Panelists with stuffed chickens in front of an image of cereal and tin foil towers

The end of the world needs chickens and cold cereal! : Student Guest Blogs

This semester I’ve used my blog to share with readers my First Year Experience class’ journey of active intellectual engagement and enrichment on campus. Last week the UConn Reads initiative around which this class is framed culminated our University’s year-long exploration of Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma with a “life raft debate,” pitting faculty against one another to argue for the value of their disciplines and their very lives. In the process, I think that we judges and panelists enjoyed ourselves at least as much as the participants — if not more. 

Please enjoy the final UNIV 1820 UConn Reads student guest blogs for the academic year. And for all of our colleagues at UConn and other universities around the world, happy #finalsgrind!

Published with permission

By Albert Miller

“A tin-foil hat, a man in a full body blue-polyester suit, and a panel of astronaut hopefuls. No, this is not an episode of the Simpsons, but the UConn Reads Life Raft Debate: “Building a Sustainable Food Supply.” On Thursday April 16th, University of Connecticut faculty from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Agriculture, and even the School of Fine Arts put their stake in for the last seat aboard a star ship outbound from a desolate post-apocalyptic Earth.

In the interest of keeping the debate active and engaging, each contestant was allotted five minutes to pitch what they had to offer the galactic colonists on the interstellar journey as well as upon arrival to the alien world. Mediated by Professor John Volin, the panel member’s bios were read and the games began!

Despite the centrality of food to the debate, it was certainly not the only component of that was considered in selecting a candidate. For instance, artist John O’Donnell touted his unique proficiency in alien communication through the use of cereal (yes, the breakfast food), and if need be, his no-nonsense plan of dealing with them if they antagonize the travelers. Other important skills of panelists ranged from potentially being able to pilot a spacecraft (a real NASA trainee!) and being able to locate and purify any water found on the extra-terrestrial landscape.

Additionally, the ultimate victor, anthropologist Alexia Smith, noted her myriad skills that were highly applicable to the development of a new civilization such as understanding social hierarchies and the necessary components of developing a fruitful civilization. As such, these abilities were taken in heavier weight than simply searching for a food expert by the judges. While other candidates such as the College of Agriculture’s self-proclaimed “Chicken-man,” may have been better suited to the agricultural aspect of life and civilization, Dr. Smith’s offer of a “total package” traveler propelled her to victory.

Overall, the inventive and original forum structure was a truly entertaining and educational experience. Its contestants ensured the gamut of alien/food related arguments was covered, and many an interesting fact was shared. While at times the event moved slowly, the intermittent comedic relief provided by all those involved made the final UConn Reads event of the year a truly memorable one. It is anyone’s guess what next year’s UConn Reads events will hold in store, but we can hope that humans don’t ruin the planet and have to make intergalactic travel plans again.”

Man in blue body suit


Published with permission

By Diler Haji

“The last UConn Reads event of the year took off on an amusing trajectory as a wide array of distinguished scholars in many fields took the stage to convince the audience to take them aboard their galactic vessel to a new Earth. In this post-apocalyptic future, humans have created a planet unfit to bear life. A new civilization must be built elsewhere in the universe to assure the survival of our species, and there is room for only a few people. The ultimate question is who? The contestants in this competition were given a limited amount of time to convince the audience to let them aboard this Noah’s arc, entrusting them with the future of humanity.

Dr. Alexia Smith of the department of Anthropology says she will bring Cheetos as she holds up a large unopened bag of the orange life-sustaining ingredient of our survival. Of course, this is not all. The battle to keep humanity thriving would not be complete without an arsenal of rubber toy animals and a toothbrush. You can’t save humanity with bad breath, she reasons. Yet, despite these comic suggestions, Smith says she would be the person most capable of finding suitable ground for civilization because she studies civilization. If the Cheetos and rubber toys weren’t compelling enough, her experience and research makes her a valuable asset to this mission.

Next up, Dr. Mike O’Neal takes the stage in a bright blue suit and hat. O’Neal is an expert in water and river systems and reasons that everything needs water, so a water expert would be an ideal candidate. The presentation was subsequently followed by an abundance of slides showing life without water. Unless you want skeletons for cows, Mike O’Neal is the person to get you the water you need for that succulent steak you’ve been thinking about all day.

