Academic books like Diners, Dudes & Diets take a (very) long time to write. I’ve been researching and writing on the questions that animate this book, figuring out pieces of the story, for almost fifteen years.
Here’s a list of the articles, chapters, and short pieces I wrote along the way, and a couple of pieces I’ve written as the book has launched too. These are here if you’d like to see how these ideas evolved over time; want more to read on these topics of media, food, bodies, and gender; or if you’re teaching on these topics and it doesn’t quite work to assign the entire book.
At this point, I’ve taught half a semester of emergency remote instruction and a full pandemic semester online. Who knows what the winter-into-spring 2021 term will hold for teaching challenges and [insert here long list of] everything else going on in our world right now. In an attempt to cheer myself up, and cheer other fellow profs on, here is a light-hearted teaching post about the lessons I’ve learned from doing Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout—yes, one of those glorious fitness wonders from the 1980s, which I, completely un-ironically, adore—that apply to teaching online during a pandemic.
1. Practice before you go full out. Jane recommends watching “the tape” once through to familiarize yourself with proper weightlifting form and the aerobics choreography. Similarly, we can use a first class to demonstrate and practice how the online learning platform works, especially for new and transfer students, before we dive into content.
2. Use those before-class minutes. Jane’s workout videos are a bit unique in that they show class participants entering the studio (like above), stretching, and getting ready for class. We can use such moments too, even if they feel a little awkward, for low-stakes personal check-ins with students, like asking: What was something fun you did this weekend? How’s your week going so far? What’s something good that’s happened lately that you feel comfortable sharing? How do you feel about rainy days? (If it’s raining. We had fun debates on this topic, actually.)
3. Grab attention with eye-catching aesthetics. Maybe big hair, bright leotards matched to bulky socks, and bold stretchy belts aren’t for you, but they sure do capture your attention and create a fun vibe. Similarly, lecture and discussion slide designs that are colorful and perhaps include images, memes, and GIFs can help to capture, and keep, student attention.
4. Go at your own pace. Jane’s class community includes a group of folks who do high intensity moves and another group that modifies them at a lower intensity. But everyone is part of the same class and does the workout together. This arrangement can apply to online classes too, especially how to make content available for all students. We do this with synchronous and asynchronous components and offering multiple ways for students to participate through speaking out loud, in the chat, through polls, etc.
5. Remember to breathe. Throughout the workout, Jane reminds you to inhale and exhale, matched to the movement. During these stressful times, those purposeful breaths can be magical. Sometimes it’s a meaningful pedagogical intervention to spend a moment taking a deep breath together to start class and center ourselves as a learning community or to refresh during class, if energy is lagging.
6. Use reminders and repetition. Jane constantly cues for form, reminding you to keep your stomach in, hips under, knees bent. We can do the same, especially when we’re trying to adopt new ways of teaching and learning. For example, in the fall, we used emojis in the chat to demonstrate active listening, but it took reminders at the beginning of multiple class sessions to cement that as a new practice.
7. Bring in different class leaders to shake things up. Jane teaches most of the class, but she also steps back, and a couple of other instructors lead some sections. Similarly, I guide most of the lecture content, but in the second half of the course, I often have students sign up for small groups to help lead a day of class. Together, they create a Google Slide deck, due 12-to-24 hours before our class meeting, so I can review it and add to it as needed. (They often do an amazing job picking out all the key points and devising good discussion questions!) Then, we teach the session together, which gives students greater agency and helps to keep our sessions lively. Guest speakers are also wonderful and the online format makes hosting a bit easier.
8. Take time to care and bond. In the Complete Workout, Jane includes three different stretching sessions, when most workouts only include one. This keeps the workout nice and balanced and your body feeling loose. In our teaching, we often take maybe part of one class for students to get to know one another, but we can take more time than that, especially during a pandemic, for forming a class community, checking in, supporting one another, and bonding as a group.
9.Front load the class. After a warm-up, weight section, and 30-minutes of aerobics, Jane’s last part of the workout is a bit less intense, made up of leg lifts and ab work, which you do lying down. Some professors believe in intense final exams, but during a pandemic, it can work well, for all involved, to plan a more applied or project-based final assignment that is still challenging and fulfilling, but feels readily achievable when energy is waning.
10. Chunk the class, so it speeds by. Sometimes the thought of doing a 65-minute workout feels impossible, but since Jane’s is split into multiple small sections, each about 5 minutes long and with their own upbeat music, it goes by quickly and is very enjoyable. This can apply to class as well. We can break up sections of lecture with discussion questions, group or self-reflection activities, and polls, even ones as simple as yes/no, to jolt student attention that might be fading.
11. Show passion to fuel student engagement. There’s a part in the workout where one of the leaders shouts with real joy, “Oh, I loooove this!” Everyone laughs and hops even higher. The same principle applies when we show our genuine love for our subject matter, for teaching, and for our students too. This positive energy is infectious, in a good way.
12. Show real sweat. Too many workout videos edit out the sweat or don’t talk about how the exercises are hard, especially near the end of the rep scheme, but not Jane’s. Everyone shows visible sweat. Jane even jokes, calling abdominals “the abominables.” We too can acknowledge when concepts are challenging to master or to openly discuss how difficult it is to teach and learn in a pandemic, emphasizing that we’re in this together.
13.Count it down. Knowing how many reps are left, whether bicep curls or inner thigh lifts, mentally helps you finish strong. The same can go for announcing remaining assignments, participation points, or due dates in a motivational way. Knowing “we’re almost done, I promise,” as Jane says during ab work, can help a class community make it to the end of a difficult semester.
14. Give all the praise you can. Jane speaks through the screen to you working out at home to say you’re doing a good job and to offer assurance that you can do it. Such encouragement goes a long way with students too. It can be nice to end our meetings like Jane, smiling wide and saying, “It was a good class, a very good class! See you next time!”
Here are a few other things I’ve been trying to build student engagement while teaching online during a pandemic—and I’d love to hear what’s working for you too, whether in the comments or on social media.
No matter what, I’m wishing you and your students well during yet another pandemic semester.
During this pandemic semester, I taught three courses, and one was a new prep: Introduction to Media Studies. With thirty-two great students, we began by studying foundational texts and concepts, which culminated in a challenging midterm exam.
In the second half of the course, students applied that new knowledge to readings on a variety of media topics. We explored the origins of the Internet, if social media is good for us (and democracy), what it feels like to watch television during a pandemic, the growth of esports, advertising’s response to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, and how to combat misinformation in the news.
