Toy Farm Animals

College Eating and an Omnivore’s Nutrition: Student Guest Blog

On the first day of class when I asked my students to tell me what about studying The Omnivore’s Dilemma most sparked their interest, nutrition immediately came to the forefront. As someone who takes wellness very seriously and often sees students struggle when they first begin making their own nutritional choices at college, I was excited to facilitate this learning experience.

Despite my personal interest, nutrition is definitely not among my areas of academic expertise. So I knew I didn’t want to attempt teach this important lesson. However, I immediately knew on whom I could rely to deliver a great talk founded in research, but accessible and practical for first-year students — Dr. Hedley Freake. He is a strong supporter and instructor of First Year Experience at UConn who currently serves as the Department of Nutritional Science’s Undergraduate Program Coordinator, Global House Living Learning Community’s  Faculty Director, Chair of the University Interdisciplinary Courses Committee, and he continues to be a dynamic Professor and researcher on top of all these commitments.

When he joined us last week, my class and I “quickly became immersed in the discussion” that he led informally, perfectly integrating with our classroom culture (Diler Haji, quoted with permission). As the topics seamlessly flowed from personal nutritional choices, to Pollan’s text, then around to scientific research, I knew without a doubt that I had chosen the right scholar to visit. Of the experience Samantha Crystal said, “It was great to be able to talk to someone in person who knows so much about the food industry, especially concerning health aspects of our food” (quoted with permission, emphasis added).

On behalf of my FYE class, I thank Dr. Freake for a great, productive day. And I wish you all happy reading!

By Dana Kringel

Published with permission

Our UNIV class welcomed an expert guest speaker in week 10: Dr. Hedley Freake, Professor in the UConn Department of Nutritional Sciences.

After receiving a firsthand account of what it means to be gluten-free from Shawna, who claimed to be very grateful for the gluten-free obsession that opened up her dietary choices, Freake began the show by asking what sorts of things about nutrition we needed to address.

The students were quick to supply answers, including: cost of food, unequal distribution, sugar intake, obesity, undernutrition, and education about food. In this exercise, we found that we have many questions about one of the most common facets of our life. We sit down and eat three times a day (sometimes more if we’re feeling ambitious) and yet, there are so many gaps in our understanding of food and nutrition.

Freake referred back to “The Ominvore’s Dilemma,” and Pollan’s four-way division of food: Industrial, Organic, Hunger/Gatherer, and Pastoral. He zeroed in particularly on the industrial section, which creates energy-rich but nutrient-poor food, and the hunter/gatherer section, which creates nutrient-rich, but energy-poor food. That is to say, industrial food production brings us all those delicious empty calories – pasta, chips, more pasta – that miraculously keep us running throughout the day but give us no nutritional value at all. Hunter/Gatherer food systems bring back nutrient rich foods – roots, berries, nuts, and other things that most people are only slightly fond of – that do not contain the caloric density to give unlimited energy.

This brought up a lengthy discussion of athletes eating pasta and other “empty calorie” foods before their games. Freake acknowledged that the calories do provide energy, and that’s every coach’s plan when they casually encourage students to gorge themselves at pasta parties the night before their games. (I always knew Penne alla Vodka had some practical use beyond being delicious.) There is more nutritional density in natural foods, but they do not always carry the weighty calories that we burn for energy.

Next, the class took a detour into the difference between eating supermarket meat (industrial-fed cow) and eating natural meat (grass-fed cow). Grass-fed cows do contain less fatty acids and saturated fat, and industrial cows are given antibiotics, but do these things really make a difference in the scheme of things? Freake replied that the question was unanswered, as we don’t know if we eat enough meat for it to really make a difference. What he did answer with a resounding “yes,” however, was the question, “Can you taste the difference?” He asserted that the taste is subjective; however, and preferences vary from person to person.

Looking at the economic perspective, grass-fed cows do yield more expensive meat. We find ourselves in a common predicament once again. It’s like standing outside a plaza that contains a Whole Foods and a Big Y. Big Y probably has cheaper food, but it might not be as good for you. Whole Foods is wholly more expensive, though. Is it really worth the extra money? Once again, it’s up to personal preference.

Freake ended the visit with some of Michael Pollan’s sage advice: “Be the kind of person who takes supplements.”  If you’re taking vitamin supplements, you’re probably the kind of person who actually thinks about their nutrition, and you won’t even need them. Basically, think about what you’re putting in your body and take good care of it. Cows may have no choice if they are corn or grass-fed, but we sure do.

hi Shawna. I need a recommendation for a program. Its due in 3 days. Thanks! -Student

Recommendation Requests 101

We’ve all received them — hastily drafted, vague, requests for recommendations sent at the eleventh hour.

