Food Matters, so Let’s Start Acting Like It: Student Guest Blogs

Welcome back from UConn spring vacation, readers! This week I’ll be giving the spotlight to two students’ reflections on their academic experiences outside of the classroom at a Benton Museum panel titled “Food Matters, The True Cost of Industrializing the Food Supply.”

As we discussed today in class, an important practice for proactive learners is to engage with intellectual interests regularly beyond the classroom. Here at the University of Connecticut we’re lucky enough to have access to a wide variety of in-person panels, lectures, workshops, film screenings, and other events every day. Please enjoy these four perspectives on food in the United States, nested within two student perspectives on one such Omnivore’s academic adventure.

Sorry, I didn’t have a three. Happy reading!

Published with permission.

By Jessica Mathieu 

The Benton Museum of Art is hosting “Sweet Sensations,” an exhibit of art held in conjunction with the UConn Reads’ initiative of reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan to strike up conversation about American food consumption. Throughout his book, Pollan makes points that help us peel back the wrappers and see what Americans are really consuming. At “Food Matters: the Cost of Industrializing our Food Supply,” a panel hosted by the Benton, the speakers were asked to add tinder to this conversation about the food industry that America is feeding and what that industry really looks like.

Nutritionist Shoshana Levinson moderated this panel. She began by speaking to this system of industrialized food by saying it is “a system that values profit over health and sustainability.” Of course, the food industry is an industry, after all. When your lens is shaped like a dollar sign when trying to rethink and reform your product, your problem solving skills go directly to figuring out how to make as much of it for as little as possible. Thanks, American capitalism! But on the other side of that phrase, the food industry, the idea of an industry has a very specific context that should (but often time does not) consider the value of what makes up their products; not in cost, but in nutrition.

The “quantity over quality” mentality has never set the stage for the production of sustainable goods, as Levinson gets at with that statement; nothing, especially in a powerful corporate setting, is built to last. I don’t mean last in terms of time (after all, the Twinkie’s lifespan is probably longer than the average American’s), but in the product’s ability to fully and sensibly serve its purpose. Sure, a single box of Twinkies could be passed down to your children and grandchildren, but how does that translate when it’s actually consumed? This is what Levinson expresses to us as she introduces the panelists. She wants us to be aware of all perspectives and motivations of the food industry and its consumers. We can do so by critiquing the relationship this industry has set up between consumer and producer: it is heavily one-sided. We buy and buy from companies that supply us with so many (empty!) calories and sugars that end up stressing our bodies out more than properly sustaining them. As the food industry stands currently, it’s as though we are feeding them more than they are feeding us. Each of the panelists present at “Food Matters” express their passions in deconstructing that relationship and giving it a healthier, level-ground. This is the exact system they seem to reject in the quest for sustainable food. 

Levinson opens the floor to Rudd Center representative Renee Gross, who explains the Rudd Center’s initiative to change policies to restrict some of the legal liberties that food corporations take advantage of. Not only are they looking to tighten the reins on bigger corporations, but to make the sensible choices more widely available. Gross goes on to tell us that these sensible options are not equally available to all; factors such as low socioeconomic status are heavily restrictive on the kind of foods a person can purchase. Something that the Rudd Center works toward is making it so food stamps are accepted in a variety of places (the ultimate goal being everywhere). When we talk about being informed consumers, that knowledge can only take us so far if we do not have access to the choices we would ideally like to make. Another point that Gross emphasized was the way these sugary goods are being marketed: toward children. While using childhood obesity to drive her point, Gross encourages us to examine the way marketing targets children; it keeps them in the dark and has them running toward what their favorite cartoon characters are endorsing, like juices pumped with high fructose corn syrup. She tells us that the Rudd Center wants to focus energy on a demographic that often times cannot make their own decisions on what they’re consuming, informed or not.