In the second half of the course, students also merged theory and practice in a deeply self-reflexive way, as they completed a Media Diet Journal. They answered a series of questions each week on a new aspect of the media they consume, and in some cases, produce too. (Find a complete list of these weekly questions at the end of this post.)
After students completed their journal, they then created a visual representation (of their choice!) that summarized their current media diet and who they feel they are as a media citizen.
I’m delighted that several students—Julianne Tran, Sara Nasreldin, Monte Dunham, Kaley Core, and Maci Montgomery—gave permission for me to share their creations:
As you can see, students communicated their media diets in hugely creative and very different ways. Julianne, Sara, and Maci placed photos of themselves within their visuals. One of the things Julianne reflected upon was how much she enjoyed the material qualities of print media—like the novel size and texture of the newspaper—vowing to consume more of it. Sara placed herself in the center of her media diet collage, purposefully “glitching” from the feeling of overwhelm our media diets can cause, especially for herself as a “third culture kid,” as she lives, learns, and consumes media in Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, and English.
Picking up on media’s overwhelming qualities, Monte designed a suffocated media citizen, with mind, body, and limbs each full of various media forms and types. Like Sara did in a retro way, Kaley built her media diet into the stylistic interface of the Internet, emphasizing the positive verbs of her media life: relating, learning, sharing, and connecting. Maci created hers as a scrap-book-like collage, emphasizing the media and technologies, traditional and new, that make her who she is, and fuel the relationships she holds dearest.
Most students, and myself too, are a bit worried about how much time we spend on our phones and on social media. Hopefully over the break, we’ll each take some time to unplug, relax, and restore. No matter what, I’m so thankful to have taught and learned alongside these students and look forward to the next time I’ll teach this course.
Media Diet Journal Assignment
In this class, 15% of your course grade comes from completing a Media Diet Journal. I recommend that you create your Journal as a Word file or Google doc and add to it throughout the second half of the semester. Your Journal should reflect sincere and focused engagement and reflection with each day’s question prompts. You do not need to write an essay or even in complete sentences, but you should record complete thoughts. For each day of assigned journaling, you should write at least 1-2 single-spaced pages.
Media Diet Questionnaire #0: How to Start Assessing Your Media Diet
What is your current “media diet”? Brainstorm a list of all the types and forms of media you consume during a typical day or week.
How much time do you spend consuming media in a day or week? Are there particular times of day you’re active with media?
Why do you consume media? For example, for entertainment, information, boredom…
Do you participate in creating media in any way? How so?
What devices, or other forms of technology, do you use to consume (and create) media? Is it always via a screen?
How does consuming and/or creating media make you feel emotionally, mentally, and/or physically?
How does your typical media diet engage with issues of identity, justice, and equity?
To what degree does your typical media diet include a global perspective?
As you’ve answered these questions, does anything in your media habits surprise you? What patterns did you see emerging?
Media Diet Questionnaire #1: The Internet & Social Media
How old were you when you first “connected to” the internet?
How do you experience the internet? Do you “surf”? Is it an integrated part of your life? Do you use it like a utility to log on, do certain things, and then log off?
If you had to go without internet or WiFi access for a period of time, such as a day or a week, that wasn’t a conscious “digital vacation,” how would that make you feel? Why do you think that is?
Would you ever consider quitting social media and/or the internet? Why or why not?
What social media accounts do you have? How and for what do you use them? What purpose do they serve in your life?
What kind of content do you consume, produce, and share on social media?
How old were you when you got each of your social media accounts?
How is your social media and Internet use part of your experiences with boredom?
For yourself, and more broadly, what are the pros and cons of using social media?
Does social media help or hinder your social connections, online and IRL?
How does your social media use shape how you use your smartphone (if you have one?)
How do you physically relate to your (smart)phone? Is it always nearby during the day? Why? Where is your phone while you sleep?
Beyond social media, what other apps do you use every day?
Do you ever worry you (or people you care about) are “addicted” to your phone, social media, reading notifications, apps, etc.? How does this make you feel?
Media Diet Questionnaire #2: Television & Film
When you think of “TV” or “television,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Did you watch TV as a child, and if so, what programs? Was your TV consumption monitored or limited by those who cared for you? What was the purpose of your TV viewing as a child? Is it different from what and why you watch TV now?
On what device(s) do you currently watch TV programming? How does the device (phone, laptop, TV screen (small, medium, large, huge)) influence your experience with TV?
What types or genres of TV programming do you routinely watch? What are your favorites and why?
What TV networks, channels, or streaming services do you regularly watch? Which do you (or your family) subscribe to?
Choose your favorite show. Look up the director, screenwriter, and other key production figures. Who are they? What else have they created? What’s their story? How does their identity shape the content they create, or not?
How much time do you spend watching TV daily and/or weekly?
How do you feel emotionally when you watch TV, and does it vary by time, programming, etc.?
How do you feel physically when you watch TV? What position is your body in when you watch TV?
What verbs describe how you interact with TV and films, and why? (e.g. watch, view, see, engage, consume, connect, etc.)
When you watch TV or a film, do you engage fully in it or are you doing other things, like chatting, working, or looking at social media? If so, how does this distracted viewing shape your experience?
How many movies/films do you watch per week?
Before COVID-19, how often would you go to a movie theater to see a movie?
What influences your decision to see a particular movie at the movie theater versus waiting for it to be a rental or on Netflix or downloading it?
How is watching a film on a TV (or laptop) at home similar and different (emotionally and for your senses) to watching a film at a movie theater?
Media Diet Questionnaire #3: News & Journalism
Do you read/watch/consume the news every day or most days of the week? Why or why not?
Do you read/watch/consume the news at a certain time of day or does it just pop up all throughout your day?
Where do you get your news? What devices, what formats? (e.g. TV, newspaper (online or print) social media, radio, podcasts, etc.) What outlets/brands? (e.g. Tulsa World, New York Times, CNN, Fox News, etc.)
What sources do you think count as “good” or “quality” journalism? Why? What factors do you consider to assess if a source is trustworthy and accurate?
How would you assess bias within the news sources you typically reference?
What do you currently think and feel about current debates regarding “fake news?” What does that phrase mean? How is it marshalled, and by whom? Why does it matter?
How much of the news stories you read are local versus national versus global?
What do you think the pros and cons are of getting all or most of your news from social media?
