify, address, and lecture again on a food insecurity issue in Massachusetts that also has relevance for Worcester. And that’s at the end of the course.

And that, I think, could be translated to almost any institution, because students just thrive when they’re asked to do teamwork…but not just to do it, but to actually lecture in the class. One thing that makes this helpful is our reference librarian, who runs a 50-minute class for us in the computer-assisted classroom about how to find sources. So, I know they’re armed with the ability to find good sources. As a follow up to these lectures, each student picks a paper topic that has been generated by their team reports, and then they (individually) write a 7-page paper on that.

LRM: Can you give an example of a memorable project?

SR: For some reason, one whole class was fascinated with South Sudan. One of the teams did a really good job looking at basic infrastructure problems in the country, like transferring food from one city to another. That team had a couple of economics majors, and they were able to bring their expertise to the class lecture, which was trying to explain why food insecurity is so dire in Sudan. From our readings, they were already alerted to the problem of how warfare violence can lead to famine, so they brought that in.

LRM: Do they also get excited about the local topics?

SR: One thing I’ve done is ask the Executive Director of the Worcester County Food Bank to come to class and lecture about food insecurity in Worcester County. South Worcester, right down our hill, is one of the most seriously impoverished parts of Worcester. I mentioned it might be something they could look at. That sparked their interest.

One small group last spring did such a good job! They decided to see how food, in a very generic sense, was portrayed in two quite contrastive high schools. One was in a fairly impoverished part of Worcester, and they also picked the public high school in Weston, MA—do you know about Weston?—it’s so prosperous. It’s one of the most over-the-top wealthy parts of Massachusetts. They did it as an experiment. They wanted to see what the school websites told us about food.

In the Weston public high school, oh my goodness. They had a cafeteria that was basically like an organic cafe. It would provide all these different, extremely interesting, sometimes even literally organic meals; very internationalized, sophisticated cuisine; guides for parents as to how to encourage their sons and daughters to eat healthful food and everything. It was a very elaborate, upper middle class take on healthy food and why it’s good for us.

Then, the students were able to contrast that with the almost blank information about food—and relatively little outreach to the parents—in the particular public high school in Worcester. They were also able to follow the weekly menus and look at the tater tots versus the kale salads and so on in the two contrastive high schools. That was really eye opening for the class, I think. We could discuss issues of class privilege and worldview and class-shaped “taste,” in the Q and A part of the students’ lecture.

LRMHave you had things that haven’t gone as well, that you’ve elected not to do again? Do you have any cautionary tales that have come out of this course?

SR: There is one cautionary tale I could pull from my experience. When I taught the old version of this course, the more generic Anthropology of Food course, I took one class period (of a 3 days/week class), and met outside the classroom, and together we walked down the hill into south Worcester. I asked them to walk around this little strip mall, with a Wendy’s hamburger joint, a cigar shop that has a few vegetables and a lot of snack foods, and a very cheap Chinese restaurant. I asked students to walk around for 40 minutes with a field notebook, and observe the food scene. The next class period, two days later, we talked about it.

That kind of fell flat because the students really needed more background on Worcester before that would make sense to them. I think in theory it was a great exercise, but we just can’t assume that they really know much about the local community in terms of SES and class and history.

It’s very important, if you’re going to understand the food scene down at the bottom of our hill, you’ve got to understand the history of the Irish American immigration to that very spot, and the movement of the Irish Americans out to the suburbs, and the ethnic composition and poverty issues now in that area. I hadn’t told them much about that. If I were to bring that back, I would really nest it within a couple lectures—and maybe students’ own web investigations—on Worcester and social class.

LRM: That’s a good point. One of the things I’ve found when talking about food with students, it can easily devolve into class-based stereotypes or normative judgments. I wonder if that’s something you face or if you have any strategies for overcoming it?

SR: I think probably anybody who teaches almost any topic in anthropology encounters this. One of the ways I deal with this is with the readings during the first four weeks of class. For example, this article makes such a hit. It’s really tough, and as the teacher you really have to walk through it point by point, but Alice Julier’s wonderful article, “The Political Economy of Obesity: The Fat Pay All,” really makes students think about their own social class positionality.

What Julier ends up saying is that obesity works for the elite in America. It provides us a population of workers who the upper-middle class can look down on, make fun of, and underpay. Obesity also works in a sense of blaming and shaming people who aren’t at fault for their problems of overweight. They should be dealt with as people who are being victimized by the social structure, but the way pop culture works is that we can’t see those social structure dimensions, and we look at the personal and think it’s psychological.

Julier sets all that out, and then I take a whole 50-minute period to discuss that one article after the students have read it carefully with reader’s guides—I always give them a reader’s guide. Then, we can talk about social class, and food overabundance, and body and power. Certain of the articles I use in the first four weeks, introducing the topic of anthro of food, can serve that purpose of making the students aware of social class dimensions to food production and consumption, and then they carry that through the whole course.

LRM: You said you give reader’s guides. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

SR: I’ve found that students need a little guidance before they plunge into a tough article or book. It makes them more serious readers if they have a list of say, 5 dimensions of a chapter to look at beforehand. So, using Julier’s article, it would be something like “What does Julier want us to understand about how social class operates in America?” I don’t want to overdetermine what they look at. Not simply asking them to summarize an aspect of a text, but having a question that kind of comes at them a little bit at a slant, that the author himself or herself would be able to answer.