The third panelist was a sociology professor at UConn, Phoebe Godfrey. She expressed that her focus was mainly on the cost of our industrialized food source claiming that said is cost is “not something singular”; they are not isolated and in fact, are many. The way we have managed to build this food industry is poisonous for many aspects of life that are not immediately visible to us. Among other facets of life, our communities, animals, and land are all extorted by the food powerhouse of America. As an industry situated in a capitalist society such as America, it is inherently cost/profit driven. They think cost in terms of their own; the consequences everyone and everything else faces due to this extortion are simply water under the bridge as long as revenue comes in at a steady rate, if not an escalating one. Professor Godfrey gathered students together to wear brightly colored shirts to help drive her point forward. They sat among the audience with various costs the food industry presents us with written on the backs of these shirts. She called on them, and one by one they stood and spoke to the individual cost they represented. Among them were: climate change, the overall environment, dairy cows and animals in general, global inequalities, and the extortion of laborers. The way the food industry has been built and is sustained takes without looking to give back. There are food laborers who will never see the finished product of their labor, or even be able to afford said product (I’ve known this to be from Marx’s alienation theory). Dairy cows’ bodies are constantly strained, the demand for milk is larger than what these dairy cows are capable of producing without exhausting and harming their bodies. Smog and general wastes from factories and packaging plants contribute pollution and its harmful effects on our environment. Food corporations are blind to these costs; many affluent CEO’s and other employees of said corporations are very much removed those costs, never having to feel them immediately or directly. We need to consider, as Gross mentioned formerly in the Rudd Center initiative, how to pull these corporations in to limit their ability to extort these resources. There must be a way to feed America in an ethical way; by changing policies and creating restrictions we can force this industry to get creative in that aspect.

Endocrinologist Dr. Fadi A. Al Khayer was the last to speak on this panel. He spoke to bring us back to what food is supposed to do to begin with, and that’s to sustain our lives and keep us healthy. He began by telling us the astounding statistic surrounding diabetes and young Americans born in the year 2000 and onward: there is a 1/3 chance that a child born in that time will be diagnosed with diabetes in their life time. Imagine that! Could you imagine one in every three people you encountered were bogged down by that chronic illness simply because of America’s food culture? That is the reality we, and this industry, are shaping. For an industry that is supposed to be about sustaining life and keeping America healthy, its methods are counterproductive. However, there is still responsibility on consumers (who have that agency) to understand their choices and what they are putting on their, and their family members’, plates.  Dr. Al Khayer emphasizes the need to differentiate between the types of diabetes in this conversation about the harm of American food culture. One type, type 2, is the one we need to be focusing on for this discussion, for it the one we are helping to cultivate. That doesn’t goes to say that the way the food industry is set up in general does not make things difficult for all diabetics, because it certainly does. Speaking as a person with type 1 diabetes, I can say that there is a lot I must do on my part to assure my health is in check. When I am fixed in a world obsessed with sugar intake, it is challenging to keep my head high and my options open.

Dr. Al Khayer presents us with this thought: as we are attempting to become a nation that is more aware of the dangers of excessive sugar intake, we also need to reconsider our approach to solving this problem. Often times, companies try to bank on “diet” things; diet this, diet that, and none of it “tastes diet”! Well, of course not, because artificial sweeteners are being pumped into these products to satisfy that sweet tooth. These artificial sweeteners ultimately confuse our bodies and do nothing to solve the actual problem. We are still feeding this sweetness addiction of America, and we have done so in a way that we think is “healthy” and “beneficial”. If anything, they are equally as harmful. Dr. Al Khayer tells us that as we exhaust our bodies’ ability to produce insulin (a hormone that help the body convert carbohydrates to energy) by consuming sugar, that loophole we’ve created does not get us out of risk of diabetes. Diet sodas cause insulin resistance almost as much as sugary sodas and foods.  Artificial sweeteners are just another way to keep America satisfied and to keep them buying as obesity and other health risk awareness spreads, doing so in a way that makes us think we are doing our bodies good when this substitute causes its own set of health problems. 

These panelists made profound contributions to this conversation our campus is having about rethinking our food sources. They provided us with many different perspectives, showing us who is benefiting and who faces the drawbacks. There is an astounding amount of damage being done to our communities, bodies, and planet. The American food industry needs to be redirected in a way where it provides for our communities and does not extort them. There are many different approaches to solving this problem; none of them being easy or immediate. We need to consider the words of these professionals and find ways that each of us can be a smart consumer, making the best choices when we can. So, in short, food matters…so when are we going to start acting like it?

Published with permission.

By Jordan Angel

 Attending the Food Matters Discussion Panel allowed me to gain a new perspective and understanding of why America is such an overweight country as a whole. The most disturbing part of the obesity epidemic is that one of the most-at-risk demographics for obesity is children. What is even worse is that this is due greatly to our own marketing and habits as a country. For example, as Renee M. Gross, the coordinator of Legal Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, pointed out, the average child sees 13 food commercials per day. Most of these commercials advertised are for foods that are very high in fat or added sugars like Chips Ahoy! Or Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Children are extremely vulnerable to creative and manipulative advertising, which often uses popular celebrities, athletes, or cartoon characters to entice children to eat the often very unhealthy product. In contrast, the average child sees only one “healthy” commercial per week (which are commercials that urge children to eat healthier or be more active). Despite Michelle Obama’s nationwide program, Let’s Move!, which is aimed at combating childhood obesity, childhood obesity remains to be a major problem in the United States.