It only makes sense that this would be the case. First-year college students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, most of which would not make writing a professional request intuitive and easily achievable. It’s more likely that this experience would prove to be some combination of befuddling, intimidating, exasperating, and unexpected.

Knowing this, how can we best support our students in successfully requesting references from us and other faculty/staff in the future? First, we can be clear about what we need to write a strong letter of recommendation, regardless of the situation. Second, in spaces like First Year Experience we can preemptively provide students with some basic “dos” and “don’ts” to go along with this list before they ever need to think about that first request.

Request Checklist:

When requesting a letter of recommendation remember to include as much information as possible so that your faculty/staff member can write you the best letter possible. This makes it easier for them to say something meaningful that will help your application stand out. It also takes stress off of the person who is supporting you, which shows respect for them and their time. Whenever possible, share the following items as soon as possible:

  1.  A full description of the organization/experience you’re applying for, including the specific role or opportunity you’re seeking and what you think you’ll gain
  2. A full description of the application you’re completing, focusing on how the recommendation should be submitted, to whom, and by when
  3. An updated version of your resume
  4. A short explanation of why you think they would be a good person to recommend you that highlights some relevant successes or characteristics you believe they have seen you demonstrate

Basic Dos and Don’ts:

Recommendation Request Dos Recommendation Request Don’ts
Try to meet with the recommender in person to talk about the opportunity and why you’re applying. Assume that they will write you a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference.
Use professional salutations and closings in all emails. Write in informal language, including texting spellings of words.
If the person holds a doctorate, address and emails to “Dr. –“ Wait to the last minute to choose and speak with your recommenders.
Copyedit all written communications. Request recommendations from people who can’t really speak to your skills and/or character.
Give as much advanced notice as possible, at least two weeks.
Write a thank you letter to each recommender.
Let them know the outcome of your application.
Send friendly reminders as the deadline approaches.
Build relationships early in your college career so that you have faculty/staff who would be confident in referring you for opportunities as they arise.

Worst Case Scenarios:

No consideration of recommendation requests would be complete without addressing the rare, but challenging, instances in which you truly shouldn’t recommend a student. In my experience, these fall into two categories: A) The student needs to find someone who can more explicitly speak to their strengths in a particular field. B) You don’t really have anything positive to say about the student. What’s the best course of action here? Respectful honesty. Again, this is a challenging task for students. So they may not always make the right choices.

Case A is a bit easier. For example, you start hearing/reading about the opportunity, and you realize that they are looking for a specific type of reference you can’t offer. They may need a professor in their field from whom they’ve taken a relevant class, or a person who can speak to their leadership skills from experience. At this point show the student how you came to this conclusion so they can realize this independently in the future. Then help them brainstorm other faculty/staff who would be more appropriate for this particular application. Unless the student truly doesn’t have anyone who is a better fit it would be a disservice to this student to do otherwise.

Case B can be harder. For example, for faculty this might be a student who missed many classes, failed to turn in assignments, and earned poor marks as a result, then coming to you for a reference. For staff this might be a student who you had to reprimand for poor conduct in a residence hall, or who signed up for a student group you advise but never contributed. After my first experience with this type of situation I began requiring #4 on the checklist above from all of my students. If the student needs to offer a short explanation of why they think you would be a good person to recommend them they will have to tell you about all of the things they’ve done that qualify them for the position. If they have example you then have a list of other potential people who would be better choices that you can suggest earnestly and with kindness. However, if they can’t come up with examples you can shift the conversation to other opportunities where they might build these credentials. It probably won’t be what the student wants to hear. But it can be a productive, positive teachable moment that helps the student still build towards their goals.

With these simple tools, it’s my hope that we can be more effective at supporting our students, and our students can be more successful in reaching for their aspirations.

Question for Readers: Do you have anything to add to the lists? If so, why is this important for you and your students? Thanks for your thoughts!

Fruit

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.

The Benton Museum in Snow

Domestic Cuisine & Sweet Remembrance!: Student Guest Blog

Cookies, Snow, and Materiality

This is a personal and academic tale in two parts. It weaves reflections on struggles and opportunities in the daily life of a college student with a snapshot of The Benton Museum‘s recent UConn Read’s guest lecture by Dorie Greenspan. Thank you to the Benton for offering this event to our community, even in the face of winter weather challenges.

Published with permission.

By Quinton Carmichall

“It was a slow day, and indeed I was needing some motivation to escape an increasingly steeper incline. First the clouds suck the blue out of the sky, then the snow covers the last semblances of green, until all that is left is white, grey, and the uninviting pillars of buildings and shaven trees. It was all testament to a terrible discovery I made that day: my friend lost her father recently, and I am too far away to offer genuine consolation. Clearly a slippery slope for me to climb, it is nevertheless implied a distraction is all we, the youthful, need to retain our footing. The Sweet Sensations event should happen later that day, I noted and realized I should very well still attend if not for the sake of my grade then for the sake of my sanity.