A lot of my colleagues in this department have found that, if you give the students a reader’s guide before they dive into reading an assignment, it makes for much better class discussion. Also, they sort of need it. When I was in college, I don’t think any of my professors gave me a reader’s guide, but I find that students appreciate some guidance from the professor. They need a bit of help, kind of a map. You really want to ask them provocative questions that are kind of fun to think about, so there’s a technique to writing reader’s guides.

LRM: It sounds like reader’s guides are something you do in a lot of your classes. I wonder if there’s anything you do when teaching a food-related course that differs from the way that you approach other, non-food courses?

SR: One thing I probably do more in my food course than I do in my other range of 100- and 200-level courses that seems to work well, is when there’s a really interesting article in the morning New York Times or in the Washington Post or any serious newspaper, I’ll pull off a copy. And I’ll actually make a photocopy of it for every student in the class. I pick out really well-written current stories related to the topic of that day’s lecture, and I’ll actually ask them to take 10 minutes in class and sit there and read it silently to themselves, and then relate it to the chapter or the article that we’re dealing with on the syllabus that day. That seems to really interest them a lot. Then they go out and begin to be more serious newspaper readers themselves, which is an important lesson.

There’s another thing that’s distinctive to Food, Body, Power that works really well in the food class: autobiographical reflections. When I teach Anne Allison‘s wonderful “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus,” after I make sure they understand what her argument is, we relate it to the their memories of the way their family prepared lunches for them at age 5 or 6. Everybody scribbles notes, and we describe it, then we do Anne Allison’s analysis and look for the structural message underneath.

One thing that all of us, including me, say is that our parents would prepare our wonderful, nutritionally balanced meal, send us off to 1st grade, and then we’d trade things… a tuna fish salad sandwich for something yummier, for example. Once we all admit we traded away our nutritious lunch, we ask: what does that really tell you about American culture? Then they discover, well, individual choice is really valorized, standing up to authority is valorized. You can do more of that biographical work in a food course than some others.

LRM: This is a writing intensive course. Could you tell me a little bit about the writing assignments?

SR: This has four 5-page response essays. They’re not research papers… the somewhat longer essay they write at the end is more of a research exercise, but the 5-page response essays are directed to the syllabus readings. It’s to make sure that they not only understand a set of articles, but have a critical perspective on it. The best way to demonstrate that is writing. Often I’ll ask them to pair two of the articles, and what they’re doing in an exercise like that is not only showing me that they’ve read those articles in really tremendous depth–real depth of understanding—but also synthesizing it into something that’s distinctly their own. I want them to take on the voice of an anthropologist.

Another thing with having regularly spaced essays: it means that they’re really keeping up with the readings. It takes a whole lot of grading time. With 25 students, all these essays, and in-class essay exams, it’s a lot of grading. But I find it eliminates the problem of a students showing up to class and not having read. If it means more grading time for me, that’s okay, because I really want them to keep up with the syllabus and to read these texts with some seriousness.

One of the goals of college education is to become a better, more precise, and maybe more creative writer. I tell them this quite explicitly before they write their first essay: I’m really interested in excellent writing, and I’m happy to work on drafts in my office hours and help students become a better writer. So that’s undergirding everything.

LRM: Do you have any final thoughts or suggestions for other teachers?

SR: I would say they should not underestimate their students. Even for first and second year students, you can have a complex syllabus.

Paul Farmer does work very well as a theoretical framework that catches younger students’ attention. A cautionary note, though: students tend to rapidly fall in love with Paul Farmer’s work overmuch, and you have to help them draw back a little bit and be a little critical of his ethically engaged anthropology – what Nancy Scheper-Hughes calls “anthropology with its feet on the ground,” – and with Farmer’s notion of structural violence and his hopefulness about structural change. Students glom onto that and want to run with it, so you have to incorporate some critiques.

Students, they’re college students. They’re serious adults. I think our syllabi should challenge them at that level. Often they can rise to the occasion. But you’ve got to have structures in place to make sure you don’t lose a student along the way. Make sure students who don’t understand the readings come to office hours, that sort of thing. Very time intensive, all these nice things I’m saying!

You want to make sure that once they’ve taken the course, and back they go to their normal life, they never think about food in a simple way ever again. Hopefully they’ll keep that anthropological vision of the social complexity of food. With the power element of my syllabus, I hope they think of issues of social class and social inequality, which they’re going to confront when they’re 30 years old and reading the newspaper, or maybe being a boss in a corporation and hopefully being attentive to adequate salaries for their workers.

The anthropology of food… It seems like such a fun topic. It lures them in. Then you hit them with this heavy-duty economic anthropology and political anthropology, and really pretty sophisticated theory, which they begin to like. And then, hopefully, they’ll use it in their other classes, and in their larger life.

I want to really change their vision of the world, maybe more in this course than in any other course of mine. In this course, I’m not worried if these students never take another anthro course. This is not only for anthro majors. You get students into it by the title, and it could be their one anthropology course. It has allowed the student to talk as a group and reconfigure their understanding of food and body and power. That’s an impact. That’s kind of a public anthropology impact on citizenship, I think.

LRM: Thank you so much for you time, and for inaugurating the SAFN food pedagogy interview series!

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Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, pedagogy, teaching