Do you read TU’s student newspaper, The Collegian? Why or why not? What do you think and feel about it? What stories resonate with you?
Do you (or your family) subscribe to (i.e. pay for) any newspapers or journalistic magazines? Which ones? Why or why not?
When you think of “a journalist,” who do you imagine? What do they do? What values motivate them? Relatedly, how are journalists represented in TV shows and films?
Do you ever view yourself as a “citizen journalist” for stories you create and share?
How does consuming the news make you feel, emotionally and in your body?
Media Diet Questionnaire #4: Advertising
What media forms can advertising take?
How do you notice, consume, and/or avoid advertising in your life?
How would you describe advertising? For example, inspirational, persuasive, manipulative, informative—and why?
How can you tell the difference between an advertisement and media content? Is it ever difficult to tell the difference? Why might that matter?
Do you follow any influencers? Which ones, and why? How are their endorsements similar and/or different to more traditional advertising, like a TV commercial?
Do you watch the ads during the Super Bowl? How are these ads similar and different to ads we see on TV throughout the rest of the year? Do you have any favorites that you can remember?
How do ads shape and reflect identity, including categories like race, gender, sexuality, social class, religion, age, etc.?
In your opinion, should brands and ads take a stand on social issues, such as the brands we read about endorsing Black Lives Matter? Why or why not?
Media Diet Questionnaire #5: Games & Sports
Do you watch professional and/or college sports? Which ones, and why? Which are your favorites, and why?
From what outlets (e.g. ESPN, blogs, Twitter) do you consume sports media? Which are your favorites, and why?
How much time do you spend consuming sports media? Per day, week, or month?
Do you play a sport? Which ones? How did you start and/or stop?
What can sports reveal about power and identity—of the players, commentators, producers, team owners, audiences, etc. Think about gender, sexuality, race, class, citizenship status, etc. …
Do you watch the Olympics? What do they mean to you as a viewer, a citizen, and perhaps as an athlete yourself?
Do you have a favorite sports team of which you’d identify as a fan? Relatedly, how does a particular sports team (including a national Olympic team) affect how you feel about your city, state, and country?
Do you play video games? Which ones? Do you have favorites? Do you play alone or with others? On what devices/platforms?
How would you define “a gamer?” Do you identify as a gamer?
What do you know about aspects of inclusion and exclusion, community and harassment within the gaming community?
If you play video games, how do you feel emotionally and physically when you play?
In your opinion, are esports, sports?
Media Diet Questionnaire #6: Books & Publishing
Do you read books outside of what’s assigned for your classes? Why or why not?
If you buy books, do you prefer to buy them in hardback, paperback, or a digital copy like on a Kindle? Why?
How does it feel to hold a book in your hands, to turn the pages, to read through to the final page? How is it similar and different to read a book or a magazine in print versus from a screen? How does the reading experience feel?
Is print dead? Generally, and to you?
How do you feel and/or what do you think about buying books from Amazon?
What do you think about local bookstores? Do you shop at them? Do you know the folks who own them and work there? What local bookstores can you frequent here in Tulsa? Or in your hometown?
Do you have a public library card? Do you visit the library, check out books? What social, cultural, and civic purpose do libraries serve? How much (or little) of that is about books?
Do you want to write, whether a book, article, or essay? Would you feel any differently about your work appearing in print versus online?
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, thephotography 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 TVset 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
My first book, Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture comes out next week from the University of North Carolina Press, which is really exciting. (The pre-order promotion is still on, if you’re interested!) The book’s publication is also causing me to reflect on how I got here. We don’t often tell the stories of how books come to be. The nuts and bolts of how we actually wrote the thing. The lucky breaks that helped. The challenges that seemed insurmountable until we finally found a way through.
But let me be clear, this is NOT an advice post. For that, William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book is the book you need. I read it twice and referenced it multiple times as I wrote and revised.
So, here’s the story of how my book came to be.
The research in Diners, Dudes & Diets started in my MLA thesis in Gastronomy at Boston University, “The Dudification of Dieting: Marketing Weight Loss Programs to Men in the Twenty-First Century”—though that project’s roots lie in my undergrad honors thesis, parts of which I eventually published in Fat Studies as “Guilt-Free and Sinfully Delicious: A Contemporary Theology of Weight Loss Dieting.” When I applied to PhD programs, I proposed expanding the thesis into a dissertation. I could have done that, but as I completed my field reading, I realized there was more I wanted to do. I kept my focus on masculinities but expanded beyond just dieting to food, cooking, and the broader food mediascape.
In grad school, I was told don’t write a dissertation, write a book. I tried, hard, to do that, but the thing is, when you’re a grad student, you have no idea how to write a dissertation or a book, so you’re just doing your best to write something that you can one day revise into a book. At least that’s how it was for me.
I finished a good draft of my dissertation in a frenzied rush during the fourth year of my PhD in 2017 because I was a finalist for a job. (I didn’t get it.) But the silver lining was I had a year of funding left and a relatively complete project, so I could start talking seriously to editors.
Given my very interdisciplinary training and research output, I had some concerns about which presses, series, and/or lists to shoot for so that the eventual book would be legible in field-specific ways, ultimately, for tenure and promotion purposes. This was difficult because I didn’t know what field I’d be working in. Would it be American studies? Food studies? Gender and sexuality studies? Media or communication studies? Something else? And that was if I could even get a job, since the vast majority of even immensely talented PhDs never find a permanent faculty position.
I still can’t believe my luck (and privilege) that Matt Guterl, chair of American Studies at Brown and a wonderful mentor to me, sent an email to officially introduce me and my project to Mark Simpson-Vos, Editorial Director at the University of North Carolina Press. Matt made it clear from his own experience (which is vast) that Mark was one of the greatest editors around and UNC Press one of the best in the business, especially for books aspiring for crossover potential beyond academia. Mark assured me that if the book ended up at UNC, it would be part of whichever series or list fit the book.
Over the summer of 2017, Mark reviewed my precis, chapter outline, and my proposed revision plans (which were way off from what I actually did.) He sent me feedback on how to revise it all into a good book proposal. (Not all editors can, or do, offer this much feedback at such an early stage, but I am very grateful that Mark did.)
At this point in the process, what I struggled with most was the book’s throughline. I knew I had a story to tell, but I couldn’t yet see how the pieces fit together or what order they should go in. And for whatever reason, the contents of the Intro and Chapter One changed a ton throughout the revision process. (I can definitely see the value of good developmental editors and wonder if I should have invested in one to get over this hurdle sooner.)
