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First Year Writing Seminar Delves Into the Politics and Pleasures of Food

Publication Date: 4/3/2012

It’s not every class that requires you to cook a meal from scratch for your family and friends. In Professor Judith Haas’ First Year Writing Seminar, titled The Politics and Pleasures of Food, students do just that as part of an assignment that challenges them to engage in a new food experience.

“The class is designed to get students to start thinking about food in a more personal way. Students have to write two experience papers, and we start out by reading personal stories that have to do with thinking about food and identity,” Haas says. “A lot of people’s relationship to a particular culture is through food, which is the theme of many of the stories we read in the class.”

Now in her second semester teaching the class, Haas originally offered the course in 2008. She designed the original course to be centered around Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivores Dilemma, which had recently been published.

“Food has always been an abiding interest of mine,” Haas says. “I’m really interested in cooking, but also in thinking about sustainable food and all the social and political aspects relating to food, such as who gets food and who doesn’t. And just in the past ten years, there has been an explosion of great writing on the subject. I thought it would be a great topic for the First Year Writing Seminar.”

The writing seminars are required of all first-year students who do not place out of the course, and are designed to help improve their writing and revision skills. Haas says that in order to facilitate this, it is important to choose subjects for the courses that grab the students’ attention.

“Many first year students who haven’t decided on a major yet are taking these seminars,” Haas says. “So the English faculty try to find topics that reach into many different disciplines. Food is perfect for that, because you can think of it anthropologically, or in terms of philosophy or literature or politics. Food gives us a great way to cover a lot of ground.”

In the current section of the course, students have read Pollan’s more recent book, In Defense of Food, which talks about the Western diet as the cause of many of the lifestyle diseases that plague twenty-first century living. Students discuss topics that range from the history of restaurants to the relationship between food and social class, to how food is related to global economic issues. Conor Pocino ’15 says that taking the class has made him more conscious of issues relating to large corporations in the food industry.

“It’s concerning that people don’t know the reality behind their food and corporate America,” Pocino says. “A lot of authors that we read in this class propose locally grown food or even becoming a vegetarian as alternatives, basically anything to not fall into this trap of industrialized food.”

Over spring break, Pocino talked to local farmers in his hometown of Chesterfield, NJ about organic farming and the state of farming practices to gather information for a paper he is writing in response to the filmĀ “Food, Inc.” which students watched in class.

“One of the things I have taken from the class is that if you’re going to go the local foods route, you really need to talk to the farmers and get to know them, to develop a relationship with your food. That’s the only way people are actually going to know what’s going into their food.”

A large part of Haas’ course is designed to facilitate this conversation. As part of their second experience paper, students are required to interact with some organization in Memphis that deals with local food. Some students have gone to local farmers markets to speak with growers, and one student has talked to a student intern at Bridges who is working to change school lunches in Memphis.

“I hope [by taking this class] students see how integral food is to their lives,” Haas says. “There is definitely a position in this class; which is that it is important to think about food in order to protect people’s health and the environment. I think a lot of the problems we face in the world now can be linked back to the degradation of food and the environment that produces our food. So hopefully students come away with an appreciation of how important food is, and with a sense of how they can change their relationship to food.”

(information compiled by Rhodes Student Associate Lucy Kellison ’13)

Founded in 1848, Rhodes College is a private, coeducational college of liberal arts and sciences. It aspires to graduate students with a lifelong passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.

Tags: Campus Life, Faculty, Students

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