“What should we have for dinner?” and Other Deceptively Simple Questions

“What should we have for dinner?” (Pollan 1)

“What should I eat?” … “What am I eating? And where did it come from? (Pollan 17)

In the opening chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A History of Four Meals (2006) Michael Pollan poses these deceptively simple questions. By the end of Pollan’s, and the reader’s, journey through food chains of the United States most of these questions are exposed as much more complicated than they first appear. I say most because by the end of the first chapter it becomes clear that the answer to “What am I eating?” is probably corn.

For a short introduction to the book and its impact on readers you can watch the video below. It walks you through the three sections — “Industrial: Corn,” “Pastoral: Grass,” and “Personal: The Forest” — and introduces you to the author.

“America’s Food Crisis: THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA” – THNKR

Published on YouTube July 1, 2012

This second video takes you on a trip through the grocery store that’s reminiscent of Chapter 1’s “A Naturalist in the Supermarket” (Pollan 15-19).

“Navigating the Supermarket Aisles with Michael Pollen and Michael Moss” – New York Times

Published on YouTube May 1, 2013

Pollan characterizes his book as a story “about the pleasures if eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowledge” (11). Today in UNIV 1820, UConn Reads we officially began the pursuit of knowledge about the origins of our food while sharing two giant bags of popcorn. (I just couldn’t resist.) In addition to reading the book and presenting on chapters in class each student will explore their connection to food in a way that’s meaningful and of value to them.

This individualized semester project is the core of the course. It consists of three components to be completed throughout the semester: 1) a preliminary interpretive project, 2) a mock grant proposal, 3) a public coffee house presentation event. Proposed topics include the origins of Hershey’s chocolate, steak around the word, and monoculture. Follow my blog to hear more about these and other Omnivore’s inspired intellectual adventures.

If you haven’t already picked up a copy of the book to join in the nation-wide UConn Reads initiative I hope this post will encourage you to give it a try.

“Heavenly Doughnuts,” “Lollipops,” and Undergraduates Excited to Discuss Art

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) Michael Pollan characterizes United States residents as “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of living healthily” (3). The Sweet Sensation exhibition showing January 22 – March 29, 2015 at the University of Connecticut’s William Benton Museum of Art challenges patrons to recognize how this experience can be a product of their personal daily dietary choices. Upon entering the central gallery, contemporary regional artwork tempts guests to confront and interrogate their desires for the sweet, salty, fatty, processed, and often corn-derived treats that inspired the pieces.

“‘Lollipops’ by Margaret Morrison really pulled me in. It’s full of these hypnotizing swirls and enticing colors, and was accompanied by an excerpt about how everything we eat is made of corn. I think this piece speaks to both the fact that processing food really makes us have no idea what we’re eating and also that the packaging, the colorful “hypnotism” … makes us not really care that we don’t know.” FYE Student reproduced with permission

Other class favorites from this exhibit included Margaret Morrison’s “Chocolate Cheesecake,” that one student admired for “the attention to detail and technique,” which they thought were “extraordinary” (FYE Student reproduced with permission). Giant, partially eaten, boxes of chocolates and doughnuts, chicken with waffles (that some students are now excited to try), and rows of cereal boxes covered in glittering, sugary glass powder also drew a lot of interest, speculation, and debate.

As a teacher, the most exciting part of this museum tour for me was that first-year students from a wide variety of majors and backgrounds looked truly engaged by this opportunity to explore the artwork, ask questions, and talk about their interpretations with their peers. At one point our endlessly patient, knowledgeable guide, the museum’s Registrar and Assistant Curator, had to pause her description of a work until she could be heard over multiple excited exclamations of “ooh, look at this over here!”

Although the current exhibits, Sweet Sensation and In The Paint: Basketball In Contemporary Art, stirred the most undeniable enthusiasm, paintings from the Benton’s historical collections were frequently the topics of meaningful reflection and questions. For some students these works were the most inspiring part of the day.

“I really liked ‘Venus Admonishing Cupid” by Benjamin West. It caught my attention immediately because it was beautifully painted. The tears and her body looked extremely real. The mythological story behind it, Jupiter carrying Venus off as a beautiful white bull is quite fascinating” – FYE Student reproduced with permission

On a less academic note, others were incredibly excited for the free toothbrushes in the lobby. The front desk liaison explained that these were provided by Health and Dental Services to remind patrons that sugary sweets can also harm your teeth. But even if there hadn’t been a logical connection I think they would have been just as popular. College students do tend to love free stuff, after all. So leaving with a freebee was their icing on top of a wonderful day.