Another major reason for obesity among Americans that was discussed by the panel was the lack of exercise, we as a nation get. One older member of the audience noted that she was 88 years old, and stated that she used to walk everywhere as a kid, “I remember my dad picking me up once from school in my entire life because it was absolutely pouring out! Today, everyone drives everywhere – you never see people out walking anymore!” Fadi Al Khayer, an M.D. in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, was one of the panelists in the discussion. He compared the United States with the Western half of Europe, which he explained was most like America in terms of culture and socioeconomic status. When comparing the two, one thing that sticks out is how much more people in Western Europe walk then Americans. Khayer explained that on average, Western Europeans walk about 5 kilometers per day while Americans only walk 1000 ft. per day!

Khayer, along with Phoebe Godfrey, a UConn Professor of Sociology who teaches a course on food, climate change, sustainability, and social justice, tried to emphasize the extreme costs of the unhealthy American diet. Khayer focused on the more economic costs of obesity, stating that Type II diabetes will literally bankrupt the United States. As a whole, the cost of healthcare for all people affected from Type II Diabetes whether that be health costs, inability to work, etc. is astronomical and only growing! In fact, Khayer exclaimed that the only way China will not become far more powerful than the US in the upcoming years is because, they have the same problem with childhood obesity and Type II Diabetes and it will severely stunt their economic growth. Godfrey, as well as her students all discussed other costs of obesity throughout the U.S. One student spoke of child slave labor and explained that many children are being forced to work for far below minimum wages in third-world countries in order to process foods like chocolate, for the rich. Other costs include food deserts, as many people living in urban areas lack the ability to purchase affordable and healthy food, and well-being of the animals. In conclusion, this discussion was an exciting way to hear first-hand about medical news from established and respected doctors, as opposed to on TV or the Internet.

Tampa River View

Fuel for Both Students and Educators: Finding Your Intellectual Passion and Community

This semester in my UNIV 1820, UConn Reads First Year Experience course two interrelated themes have emerged as driving forces — finding your passion and finding your community. These are themes to which I feel especially connected today as write from the American College Personnel Association national conference in sunny Tampa, Florida (#ACPA15). After a day-long pre-convention colloquium on assessment and today’s powerful opening reception focusing on social justice and diversity competencies I’m already beginning to feel my usual “conference high.” In this moment I find myself acutely aware of the holistic benefits I take from this time working in an intellectual community with people who share many of my passions, are excited to hear about my work, and whose own ideas stretch me to see new opportunities and perspectives. Not only do I know I will return to campus with new ideas, and potentially a little bit of a tan, but I also know I will return excited about the goals my office has set and putting in the extra effort that goes it takes to realize them.

This returns my thoughts to the classroom. I have the luxury of living with my best feminist pedagogy sounding board, academic peer reviewer, and intellectual partner — who happens to also be my husband, Alex. Last week he and I were sitting in front of a fire in our snowy Connecticut home brainstorming how to best articulate this need for intellectual community and the undergraduates in our spring courses. Saying engagement in class and beyond is a course requirement, something that will help you succeed in school, or a way to build transferable skills just wasn’t enough. And we needed to tailor the discussion to our unique courses and students.

Teaching International Relations, Alex wanted to express the long-term power of engaging political debates in community through political theory. So with no prior explanation he opened the next class with a story of Abu Nasr al-Farabi (a very abridged version of his full name), a colossal figure in classical Islamic thought. who lived in the 9th century. He was born in Damascus, spent most of his life living and writing in Baghdad. And he was arguably the most profound Muslim Aristotelian thinker. Specifically, al-Farabi famously recast Aristotle’s argument that “man is a political animal” as “man is a social animal.” (He made the language gender neutral for al-Farabi, since this isn’t a direct quote. Aristotle’s is, though, so he quoted it as is.)

Aristotle believed that it was only in a political collective that humanity could reach its telos; or, in simpler terms, it’s ultimate end (he believed everything developed towards some ultimate end specific to itself). Without this community, claimed Aristotle, humans were little better than animals. Alex explained to them that al-Farabi largely agreed, but added important nuances, including a discussion about individual needs and desires. For al-Farabi, everyone is intrinsically self-insufficient. We all have wants, needs, and desires that we cannot fulfill on our own. It is only in community then, that humans can help one another realize the wants, needs, and desires of others, and have their fulfilled in kind. Thus, it is only through a community that humans, individually and collectively, attain their full felicity – a concept analogous to virtue for Aristotle.