I took the advice to let the project “rest” for as long as I could, so that I could have fresher eyes to see it anew and hopefully facilitate the dissertation-to-book revision process. Beyond the revisions I discussed with my dissertation committee (chaired by Susan Smulyan, who was wonderful in every way), I didn’t work on it that much during the final year of my PhD. But it was percolating in the back of my mind, waiting for things to click into place.
Ultimately, this is how my table of contents changed from the dissertation to the book:
But I’m skipping ahead. I still had to actually revise the dang thing into a book.
Fall 2017 was filled with job applications (and all that entails.) I applied to 31 positions in a range of fields, so customizing my documents was an ordeal. By some miracle, the universe delivered the right mix of luck and timing that I had a position finalized by the end of the year in the Department of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. I graduated in May 2018. We moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma a few days later.
The transition was difficult, for all the typical reasons and due to some specific challenges at my new institution, which escalated further during my second semester there. Needless to say, during my first three months on the tenure track, I wrote some short pieces (including interviews with Alex Ketchum and Rachel Louise Moran on their fab books), but I didn’t work on my book proposal. At. All.
I finally returned to my project later that fall. At the time, my university still had a faculty writing program (it doesn’t anymore, due to the aforementioned challenges, which is bad), and I met twice with Joli Jensen, the program’s director and author of Write No Matter What, which is a super useful book. Meeting with her gave me the structure of deadlines and expectations I needed to work on my proposal that November. Throughout December, my calendar was full of “work on proposal” to do items. Mark and I met a couple of times that month by phone to review drafts.
He and I also discussed whether I should revise the entire dissertation manuscript and then send it through review or to submit just the body chapters, which I could get into decent shape pretty quickly. I went with the second option: sending my proposal letter (with a detailed revision plan) along with the dissertation’s moderately revised body chapters in early January 2019, so that I could get reviewer feedback to guide the next stages of my revision process.
I submitted everything right before I started teaching my first semester with a three course-load. Luckily only one was a new prep, but it was the most content and students (86) that I’d ever taught. (Those of you who teach 3-3, 4-4, and more are the real heroes, truly.) Luckily, the press assigned my project to *dream* anonymous peer review readers who returned really useful and generous feedback by early May.
I knew that I needed to write an introduction, but my readers advised me not to add new chapters (which I had proposed), but to make the ones I had tight, clear, and snappy. I also needed to drastically reorganize the first chapter. Readers found “the dude” novel, but I needed to define him better, especially with regard to race. I needed to make the argument regarding the dude flow through every chapter in strong and compelling ways. I needed to more clearly articulate the “so what” of my book, including the importance of historical context, which for this book is the Great Recession Era and then the post-2016 moment. I had analyzed well representations of the dude and stories about his producers, but I needed to do more to consider consumers and reception too. I needed to add more digital content, especially from social media. I needed to write a satisfying concluding chapter.
Fortunately, my readers’ feedback all supported the book I was aiming to write. Honestly, I think one of the few suggestions I pushed back on was the idea of organizing the book 100% chronologically because I felt a thematic orientation served the argument better. Every comment helped me to write a better book, which is one of the most ideal outcomes of peer review, especially for a dissertation-to-book project. From my readers’ and Mark’s comments, I drafted my response revision letter, which I submitted in mid-May 2019.
From my reader reports and revision letter, I then wrote out my long list of to do items, large and small, everything left to mold what I had into a book.
Then I entered manuscript revision boot camp.
Again, I benefited greatly from my university still having a faculty writing program. From my readers and Mark, I had a list of what I needed to write and revise. Joli hosted a day-long summer writing plan retreat in late April, which helped me to figure out how I was going to actually do the work of revising the book.
I write best in the morning, but 6 am was (and is) the only feasible time to walk my pup Raven in the Oklahoma summer heat, so for three weeks in June—to jumpstart my revisions and gain the momentum I needed to feel like I could do this darn thing—I woke up at 4:30 am and wrote from 5:00-6:00 am in our living room. Then I’d walk Raven to and around campus (we live nearby), and then write in my office for two more hours.
In mid-June, I got an email from Mark with the much-welcome subject line, “Good news!” It was a huge relief and a nice confidence boost to learn that I’d been offered an advance contract for the book from UNC Press, which helped to settle at least some of my imposter syndrome and general anxieties about writing my first book.
In July and August, I dropped the 5 am writing sessions most days. Sometimes writing haunted my dreams so much that I woke up early anyway. Usually though I’d write for 2 to 3 hours each day, typically in one session, working on revisions.
By late July, I had a pretty complete version of the full manuscript done, so I sent the entire thing to two of my mentors who very graciously agreed to read it: Melissa Hackman (from whom I took Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality while I was at Brown and who’s been a good friend ever since) and Julia Ehrhardt, with whom I studied as an undergraduate and who has helped me with every step of my academic journey since. I also shared the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Conclusion with my friend Diana Garvin and the sections addressing social media with my friend KC Hysmith. All offered me affirming comments (which I pretty desperately needed at that point) and more very useful feedback.
Throughout August, I worked on revisions in two-hour sessions, day after day after day. Sometimes I took weekends off, but a lot of times I didn’t. (That’s probably not a good thing.) Near the end of the month, I updated and formatted the bibliography and notes, which was about a week’s worth of work on its own. I also selected the images I wanted to include in the book (taking the time to figure out high resolution versions, which was sometimes the hardest part) and wrote their captions. Given the ways that I analyze all of the images in the text, I claimed fair use for their inclusion.
Beyond my readers’ feedback for revisions, I wanted to write this book as both the key piece of scholarship for my tenure case and a book for everyday readers, a book that might play at least some small role in helping us to understand our culture more critically and to make our media lives more just and inclusive. Hoping for that audience meant I had to write the book differently and to cut out any and all jargon I didn’t need. Since I had written a fair amount for public audiences, I thought I was close, but I wasn’t. I had more to learn and grow in my writing. I reworked almost every sentence.
I submitted the manuscript in late August 2019, two days before the start of the fall semester. I was exhausted, but I’d finally completed what was the hardest part of the book revision process, for me: I’d finally turned my dissertation into a book manuscript.
While the manuscript was back with my readers (one original and a new third reader), I threw myself into teaching “Food Media” and “Advertising History, Culture & Critique.” I also worked with my friend and colleague, Zenia Kish, as we reviewed our sixteen contributors’ chapter drafts for our edited collection on food Instagram.