Much less a story of adventure and novelty my tale became as I strolled casually in a barren setting to a scene of anticipated happening. It turns out we will walk good distances through turmoil when we assume anguish is our pause and excitement our resume. When I arrive at the Benton, the workers are already leaving – keys in hand – a foreboding sign that I may be seeking somewhere else for shelter throughout hour. The sign on the door suggested we return tomorrow, yet we the audience are left today craving these “sweet sensations” accompanied by warmth in the advent of a frigid and dehydrated wind.

Given the irrational nature of emotion, one may too quickly resolve that it is an ultimately arbitrary human asset. Rather, I look at the climate surrounding my prophesied “sweet sensations” and think similarly of reality – indulgence in the situation, dependence on circumstance – all a meaningless measure of human capacity. Physicality on which we rely contingently for motivation fails us far too often. Easily, we forget that eventually all that matters leaves in its wake a memory meant to suffice in its place.

It strikes all too bluntly that these resources will not always be available to distract us, even for the short while that it matters. This reliance hurts more than adaptation to the problem; with the allure of materiality do we confuse authenticity. When will we stop worshiping Sweet Sensations and start embracing Sweet Perceptions?”

The next day…

“At the Benton was hosted a sister event to the Omnivore’s Dilemma display of an identical name: “Sweet Sensations.” Weather-related circumstances led to a postponed date (inadvertently almost leading to my absence had it been held any earlier or later than 5 pm), and still its timing was frightfully close to other plans and responsibilities I had previously made on the day. However, an upbeat, soft-spoken woman expressed her gratitude for being able to attend the event even after having made two trips consecutively. What stress I harbored seemed to disappear in light of the delightful interactions between speaker Dorie Greenspan and her audience.

Undoubtedly, she was there to promote her book, Baking Chez Moi, but the back story of its production was fascinating, nonetheless. She told of how she always wished she had been born in Paris, but stressed that one crucial skill she never would have learned had she lived in France would have been how to bake; the French tend to buy everything they serve to guests. On a campaign to collect recipes from families, Dorie discovered that they were reluctant to give their home recipes because they were “too simple.” Dorie intends to persuade us the opposite; no dish should be left to the “professionals,” and her cookbook gives homeowners sufficient instructions as to how to craft their own “sweet sensations” that do not come pre-made and prepackaged.

Dorie was especially fixated on the Parisian “macarons,” or macaroons in English (although macaroons are typically marketed as different, smaller, easier-to-bake versions of the original product). Her producer insisted that her consumers would prefer she included the recipe for macarons even though they require quite an extensive knowledge of baking to prepare. Expressing discontent for its inclusion in the book, she implies that macarons are one example of a treat indeed best left to those professionals after all, but goes on to say that we should feel free to cook whatever we want without feeling pressured to buy from those who market more appealing products and services than us.

On the side were some recipes present in the book crafted by the UConn Bakery, and to the right of that a table at which the author enthusiastically signed books, all which aggregated into a meaningful, pleasant experience regarding the necessity of cuisine. I definitely noticed no criticisms; I had never seen in person a crowd so intimately engaged with their speaker, chocking up their own “mmm’s” and “ahhh’s” at the appetizing pictures of desserts Dorie would flash them from the podium. All of this contributed to a successfully enthralling atmosphere – as well as hunger pangs in my stomach from being a little too late to fetch any food without disrupting the speaker – that constituted sadly a fraction of the allotted time, presumably in lieu of the weather conditions.  Still, the event lives up to its reputation of endorsing sweet sensations, inspiring the little cuisinier in all of us!”

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.

Plate

The Hunger Games, May The Odds Be Ever In Your Income: Student Guest Blog

Wednesday, February 18th the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources College Ambassadors invited the University of Connecticut community to an Oxfam Hunger Banquet. According to their event website, “A Hunger Banquet is an event that focuses on worldwide hunger and poverty. It is an interactive dinner where the place that you sit and the meal that you eat are determined by the luck of the draw – just as in real life some of us are born into relative prosperity and others into poverty.” 

Because the UConn Reads book for this year, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, focuses on food, this was one of the first related events students were excited to attend on campus to continue learning beyond the classroom. For a first-head telling of one UNIV 1820, UConn Reads student’s experience enjoy the second (and final) Student Guest Blog for the week.

Author: Samantha Crystal

Shared with permission

The Oxfam American Hunger Banquet is an event that is hosted every year here at UConn. It was a truly eye-opening experience, one that I will never forget.

I showed up to the event with two of my friends, not knowing what to really expect nor having much insight into the amount of poverty that plagues this world. When we got to the sign in table, we had to grab a name tag that was color coded (either yellow, green or purple), which indicated what class we would be considered in for the banquet. The name tag also had the life story of someone who would typically be considered middle class throughout the world. This gave me a better understanding of what each class of people truly entailed, but I still had a lot to learn.