Once we get food, Dr. Amy Mobly of the department of Nutritional Sciences will make sure obesity isn’t a problem in the new human population. The self-proclaimed “real food-babe” says that her career in nutritional science and obesity studies is multidisciplinary, giving her the skills to become a valuable asset in this human redemption on the new Earth. She can create diets to fend off diseases, ensure food is safe and secure, and develop methods to feed masses of people efficiently.

Dr. Mike Darre of the Animal Science department isn’t so much concerned with nutrition as he is with chickens. Being a professor of poultry science, Darre is an expert in chickens and domestication. What if animals were found on this new planet? Darre would be the man to domesticate them. Regardless of his skills, Darre makes a point that may skew the entire competition in his favor: chicken eggs can survive in space.

Navigating through space itself isn’t going to be an easy task. Dr. Mary Concklin would be the person to pilot the ship since she has aeronautical experience. Concklin isn’t keen on GMO’s and emphasizes a non-GMO diet of fruits and herbs, which she is experienced in cultivating and nurturing. Her teaching experience elevates her candidacy even higher as she will be the person to teach the second generation of humans to grow food.

Dr. John O’Donnell, Assistant Professor of print making, will teach the second generation of humans how to destroy and play with food. The artist emphasizes his skills in creating piñata furniture, milk carton shoes, cereal rocks, and pyramids made of fruit loops. O’Donnell is a realist and an artist who provides us with a bridge to communicate with alien species through food. After all, food and art are probably the most powerful forms of communication out there.

Still other contestants advocated for their ability to work with sheep and sheep breeding, using microorganisms to make food, and figuring out the economics that “drives the bus of society.” The palette of contestants was great, but at the end of the day I looked forward to satisfying my own palate at the dining hall.”

As you’ve read, this event proved to be a great way to launch us into the final weeks of the semester — informational, engaging, and mostly hilarious. But don’t take our words for it. Enjoy the experience for yourself! Life Raft Debate Video

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.

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!

What do you value?: A Question of Higher Education and Food

“What do you value?” As I was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma for the second time to help me select course topics for the semester it struck me that any discussion of the text will push readers to consider this question from a variety on angles. What kinds of foods do we want to put into our bodies? What are we willing to sacrifice for economic gain or convenience? Is it important to know from where your food comes and the ramifications of those details? Is a second story porch in a chicken coop a meaningful add to their lives or your meal? As the countdown to the semester continues I’m increasingly excited to engage in these types of discussions and debates with my class.

This week, however, I’ve spent thinking about what the students will value in their college education. Because this is a First Year Experience (FYE) course I’ve built the skeleton of the class around transferable academic skills and engagement with the university. This includes writing workshops, undergraduate grant application support, participation in campus academic events, public speaking, and (of course) talking about the book. Together this content accounts for about 70% of the course lessons. What about the other 30%? Students will use Poll Everywhere to vote on the remaining course content and to actively shape each of their assignments as individuals so that our community’s experiences and every assignment the students complete will give them the opportunity to explore topics of relevance to them.

Design Your Own Course Options

(Students will democratically select at least one from each category on the first day of class.)

Guest Experts Instructor-Led Content Hands-on Learning
Natural Resources and the Environment Intersectionality (Race, Class, Gender) and the Politics of Food Thomas J. Dodd Research Center
Nutrition at College War and Food UConn’s Spring Valley Farm (Off Campus Trip)
Food and Illness Food and Labor, Human Relationships to Food UConn Cows – Campus Agriculture
Fuel, Science, and the Environment Food Security and Human Rights The Art and Economics of Food Presentation
Climate Change and Food Literature and Food Policy Film Screening of The Botany of Desire (120 minutes)

In my Blackboard course introduction learning module I told my students that “What do you value?” will be the guiding question for UNIV 1820, UConn Reads this semester. Yes, the topics in The Omnivore’s Dilemma will drive the class. But the underlying, hopefully lasting, conversation will be about what they value for their lives in and beyond college. Whatever they feel would add value to their academic journey, it is my wish that they will all leave with excitement and tools that will get them there.

My question for readers this week is looking back, what do you value most from your college education, and what did you need to make it possible? One of the main reasons I teach this course is because for me the life-changing part of my Bachelor’s Degree was undergraduate research. None of that work would have been possible without grants funded by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington’s English Department and Honors Program, especially the contributions of donor Charles Green III, and the guidance of my Professors Dr. Keith Newlin and Dr. Christopher Gould. So I close this week’s post by thanking them for seeing value in what I could achieve and for making it possible for me to pay it forward.