In late October, I received final reader reports, which were positive, but required some more edits, all of which I appreciated and made the book better. I had to write my final revision letter really quickly (at the same time as all our editor letters for the Instagram book!) so my book could make it into the press’s November board meeting. If I could rush this final revision letter, the book could come out in fall 2020 instead of spring 2021, so I made the push.
I then made revisions throughout November and December, working on them every morning before teaching, grading, and everything else. I shared the near-final manuscript with one more mentor and friend, Warren Belasco, who had advised my master’s thesis at BU and had read my dissertation. He sent me the words of affirmation I really, really needed as I neared the end of many months of hard work.
I was really ill for a week in December, basically on bedrest, but I still submitted the final manuscript in early January 2020, along with my author marketing questionnaire, which was a few days’ work too. (Thanks to Andrew Ruis for sharing his with me for inspiration!)
I received files for copy editing in early April 2020, which I somehow completed during the stressful early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, returning the files at the end of the month.
I am very grateful my university covered the cost of professional proofreading and indexing, so I had help for those last reviews, which I turned in at the end of June. I highly recommend Jessica Ryan for proofreading and Michelle Martinez for indexing!
I spent July and August writing some short essays and planning for how I’d work to promote the book (and prepping to teach three courses in the fall during a pandemic), but the heavy lifting (er, writing) for the book itself was done.
As I said at the start, this is not an advice post. It’s just my story, shared in the hope it might be useful for other writers in its transparency. But as I reflect, these are the things that helped as I wrote and revised my first book, some of which I had no control over, but from which I benefited greatly:
I had a fantastic editor who helped me every step of the way, starting from before I had officially submitted my dissertation.
I had access to a faculty writing program that gave me the structure I needed to get started planning and writing, especially as I began my career on the tenure track, balancing research, teaching, and service.
I had a permanent position and received two summer fellowships from my institution, which helped me to write full time for two summers without needing to teach summer term. (That said, I still had to do other paid work to supplement my salary.) Overall, stable employment made writing this book possible, and I recognize many first book writers lack that, given the abysmal academic job market.
I was gifted truly amazing anonymous readers, who provided the constructive feedback I needed to write a (hopefully) good book. They also returned their reports in a very timely fashion so my book moved forward on a quick timeline. They also wrote their feedback in a generous and collegial tone (no reviewer #2 snark), so the review process was as emotionally painless as can be. While I didn’t know who my readers were during the process, I’m very happy that two of them—Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato—agreed to have their identities revealed to me afterward. I’m thankful for the role all three reviewers played in my book.
I figured out how I write well. I found the golden time (mornings) and session length (1-3 hours) that worked for me to write well, and I vigorously protected it.
I was consistent. I scheduled my writing sessions into my calendar and committed to sitting down, day after day, and doing the work, even when the revisions were going really badly or when I didn’t want to. I did the time, no matter what.
I used social media for help and support. Visually capturing the process of writing this book (on good days and bad) and posting on Instagram, helped me make the labor visible. Celebrating every little milestone across social media platforms with different groups of friends and colleagues also helped me to find support and stay motivated.
I had a dog who provided emotional support in the way only cute animals can and who made me keep walking and moving while I was writing, a sedentary activity that is really hard on our bodies.
I was physically and mentally well. At least most of the time, I felt well enough, in every sense of the word, to be able to write this book. During the time when I was incapacitated, I could newly empathize with others who write under painful and uncomfortable circumstances, which makes completing a book so much harder.
I had few other life responsibilities and/or distractions. I do not have any children nor family members who needed care, so I was able to focus my most productive energies almost solely on this project. Writing a book is hard. I fully recognize how writing a book with such responsibilities is SO MUCH harder.
I hada supportive partner. Even though my husband was annoyed with me on the many mornings I woke up stupid early and disturbed his sleep, he recognized that this was my process. Sometimes (maybe a lot of times) I had to write instead of doing fun things together, which was hard on both of us. There’s a million reasons the book is dedicated to him.
The book includes about 20 black and white images to demonstrate how the food, media, and marketing industries deployed “the dude” during the Great Recession era to sell feminized food fare to men. In this post, I’ve gathered color versions of those images. I’ve also included many of the other media examples I reference in the book.
I hope readers enjoy seeing them—and that they might prove helpful texts for close readings, debates, and discussions in the classroom too, if you happen to be reading the book with your students.
PAGE 12: Esquire Cook-Book, 1955
PAGE 13: Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, 1982
PAGE 24-25: “Eat Like That Guy You Know,” Kraft’s Velveeta Shells & Cheese, 2012
I was honored to be invited to present in TU’s new Socially Distanced Teaching series on “How to Be More Creative & Engaging Online.” Since the presentation was on our internal Microsoft Teams site, I’m happy to share my presentation slides more broadly here.
For the assessment examples discussed in part 5, you can find more information in the detailed blog posts on my Teaching page.
And I’d love to hear from other teachers what you’re doing to be more creative and engaging as we find ourselves teaching online during a pandemic.
I thoroughly enjoyed teaching Food Media at The University of Tulsa this semester. The majority of my twelve students were media studies majors, but others are majoring in music, psychology, political science, and accounting. None of them had taken a food-studies-type course before. Some of them weren’t all that interested in food at the beginning of our semester, though that would change!
On our last day of class, we enjoyed a final meal together and worked on a top ten list of what we learned over the course of the semester. Our list includes particular readings, concepts, experiences, skills, and feelings.
Here’s what resonated most with my students this semester:
Food is more than just food. We should study it seriously.
Food reveals a great deal about the structural (in)equalities and (in)justice of the societies in which we live.
Food is gendered, from the theorization of food porn to “the woman problem” of the culinary industry to the ongoing inequitable divide of domestic food labor.
“Authentic” and “ethnic” are complicated and problematic terms that we’ll never think about the same way. Some of us will refrain from using them altogether.
Ideas about nutrition and health, eating for pleasure and the moralization of food have shifted over time. This has added both deep meaning and anxious conflicts to our individual eating behaviors and our broader food culture.
From our amazing food styling and photography workshop with KC Hysmith, we learned to take better food photos and to think critically about the visuality of our food culture.
Instagramming our food for a semester made us rethink what we eat—and what we post, and why. We will never forget Laura Shapiro’s charge for us to Instagram our leftovers and capture the mundane truths of our food lives so to create a useful archive for the historians of the future.