If nothing else, his approach was a lot more compelling and elegant than “if you don’t read you’ll fail the quizzes,” or “if you don’t engage on campus you’re statistically less likely to have a satisfying, successful college experience.”  But I think this narrative gives us a lot more that can be tailored to any class or group of students. To me it argues that beyond college, in any field, actively contributing to a community is part of realizing your full potential as an individual and as a member of the world. And it’s not something the is lightly put aside. As such, by opting out of intellectual engagement in college, just to earn passing grades and a piece of paper, a student is robbing themselves of a powerful opportunity to embrace the human experience and to learn how to do so long after they graduate.

Taking our conversation as inspiration, last week in FYE I kicked off with a weekly reflection and a discussion circle focused on the values and challenges of learning in community. Because my class is a First Year Experience course I was able to organically address this issue of why students choose to disengage or remain anonymous directly. Students candidly talked through their fears of group work with a dead weight partner, their competing home/work/school obligations, and even concerns about not truly belonging. Those ideas out in the open, we recommitted ourselves to working as a mutually supportive class community before jumping into two days of student-driven intellectual collaboration and peer-to-peer learning.

Day 1: The Omnivore’s Research Notes

After our discussion we pulled out annotated books and reading notes to dig into the meat of the lesson.

  1. Before class each student was assigned one chapter from our course text on which to become an expert. They were tasked with posting notes on this chapter before coming to class. Each post included:
    1. A short summary of main argument/point (2-3 sentences)
    2. The most important ideas/support (2-3)
    3. Pivotal quotes (2)
    4. Why is this important / valuable? (3-5 sentences)
    5. One counter argument (3-5 sentences) You may have to do a little digging and cite a source.
  2. In class the students were broken up into chapter groups based on the three sections of the text. Each group was responsible for synthesizing the information to create one unified section note (30 minutes) and presenting their work to the class (10 minutes for each group).

Instead of lecturing to pull out the important debates I let the students take the lead. It was a lot more fun for both me and the class. And I was pleased that as usual, when they helped me set a high bar for their work they rose to the challenge.

Giant papers with student notes.

Students collaborated in section groups to present on major themes of the book.

Day 2: Interpretive Project Peer Review Workshop (Today!)

Today my stellar FYE Peer Mentor (TA), and McNair Scholar, led a peer review workshop in my absence. Even if I had been on campus I would have sat out of this experience because I believe that this second step of collaborating as scholars without me hovering was an important piece to the growth I’m trying to foster. For this workshop each student was required to bring a rough draft of their individualized project, a student-driven inquiry project that requires them to explore something from the text that connects with an intellectual passion of their own choosing.

Armed with the assignment expectations, basic peer review tips, and a strong sense of the class community, students were supported by the Mentor to collaborate to make sure everyone is ready to feel proud submitting their assignment to me next week. The directions are below:

  1. Break into groups of 3. Take turns reading out loud or showing (in the case of photos or videos) what you brought for a draft then getting feedback from your peers. (Yes, actually reading it out loud is an important strategy to practice. Don’t cheat yourself of the experience, even if it’s scary.) Each person will have about 10 minutes.
  2. Share your weekly reflection thoughts. What is the most important revision you need to make before next week.

I’m happy to say that although I had multiple instructors standing by to take the reins if called upon there was no need. With the leadership of their Peer Mentor they successfully discussed their unique exploration of exciting intellectual journeys relevant to the class and are set to revise over the next week. Of course, a reflection on this experience will be how I kick off the next lesson. It’s my hope that it gave them some confidence in their ability to contribute to and gain from similar experiences, even as first-year students, and that they’ll use that momentum to follow their actively passions in the coming years.

As I told my class, finding a passion and fostering it in community is not only something that you can do as a student. It’s a beautiful, challenging, inspiring part of the human experience. And I’m grateful to be in Florida tonight, as a professional, doing the same kind of work they have been doing in class.

“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.

Giant Post-Its

Trust your students to make the right call: When students shape assignments

Meetings with faculty, favorite comfort food, field research, hot cocoa, potatoes, and blogging. We covered so much today in UNIV 1820 that it was almost as hard to decide what to write for this week as it was to leave after class was finished. But all-in-all my take-away from class is that first-year undergraduates are much more interesting and capable than, in my experience, many people recognize. My evidence? Today, probably without realizing, my mixed-major class set and advocated for the value of college-level writing expectations for one of their major assignments. My Teaching Assistant and I just let them loose, and they did the rest.