Thank you to the fabulous Benton Museum professional and student staff who were so kind to provide this personalized experience for our class. It was a great way to kick off our reading of the text and to connect with each other as intellectuals. I know that many of us will return to enjoy future exhibits and to read in your gorgeous, newly opened weekend study lounge. We appreciate your insights, kindness, and yes, the toothbrushes.

Films, Easter Eggs, and Snow: How to Prepare for Spring Semester

This week I’ve been completing final preparations for spring semester. In New England this necessarily includes planning in some flexibility for the likely weather interruptions. When teaching a course, such as mine, that only meets once a week it’s especially important if you want to avoid make up sessions outside of regular class hours. I learned this the hard way one year when I taught on a Monday in spring. Between holidays and and snow storms my class never met in person until the fourth week of the semester. I was able to shift course content to Blackboard on the fly. But to avoid that anxiety and confusion for both me and my students I simply build in online alternatives right from the start.

For this course I thought it would be fun to include some streaming video options using library resources and the film’s websites, if the filmmakers have authorized a free streaming version of their documentaries. Of course, I wanted to make good choices about which films might be useful and how, so I’ve watched more food-related film over the last couple of weeks than I ever knew existed. My films-to-review list included Food Inc, The Healing Effect, Forks Over Knives, Fresh, Food Matters, The Harvest, The Dark Side of Chocolate, and Super Size Me, among others. Watching all of these films in succession left me feeling ethically (and occasionally physically) uneasy about eating much of anything.

This was especially difficult because two of these films are part of a body of work left behind by my friend U. Roberto Romano whose work I was cataloging for historical preservation before his untimely passing just over a year ago on November 1, 2013. However, I feel like this would have been a gut reaction for others as well. Through this film review process I not only prepared myself for snow days and meaningful course enhancement options, but I also prepared myself for the possibility that this semester’s content might prove emotionally difficult for students. While the former was logistically productive, the latter was by far the more meaningful takeaway. This inspired me to seek out campus resources to produce short video lectures that will contextualize the films and include any trigger alerts that I should share before a screening of the particular film.

Because this is a technology supported course, not a fully hybrid or online class, I also took time to incentivize the students to regularly utilize and explore the site. For the second year in a row, I’ve done this by hiding Easter eggs in the Blackboard course content they’re expected to review in the next couple of weeks. The first student to post a screen shot of the Easter egg in our discussion board gets a prize the next time we meet for class. The rules are that an Easter egg stays in play until a student finds it. But as soon as a prize is claimed it is taken down and a new Easter egg is hidden somewhere on the site that I expect engaged students might find. It’s a game that lasts all semester and adds some competition and comic relief to the class.

With these steps behind me, I finally feel ready for the students to return to campus. I have my films and Easter eggs ready for the snow. And I have my tissue box next to a plush penguin basket filled with an array of hand sanitizers for meetings with students battling winter colds. Bring on spring.

The Instructor’s Dilemma: An Introduction to 14 Weeks of Blogging

Empty Hall

UConn Rowe Building 12.30.2014

In exactly three weeks students will return to our campus, again transforming our empty halls into bustling social gathering spaces, productive study areas, and the occasional nap spot. This spring I’m excited to teach an undergraduate research First Year Experience (FYE) centered around UConn Reads for the second year in a row. So like many of you I’m in the final stages of revising my syllabus.

One addition to this year’s version is a regular publication opportunity for my students through the UConn Alumni Association’s A Novel Group of Huskies blog. I’m incredibly grateful to Caitlin (who I have already begun to repost) for allowing me access to this venue so that we can increase student leadership in the initiative. Only the best student writing in the class will be considered, but I’m confident that we’ll be sharing my students’ work related to The Omnivore’s Dilemma with you very soon.

As everyone who knows me in the classroom has probably already guessed, this means that I too will be returning to the blogging world because I never assign anything I’m not willing to do alongside my class. Therefore, over the remaining weeks of break and 14 weeks of the semester I invite you to join us on a journey of food, politics, corn, art, and whatever else may come. Comments, ideas, and inspiration are welcome!