The work of writing, editing, and revising is (still) difficult, but we learned more about these processes from chatting with dozens of professional writers on Twitter, who were voluntarily part of our class. Their lessons (and their generosity of spirit) made us better and bolder writers, especially as we took on creative and new (to us) genres like food memoir and food writing.
We worked on our personal relationships with food. Some of us worked through our pasts with eating disorders, hunger, or picky eating. Others chewed on our right to access veg-friendly meals. We described in great sensory detail our favorite foods: coffee, burgers (with no condiments!), and French fries, from the haute to the fast. We all thought more deeply about what we eat, where it comes from, what stories it tells, and why it matters.
We developed one of the strongest and dearest class communities we’ve ever experienced, bonds forged through in-class food tastings, our #foodxmedia Instagram space, and our meals shared around a common table.
I will hugely miss this special group of students!
For any instructors wanting to do a similar “last class top 10” activity, here’s how we created our list:
Students prepared their own rankings before class as a homework assignment from the prompt: Look back over the syllabus, your notes, and our class Twitter threads. Jot down a list of the top 10 things you learned in this class. This could be a concept, an idea, a writing technique, an experience, a flavor, etc. We’ll spend today discussing our lists and co-writing a group listicle. We’ll connect the dots across our semester together as we ponder our food and media futures.
In-class, students discussed their individual lists in groups of two or three, condensing their list of twenty or thirty down to ten.
Then, each group presented their top ten to the class, which I wrote into a master list.
Our master list ended up being 25 items long, since many groups already found resonance in similar key learnings. We discussed how some items on the list could perhaps be condensed into one other. Then we voted on each one, working our way as low as we could get toward a nice summary of the big things we’ll take with us from this class.
Yesterday in my Food Media class, we did a focus group about how students use Instagram and if/where food fits in. I learned so much. Most of my students started Instagram accounts when they were in middle school. I, on the other hand, was 27. What would I have shared on social media when I was 13? (Cringe, shudder, facepalm.)
Typically, when my students use Instagram—the account named with their actual name, where they project the very best and most perfect version of themselves out into an uncertain and often unkind world of job hunting and social judgement—they post relatively rarely and anxiously. They don’t post (or delete) any photo or caption that isn’t “good enough.”
Their Instagram rules made me reflect on mine and my own embarrassing beginnings on the app.
As someone who’s never deleted anything off of Instagram, I went back to my first 10 posts to think about the stories they tell and why they’re worth keeping, even though the photos and captions themselves are definitely not “good enough.”
1. My first Instagram post was of words in an Ikea catalogue that related to my research on trophy kitchens. I have no clue why I chose such an unreadable angle. Or that horrendous border treatment.
2. I remember being proud of how I staged this strategically (un)packed bag for vacation. (Sigh.) I was too body conscious to wear all but one of those swimsuits, but I rocked that hat, hard.
3. These are the poster boards I mounted above my desk in our “garden level” apartment in Brookline. It was basically a basement but in the best neighborhood we’ve ever lived. It’s where I wrote all my seminar papers as I studied for my MLA in Gastronomy while still working for Kaiser, which was difficult. The bulletin boards above my desk at TU are similarly styled. I’m not sure what to make of that.
4. This very grainy, truly bad photo is of my husband and I at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston. (It’s called something else now.) We were going to see Girl Talk, for the third time, I think. It was a gorgeous night outside, I danced the whole show, and I’m glad I have this terrible photo to remember it.
5. This is the first of my posts to ever get a like. Yes, one like. (And I still love Kate Spade.)
6. This post got two likes. I was right, but I haven’t written this paper, yet.
8. Sometimes we use Instagram to complain and mark painful moments. This was one of those. No one liked this photo. I was truly alone in my GRE misery.
9. Look at me trying to be all artsy capturing the sun flare. This is by all measures a bad photo, but it marks the first time I visited Connecticut and ate a cider donut, which was life changing and became one of our annual New England traditions.
10. This is my forty-fourth post, my first of food. I was in New York City to present at the Cookbook Conference. Barbara and I enjoyed this six course (!) brunch before we took the bus back to Boston after a huge snowstorm.
My point in sharing these (mostly very bad) photos is that we are our histories—the good, beautiful, and celebratory; the bad, ugly, and downtrodden—whether we visualize and share them, or not. My students have mostly opted for a compartmentalized social media life. They share perfectly curated content for public consumption on one account. On a private one, they’re openly honest and intimate.
As for me, I’m trying hard to blend these approaches, on and off social media. When my mom turned 50, she sat my sister and I both down and said that she wished she could give us the confidence she felt at that moment. She’d crossed a threshold of womanhood that made it so she could finally give zero f*cks. (She definitely didn’t use those words, but it’s what she meant.) She could be free.
I never really succeed, but I try every day to live like I’m a 50-year-old woman, unafraid to be and share all the weirdness that is me, to call folks on their garbage, and to know I’m good enough, and so are my dang photos.
I am teaching this class at The University of Tulsa in fall 2019. When I first announced it, there was interest in the course from beyond the students enrolled, which makes me so happy! As an experiment to make this course publicly available and to welcome “the public” into our class, I’m sharing the syllabus and the readings here for folks to read and learn along with us. Our class also involves a significant number of virtual guests, who we’ll engage with on Twitter so that, again, anyone interested can follow along too.
Media can be defined very broadly as that which connects humanity, but food media focuses specifically on, well, food. What’s more, food itself “counts” as a medium. In this class, we’ll consider a variety of forms of food media, including food memoir, food porn, Instagram, cookbooks, blogs, dietary advice, TV shows, and films, as well as food writing, criticism, and reporting. We’ll learn through all of our senses, training our palates through in-class tastings and visits to Mother Road Market. Building on this embodied knowledge, we’ll grow our writing skills of description to fully capture in words what foods taste like, whether surprising and new or nostalgic and comforting.
Along the way, we’ll read beautiful and thought-provoking words from writers who describe themselves using different (and at times overlapping) titles, including: academics, public scholars, journalists, food writers, memoirists, activists, and advocates. As we learn about food, food media, the food industry, and the global food system, we’ll deeply consider issues of equity, justice, diversity, and inclusion. Every time we read, we’ll focus not just on what these authors say, but how they say it. We’ll read for enticing titles, opening lines that grip our attention, silky smooth transitions, gorgeously creative descriptions, and satisfying final sentences—and think about how they can inform our own writing.