Lesson Number One – My Students are Incredible People

First, happy finals week to many of us in higher education. Whether you’re grading the papers and exams, taking them, or both, remember to smile and know that holiday vacation is near. And don’t forget to take little breaks to maintain your sanity, especially if you’re among the many of us who have been falling to the flu and colds that have been going around. If you’re in this group I would absolutely recommend mint tea be included in your finals week survival shopping. I generally consider it a fall finals necessity. Now, with my tea by my side, I’m happy to share my top pedagogical lesson I learned from working in Student Activities.


Number One – My Students are Incredible People

Yes, it’s true that as instructors we need to show up each day prepared to teach regardless of whether or not we know our students to be creative, engaged, brilliant, fun people. And I recognize that when you have a class of 200 students looking back at you the thought of knowing them all well seems not only impossible, but even perhaps  a little frightening. However, through my time in Student Activities I was excited to see how an engaged staff is able to connect with and support students in using what they learn to do meaningful real-world work. This work often draws on the academic skills that students are developing in the classroom (directly or indirectly) and pairs it with relevant transferable career skills. Although it may not be possible for instructors to get to know each of their students as individuals,  I do believe that with some collaboration across campus we can make a greater difference in student learning by finding ways to connect with more students more often.


How would we do this?

No, engaging with students outside the classroom is not just for the Student Activities and Residential Life  sides of the house. But yes, they have some of the best resources set in place for it. So don’t be afraid to make connections. Here are just a handful of ways that you could start working with students beyond classroom teaching as early as next semester.

1) Community Service: There are a variety of ways you can participate in community service with your students. Some are as formal and involved as including a graded service learning component that is semester-long or an intensive week of service. However, there are also much smaller, more manageable options. My class in spring, for example, is doing a Saturday of service in the local community. This day’s service will be connected to hunger, a major theme of the year.

2) Residential Life Collaboration: Hall Directors and RAs are regularly planning great events in the halls. Some of these are fun community-building activities. But they also are always looking for ways to engage their students intellectually. A great example of this is an Irish language event my community’s RA hosted last week. She invited a visiting Fulbright Scholar to teach the residents about the history of the Irish language, her work, travel to Ireland, and some fun phrases in Irish that could be used in everyday conversation. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved.

3) Advising Clubs and Organizations: There are over 500 student organizations at the University of Connecticut. And new groups are created every semester. Each of these needs a faculty advisor and university staff to help them succeed. It can be a great way to connect with students who share your scholarly interest and to foster their excitement.

4) Connecting with a Learning Community: This is, of course, one of my personal favorites. Learning Communities (LCs) are holistic learning environments that a part of growing movement in higher education. In an LC students with similar interests live and study together. Current research suggests that one of the most important benefits of participation in an LC is the opportunity for students to build meaningful relationships with faculty and staff. If your university has LCs they are perfect places for you to connect with students in and out of the classroom.

5) Advising Independent Research: This suggestion is simultaneously the easiest and most challenging suggestion on my list. I say that it’s the easiest because it is the suggestion most clearly linked to teaching a course. And it is something that many faculty and staff do regularly. At the same time, I recognize that it is the most challenging because it can require a substantial commitment. This, however, can vary drastically. For example, I’m currently working on an interdepartmental team that is advising a multi-year documentary project. This will take substantial time and resource commitments from a number of advisors. On the other hand, it is very possible to have students collaborate on small creative projects of their own design in the span of a single semester. It is this small scale work that can be included in a course to add an experiential element to virtually any class.


What would we gain in the classroom from this work outside of the classroom?

Besides the fact that it’s fun to do things like go whitewater rafting with your students, why should anyone try to do more of the types of things I listed above? Because I enjoy lists I’m concluding this post with my top five reasons for taking the time to get to know your students outside of the classroom.

1) Knowing what interests your students makes you better prepared to explain how your course content relevant and meaningful.

2) This type of engagement makes you better prepared to create spaces for valuable individualized learning and meaningful contributions in class.

3) Knowing more than your students’ writing makes you better prepared to send meaningful letters of recommendation for amazing students who will go into the world and make your university (and you) very proud.

4) It makes teaching more fun.

5) It reminds us that we’re still people too, something we can occasionally lose under our piles of books and journal articles.


Thank you to Student Activities and to all of my incredible students for everything you’ve taught me so far. Happy finals week!


Question of the Week: Do you have any great ideas about how to create meaningful experiential events for your courses?