In this occasional series, we ask instructors to discuss how they engage students in the great questions of our time.
Q. What are the goals that you have for students in this class?
A. I structure the course by looking at this concept of foodways, which is a food studies concept that scholars from different disciplines use that basically talks about and refers to the various economic, political, and social ways that food interacts in our lives and the significance that it plays.
There are three main factors when we look at foodways: how people produced food, how they distributed food throughout their society, and how people consumed food. This course has the goal of teaching students how to understand change over time in the production, distribution, and consumption of food.
Q. What do your students find most interesting or surprising about this topic?
A. One of the things that students are most immediately surprised by and comment on is that they didn’t before recognize the multiple symbolic meanings and political significances of food in their community and they ways that food helps reiterate power, reinstate power, or reinforce group belongings. But by looking at a number of case studies, they start to see that this is in fact one of the big functions that food serves.
Q. What can students expect to get out of this class?
A. Well there are two big categories of skills that I would hope students take out of this class. One is the larger skill of critical thinking that is a foundational goal in all of the history department’s classes. We don’t really focus on memorizing dates or events or battles as much as we focus on the big issue questions and wanting students to think through them and develop their own conclusions about how history happened and why, and why people make the decisions they do. And so, with a course that is asking students to do that same work of developing their critical thinking skills but focusing on something as every day as food, it offers a different window in.
Then another more practical skill is the practice of working together in group projects. I know everybody hates group projects, but the truth is that you’re going to encounter them throughout your professional life, and you need to figure out how to work within them.
Q. How did you get interested in teaching this subject?
A. I had a very dear friend, who I went to graduate school with, who is a historian of food. She was a major collaborator with me on all of the courses I taught. She taught history of cities and cultural history, so I kind of naturally got interested in what she was doing with history of food courses and sort of floated the idea of teaching one. And I had another colleague at the time in the history department at Georgia State who was a classicist; she was actually trained in archaeology, but she focused on classical and ancient history, and we decided to co-teach the course and develop it together—mostly because we liked food. So, we started learning about all of the scholarship and foodway studies, and I learned that it is a really vibrant and interesting intellectual field.
—Interview by Victoria Pitter. Photo by Melanie Fan.