In addition to the course instructor, Professor Emily Contois, we’ll learn directly from many of the authors (marked in bold color) on this syllabus. Thanks to the generosity of spirit shown by these writers and editors, more than thirty of them (yes, that many wonderful, smart writers!) will engage in conversation with us over Twitter after we read their words. We’ll be using hashtag #foodxmedia to mark and gather our conversations.
Course Learning Objectives
After completing this course, students will be able to:
Consume and produce food media in their everyday (and perhaps professional) lives in critical and thoughtful ways.
Articulate how food itself (and various food media forms) represent and co-produce arrangements of power and categories of identity (such as race, gender, sexuality, and class), including ethical implications.
Critically evaluate connections and disjuncture between our food media history and present.
Communicate clearly, persuasively, and with polished prose and style in writing assignments and oral presentations. This course aims to provide students a supportive space to experiment with new forms of writing and to develop their own unique voice.
Clearly articulate food views regarding taste and flavor, consumption habits, and global food system issues.
15% // Food Memoir Essay (due 9/13)
15% // Instagram Posts (10+ during semester) + Photo Challenge (on 10/1)
In this section of the course we’ll consider how we, food writers, and other food media producers express our inner food lives through food memoir and through representations of food like food porn, especially on Instagram. We’ll also think deeply about the technical and cultural role of Instagram and learn the basics of how to style and photograph food.
T 9/3: Food Stories and Memoir: First Course | Read Our Tweets How does food capture and sustain our memories of the past? How do writers communicate these feelings in the genre of food memoir?
Th 9/5: Food Stories and Memoir: Second Course | Read Our Tweets How do these authors use food in different ways to share memories and tell stories? How do these readings provide ideas and inspiration for your own food memoir essay? What are your (and/or your family’s) food stories and memories that you’re interested to write about?
T 9/10: Food Porn and “Bad” Food | Read Our Tweets What is food porn? Why are folks so interested in (and concerned by) it? If we’re obsessed with fantastically beautiful food, where does ugly but tasty food fit into our food culture?
Anne Mcbride, “Food Porn,”Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 10, no. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 38-46.
Th 9/12: Food and Instagram | Read Our Tweets Why do so many folks like taking, sharing, and looking at photos of food on Instagram? What varying perspectives do these authors provide regarding the professional utility, cultural purpose, social problems, and potentials of Instagram? How do they affect how you use (and feel about) food on Instagram?
T 9/17: Food Styling Workshop | Read Our Tweets In addition to being a PhD Candidate in American Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, KC Hysmith has a professional background in food writing, food photography, and recipe testing. In this virtual workshop, she’ll teach us some tricks of the trade, which will come in handy during our Instagram Challenge.
Th 9/19: Instagram Focus Group with Professors Contois and Kish Professors Contois and Kish are co-editing a book on food and Instagram, and we’d love to know more about your experiences with Instagram when it comes to food, cooking, and eating. For this class, we’ll have a more structured conversation on these topics.
No Reading—Palate Cleanser #1
III. Food & Stories: Reporting on and from the World of Food
In this section of the course, we’ll read (and learn how to write) food stories that matter. As models for inspiration, we’ll read stories about restaurants, food media’s problems with diversity and inclusion, and the food system.
T 9/24: Reading and Writing Restaurant Stories | Read Our Tweets How do these writers tell the stories of notable restaurants and chefs here in Oklahoma and around the country? What models do these pieces provide for your essay assignment?
Th 9/26: Tasting Workshop | Read Our Tweets One of the requirements of your Mother Road Market essay is to describe food in sensory detail, which is difficult to do well. This workshop will help prepare our palates and our abilities to find the words and phrases to describe food.
Christy Spackman and Marianne DeLaet, “Science and the Senses,” Correspondences, Society for Cultural Anthropology, February 2, 2017.
T 10/1: Mother Road Market Visit #1 | Read Our Tweets Before we visit Mother Road Market, take a moment to learn more about its development, intended purpose, business offerings, and marketing presence within historic Route 66 and the Tulsa community.
Th 10/3: Food Problems and Solutions: Gender, Sexuality, and #metoo | Read Our Tweets What is the culinary industry’s “woman problem?” How did it come to be and how can it be improved? In addition to sexism, how has homophobia shaped the restaurant industry? What stories do these queer chefs tell? What has the food industry’s role been within the #metoo movement?
T 10/8: Food Problems and Solutions: Race and Power | Read Our Tweets How do these pieces critique how race and power operate in the food and restaurant industries? Who seems to have the power to define what “good” food is? What is cultural appropriation and what conversation should we be having about it?
Th 10/10: Writing on Food Systems and Futures | Read Our Tweets Beyond culinary boundaries, food writers tell complex and urgently needed stories about our global food system: its workers, its politics, and its future. How do these authors pose academic, legal, and policy questions in accessible prose and with style?
T 10/22: Problems with Food Media & Criticism—and What We Should Do About Them | Read Our Tweets Food media and criticism have a diversity and inclusion problem. How do these problems shape our collective food culture and media worlds, and how can we transform them? After you’ve read Sara Kay’s article, check out Yelp reviews in Tulsa (or your home city) and compare results.
Th 10/24: Mother Road Market for Rush Hour Observation and Tasting During our second visit to Mother Road Market, you’ll gather sensory data for your essay. Make sure you have a draft story idea before we visit.
No reading—Palate Cleanser #2
T 10/29: Hey, What about Alcohol? | Read Our Tweets How do we describe alcohol, like wine—its flavor, place of origin, production, and cultural meaning? Is this effort different from how we write about food? How do we write about wine for various audiences: resistant, wary, nervous, or enthusiastically knowledgeable? How does alcohol (appreciation and abuse) fit into food and restaurant culture?
Th 10/31: Essay Peer Review Workshop We’ll spend today’s class giving one another useful feedback on our essay drafts. Please bring a printed copy to class.
No reading—Palate Cleanser #3
V. Food & Texts: Building Connections Across Forms, Time & Space
In this final section, we’ll consider connections between various contemporary food media and historical examples. We’ll examine a number of forms: dietary advice, advertising, cookbooks, blogs, TV, and film.
T 11/5: Stories about Diet and Health, Then and Now + Why They Matter | Read Our Tweets How does dietary advice influence what we eat? How does it shape who we are and how others perceive us? What role does nutrition play in U.S. food culture? How does food marketing shape our ideas about nutrition and health? How should we write compelling stories about nutrition and health without fat stigma or racial and class bias?