The Assignment: In this course students will receive writing guidance and feedback on a minimum of two Blackboard blog posts. The content will be wholly student-driven, consisting of each individual’s spin on coverage of one UConn Reads event on campus (attendance is required) and one weekly topic from class. An optional third blog post can be on any other UConn Reads event, class weekly topic, or approved alternative topic of relevance to the course. Only 1-3 students can cover any one topic, so that they can all have reasonable publication opportunities. Students are expected to read the blogs posted by their peers every week so that at the end of class they can nominate the blogs they want to be submitted for a publication opportunity, with the author’s permission. We will only pass on posts my TA and I approve that also receive confidential “yes” votes from more than 50% of the students.

Pre-Class Homework: To give them some frame of reference for this lesson, students were required to review at least two (somehow relevant) blogs prior to coming to class today. Students knew that they would need to give specific examples of what they though worked well and what was ineffective, but that was all.

In-Class Activity: In class today I explained the way voting would work for publication. And I emphasized that everyone would be accountable to the whole community of learners in our class because everyone will need to read the blog posts their peers create. And any published blog would represent out community. Their most important task of the day was to use what they learned from reading other blogs to collaboratively determine what “accountability” would look like, first in small groups, then all together. In other words, how will we differentiate a strong submission from a weak submission? This is what they created once the four small groups came together:

Characteristics of Strong Blogs Characteristics of Weak Blogs
Creativity / Originality “Copy and Paste”
Personal Anecdotes / Pictures Offensive Language
Respectful Controversy Uncited Sources
Engaging Grammar Mistakes
Clear Organization and Design No Personality
Relevant Content Repetition
Thought Provoking Solely Focusing on Self
Relatable, Conversational Tone Unsupported Opinions
High-Quality Images No Variety
Off Topic

Although they didn’t use the same terms we might use as instructors, I was impressed that they identified core writing elements that would be valued in their academic writing as much as a blog. Specifically, said they wanted to see voice, academic honesty, engagement with ongoing discourse, critical and creative thinking, professionalism, and well-supported arguments. Students most passionately spoke against plagiarism (though, not using the term) because it was seen as disrespectful of other writers, lacking meaningful engagement with the topic, and otherwise reprehensible work. Other students shared equally vehement arguments for proofreading final products, for rooting ideas in larger debates, and against forwarding unsupported arguments.

Needless to say, if I had created and disseminated a grading rubric I would have hit on all of the same standards my students developed for their assignment. But this exercise was infinitely more enjoyable. And because they have not only selected their prompts, but also their grading guidelines, I expect to have greater buy-in. I’m looking forward to reading their posts!

Values Cards

Who will survive the first day of class?: UConn Reads Wk 1

Why are you here?

What do you value above all else?

Who will survive?

We kicked off the first class of the semester with a few not-so-easy questions. Every person, myself included, started by introducing themselves and sharing why they came to college. Answers ranged from long-time expectations rooted in family and social pressure, to deep passions to learn or serve the world, and even just practically to obtain a job. I settled on some combination of  excitement for learning and stubbornness.

The first students who came to class helped me randomly distribute ten decks of values cards, small one-word cards with common major values. After the brief introductions, each student was asked to choose the four that meant the most to them personally, leaving all others behind on the tables. Once students returned to their seats I asked them to narrow their selection down to only one card. Groans rose from all corners of the room. Setting down the other three was difficult. With one card in hand, it was their task to meet at least two other people and talk through why they each picked the card they carried and what it meant to them.

Now that we were all becoming a community of friends I gave them the terrible news. The world as we knew it was about to end. Only the people in our classroom and eight other people from outside would survive the day. It was their job to decide first individually, then as a group, who they would invite into their bomb shelter and save to rebuild humanity. Two groups made their selections in time and lived to start again. The other two perished because they just couldn’t decide to let anyone on the list go…

Okay, maybe the world wasn’t really going to end. So why did we start class with these values activities? This semester our class will spend time exploring major questions about the environment, health, our connection to nature, ethics, and how we live our daily lives. To set a productive tone and the expectation of respectful debate, I wanted to open the class by acknowledging and embracing the fact that we will disagree — hopefully regularly. But this class will be a safe space explore big questions and challenge our perspectives.

…. And what will I teach?

This all led us to the biggest question of the day. What do you want from this class? It was the students’ job to select four major class topics. Cell phones out, they rapidly battled to fill up our calendar for the semester. The students have spoken, and they chose to include:

  1. UConn Cows: They wanted to learn about campus agriculture from the people in charge more than any other topic.
  2. Food, Health, & Illness: They wanted to know how what we eat influences our life-long wellness.
  3. Nature v. Technology: They want to look at the tensions between technological advances and natural practices.
  4. Sustainability: And finally they wanted to seriously talk about sustainability and how we can play a positive role in the world.

It’s already looking like it will be a great semester!

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.