Teaching Food Media online during a pandemic this semester proved a challenge, but one we overcame together. We still found ways to read and discuss, conduct a tasting workshop and another on historic cookbooks, to screen and watch food TV, and to enjoy meals together.
Just like the first time I taught this course, we ended our time together by writing Top 10 Listicles and then compiling individual responses into a class ranking. Here is what resonated most with my students this semester, along with some commentary of how we pulled it off, in case these details are useful for other instructors too.
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Food speaks volumes about race, gender, and power. From access to land to cultural appropriation, #MeToo in the food industry to who wins culinary awards—food reveals a great deal about the structural inequalities and injustice of the societies in which we live. Students very often come to Food Media thinking it’ll be a fluffy elective, but they leave knowing food is everywhere and so important.
We learned how to take seriously good photos of food. As expected, the photography and food styling workshop with KC Hysmith (this time over Zoom) was a standout experience for students, equipping them with new skills—and a new found respect for those who do this work professionally.
We learned how to really taste, and how to write about it. The tasting workshop (following Christy Spackman’s great model of tasting fresh pear, canned pear, and pear Jelly Belly candy) expanded students’ sensory abilities. (Here’s a Twitter thread about the logistics of doing this during the Pandemic.) This tasting workshop also laid the foundation for students to write boldly and lyrically about food in their Food Memoir Essays. Stretching beyond argumentative papers and reports, these essays provided a welcome opportunity to test out a new genre of writing and to develop writing voice in a new way.
The tension between education and entertainment in food and cooking TV still has a lot to teach us. Reading about the history, present, and future of food and cooking TV set the stage for our class viewing of an episode of Ugly Delicious. While we couldn’t be in the same room to watch together, we screened the Steak episode through our online learning platform, Collaborate, and essentially live-tweeted our thoughts in the chat together, which was both informative and a lot of fun. (Most of my students didn’t know I’m in the episode for a hot minute, so it was very funny and touching to see them freak out in the chat when I came on screen!)
Instagram played a key role in our class. Along with our skills from KC Hysmith, our critical readings on food Instagram’s pros and cons prepared students to create and manage their own accounts for the semester, using our class hashtag #foodxmedia. While required to post 15 photos during the semester, many students posted more than that. We also found that during our online course when we were never all together physically, sharing our food life on Instagram helped us to build a tight-knit class community.
Covid-19 influenced our learning, beyond our class being online. Students were very moved by The Daily episode featuring Achut Deng, a worker at the Smithfield pork factory. We also appreciated learning directly from Leah Douglas about her work tracking and mapping Covid-19 outbreaks in the U.S. food system. We had memorable, and sobering, conversations about how the government delineated essential workers at the same time that they treated these laborers—often low-income, women, immigrants, and BIPOC—as expendable. Building from Lucy Long’s questionnaire, students also conducted Pandemic Foodways Inventories, reflecting deeply on their personal foodways before and during the pandemic.
Cookbooks changed some minds. Through our readings, students newly discovered cookbooks as far more than recipe collections, but as historical artifacts and cultural texts. Due to our class being online, I couldn’t teach my normal cookbook workshop (like this) or take students to special collections on campus, but we made great use of the Internet Archive’s more than 10,000 digitized cookbooks. While nothing can replace getting to physically touch books that are many decades (or centuries) old, the online version of our cookbook workshop had the extra benefit that students could drop the link to their cookbook in the chat, so students could briefly experience more than a dozen cookbooks, rather than spending a long time with one physical text as I typically do in the workshop.
We learned from our local food community, and enjoyed eating their food. Students loved learning about Nonesuch in Oklahoma City, which was named America’s best new restaurant by Bon Appétit in 2018, but we spent our food dollars in our local Tulsa community with businesses working to get off the ground. Although we couldn’t physically visit and eat at Mother Road Market, we twice ate meals from Kitchen 66, Tulsa’s food business incubator. In an hour-long Zoom conversation, we also learned directly from one vendor about their experience trying to launch and expand their business during the pandemic. Although we couldn’t eat together, meals were delivered to a central location on campus, and I passed them out to students during a 20 minute window before class, with masks and plenty of hand sanitizer. We then quickly walked or drove back to our rooms/apartments/homes and logged on to Zoom. We ate together as we chatted about the delicious food (using our new sensory knowledge and powers of description!), class content, and our lives more generally. Even through a screen, eating together bonded us as a class community in a special way.
Food critics and criticism reveal power dynamics. We were beyond lucky to tweet a couple of times with Soliel Ho and to consider how her approach to the food critic role is paving a way forward. We also considered how food writing, Yelp reviews, and unchecked assumptions reinforce dominant notions of class, gender, race, sexuality, nationhood, regionality, and citizenship that need our critical attention.
We deconstructed Thanksgiving. Some of us already knew “the truth” about Thanksgiving’s histories, while others learned it for the first time. All of us thought critically about how we can celebrate this holiday more intentionally through what we eat, and so much more.
And an honorable mention goes to: Book Birthday. I was a little anxious to dedicate a day on the syllabus to my book coming out, but was delighted and relieved that it resonated a lot with students. They were so happy to celebrate this accomplishment and also enjoyed our “ask me anything” conversation about what it’s like to write a book, how peer review actually works, and the labor of promoting a book too.
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I am so proud of these students, who accomplished significant, critical growth even as some of us caught Covid-19, as some of us suffered losses in our families, and as we all struggled at times with our mental health. I love, loved, loved teaching Food Media for the second time and remain personally and professionally overwhelmed by all we can teach and learn through food.
Top Image: A screenshot of our final class meeting, shared with students’ permission