The large had room had three sections, and the first one that caught my eye was to the far left, where round tables with white tablecloths were set up. These tables had real silverware and glasses and flower arrangements adorning the middle of the area. This would indicate the upper class

To the far right, there were simply chairs set up as though we would be watching a show. No tables, no silverware, just chairs. This indicated the middle class.

Finally, between each of these arrangements, there was a large group of people sitting on the floor. This was where those assigned as lower class sat.

I picked up a green nametag, so I sat as the middle class, which I originally thought would not be much different from what I experience in my day-to-day life (I was wrong). The host of the program made a speech about how hunger is a problem prevalent in today’s society, and then she started calling people up based on the name on their name tags. They read the short description that was on the back of their tag out loud, and then because of certain circumstances — either good or bad — they switched classes. Some upper-class workers were told to move to the middle class, and some lower class workers were told to move to the middle-class. This was eye-opening in that even though one may be born into a certain class, they have the ability to change if they so choose.

When dinner was finally served, the upper class was served eggplant rollatini with rolls and lemon water, the middle class was served rice, beans and corn with lemon water, and the lower class was served the rice that was leftover from the middle class and “dirty” water.

There were two significant things that happened throughout the dinner that made the night more impactful for me. The first was when I noticed the people posing as the upper class giving some of their food to the lower class. This was eye opening in that it showed people’s willingness to help one another, despite being in different economic classes. In the upper class section of the room there were military personnel on guard, as if to signify the protection the upper class has in terms of healthcare, food, and education that none of the other classes have.

This event definitely had an impact on the way I think about different classes. When the host was describing made up each of the classes, she said the upper class was classified by making more than 6,500 dollars a year. This came as a shock to me, and made me think about the United States and how fortunate we are to be considered an “upper class” country. The disparity between classes is definitely more well-known in my eyes.

Cake

The Joy of Laughter: Student Guest Blog

From its inception, the First Year Experience (FYE) has been rooted in the understanding that undergraduate excellence and retention is built on the grounds of both academic success and connection to community. As a result, FYE instructors face the challenge (and joy) of balancing content and relationship-development in every lesson and assignment. For example, today we celebrated a community member’s birthday with a card and singing before jumping into a guest lecture by the wonderful Dr. John Volin, UConn Professor and Head of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. While these moments may seem just for fun, they are actually vital to building a sense of belonging and trust that facilitates deeper engagement with difficult debates and reflection on their learning and growth, both in and out of the classroom. 

For our first Student Guest Blog for the semester, I am glad to share with you a student’s thoughts on this balance as they experienced it last week and how it fosters academic engagement in our classroom and positively contributes to their educational journey.

Author: Corbinian Wanner

Shared with permission

                 It’s hard to find an example of where you are sitting in a college-setting classroom and you experience the genuine urge of laughing. Yes of course there are a multitude of cases where perhaps the professor has difficulty with technology or says something quirky, which generates a general consensus that a forced laugh is the only thing that will continue the classroom flow; we all have had these moments. However, can you generally say that you have had a visceral, natural laughing experience in a college classroom?

                Charlie Chaplin once said that “a day without laughter is a day wasted.” So why don’t we laugh more? Truthfully there might be a lot of reasons out there, however, the biggest reason is the lack of a comfortable setting. I don’t know anyone who would feel comfortable in a large lecture hall with rigid chairs, no leg room, and hearing one voice talk the entire time, this environment is exactly what hinders our ability to laugh naturally.

                Well, I’m going to share a little secret, I have indeed found natural laughter; specifically I found it on Thursday February 12, 2015. The UCONN-Reads UNIV 1820 course truly tapped into that reservoir where so much built up laughter could be found. This course creates a comfortable environment both physically (I’m referring to the every-so-comfortable chairs that litter ROWE 134) and mentally because of the discussion nature of the class.

                On this Thursday we began the class with a beautiful discussion about our favorite food stories. The discussion struck almost every emotion; the humorous stories of burnt hams and bread baking experiments, the impressive stories of eating contests, and the personal stories of missing holiday meals with family members and first experiences with food. There was laughter, there were silent moments of respect, and there were humorous side-bar comments that filled the room with the recipe for a perfect discussion.

                Following the general group discussion, which really embodied a preschool-reminiscent, show-and-tell scene, the group split up and began analyzing the introduction and first chapter of Michael Pollan’s bestselling novel, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It was at this time where the power of laughter was seen as it carried us into intense conversations were the meaning of certain quotes was discussed and what Pollan was trying to say in this unique introduction. These conversations brought us to the end of our allotted time break and following some brief reminders, the group of young adults dispersed across campus; hopefully getting through the day riding the laughter that they just experienced.