Th 11/7: Food Advertising, Design, and Labeling | Read Our Tweets How does food’s design, labeling, and advertising influence what and how we eat? How does food advertising shape and reflect culture, including notions of identity like gender?
T 11/12: Cookbooks | Read Our Tweets Are cookbooks just full of instructions for how to prepare food? (The answer is: no.) Today’s readings show how cookbooks tell us stories about history, technology, culture, and social change.
Th 11/14: In-Class Cookbook Workshop How can we use cookbooks, historical and contemporary, as research evidence? What stories do they tell us? And why does Professor Contois have so many cookbooks in her office??
T 11/19: Visit to TU Special Collections While Professor Contois has some pretty neat historical cookbooks in her personal research collection, TU’s Special Collections in McFarlin Library has cookbooks, advertisements, posters, menus, and more, which we’ll get to see during our visit.
No reading—Palate Cleanser #4—but make sure to Instagram our visit.
Th 11/21: Deconstructing Thanksgiving | Read Our Tweets An important part of many holidays and cultural rituals, food plays a central role in the U.S. feasting holiday, Thanksgiving. We’ll ponder this day and its food from a number of complex perspectives.
T 11/26 and Th 11/28: Fall Break If you feel comfortable, Instagram and share your Thanksgiving cooking and eating—and take a moment to ponder our “Deconstructing Thanksgiving” readings as you enjoy the holiday.
T 12/3: Food and Film | Read Our Tweets Who was Julia Child, and why does Professor Contois love her so much? What were Julia Child’s views on food? How does food function in cinema? How do we define the genre of “food films?”
Th 12/5: Food TV (and More Food Film) | Read Our Tweets What are your impressions of the film, Julie and Julia, directed by Nora Ephron? How does it exhibit the characteristics of a food film? Why is Julia Child important in the history of food TV and of food celebrity? Why are consumers so hungry for food media now? Is Netflix the new Food Network?
F 12/13: Finals Period to Connect the Dots Look back over the syllabus and your notes. Jot down a list of the top 10 things you learned in this class. This could be a concept, an idea, a writing technique, an experience, a flavor, etc. We’ll spend today discussing our lists, co-writing a group listicle, and taking a class selfie (yes, as many of you already know, Professor Contois is that dorky). We’ll connect the dots across our semester together, as we ponder our food and media futures.
Watch together: “We Wish You a Metal Christmas,” Aggretsuko, Netflix, 2018.
*For course policies, detailed assignment descriptions, etc. TU students should visit this course’s Harvey site.
At the 2019 ASFS/AFHVS conference, I organized a panel to investigate the intersection of food studies with the fields of media studies and communication. Such collaboration sought to fruitfully expand the conceptual boundaries, theoretical and methodological considerations, and pedagogical practices of both food and media studies.
We were a group of scholars variably positioned within and across the fields of food studies, food systems, media studies, and communication, as well as at different stages of our careers, from ABD to full professor:
Emily Contois, Assistant Professor, Department of Media Studies, University of Tulsa
Leda Cooks, Professor, Department of Communication, University of Massachusetts Amherst
KC Hysmith, PhD Candidate, Department of American Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Tara Schuwerk, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Communication & Media Studies and Program Director, Sustainable Food Systems, Stetson University
Together we endeavored to explore if and how food studies might “count” as media studies and how food is and can be explored as both medium and message. We began our panel with brief, 5-minute research presentations to present a sort of tasting flight of scholarship at this intersection. We were lucky to have live tweeters in the audience who caught some of the high points of these presentations:
First up, @EmilyContois on 'Dude Food: Considering Medium, Message, and Industries at the Intersection of Food Studies and Media Studies' #foodstudies19
specifically, @EmilyContois is interested in masculinity in 'dude' blogs: they resist some aspects of hegemonic masculinity, but remain complicit in social structures of inequality, she argues #foodstudies19
Next up, Leigh Chavez Bush shares about chefs and food media and how ethnography in user-experience design plays into the industry of the new journalism ecosystem. Follows a thread –> chef – tech – media- capitalism. #foodstudies19
And now for Leda Cooks with a talk on the ethics and aesthetics of food waste and its representations in media. How do mediated images of waste impact the food chain and what options are we shown as consumers? #foodstudies19
We know a lot about the younger generations and social media, but next to nothing about baby boomers, says Tara Schuwerk; Schuwerk studies baby boomers' experience of social media in relation to healthy food habits #foodstudies19
Schuwerk limited her research to Florida (they have the largest population of boomers), born between 1946-64 and grew up in the US, and aren't digital natives. This is the specific group that people tend to stereotype re: tech/digital use. #foodstudies19
— Esther Martin-Ullrich, your quirky foodways mom (@TheFoodlorist) June 28, 2019
results: split between younger and older baby boomers, for example with regard to recipe sharing: younger boomers use some recipe apps, argues Tara Schuwerk #foodstudies19
The analysis revealed that people's employment experience affected the way they consume food media, and also finds it interesting that almost every participant indicated "none of this influenced me at all!". #foodstudies19
— Esther Martin-Ullrich, your quirky foodways mom (@TheFoodlorist) June 28, 2019
We then gathered together to discuss a series of pre-circulated questions.
We began by discussing current scholarship at the intersection of food studies and media studies. We compiled a short (and by necessity incomplete) list of texts that we think provide useful models for future work, including:
Janet M. Cramer, Carlnita P. Greene, and Lynn M. Walters, Food as Communication: Communication as Food (Peter Lang, 2011).
Tisha Dejmanee, “‘Food Porn” as Postfeminist Play: Digital Femininity and the Female Body on Food Blogs,” Television & New Media 17, no. 5 (2016): 429-448.
Tisha Dejmanee (ed), “Feminism and Food Media,” Themed Commentary and Criticism Section, Feminist Media Studies 18, no. 4 (2018).
Joshua J. Frye and Michael S. Bruner, The Rhetoric of Food: Discourse, Materiality and Power (Routledge, 2013).
Katie Lebesco and Peter Naccarato, The Bloomsbury Handbook of Food and Popular Culture (Bloomsbury, 2017).
Tania Lewis & Michelle Phillipov (eds.), Special Issue: Food/Media: Eating, Cooking, and Provisioning in a Digital World, Communication Research and Practice 4, no. 3 (2018).
Signe Rousseau, Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference (Berg, 2012).
Signe Rousseau, Food and Social Media (AltaMira Press, 2012).
Next, we discussed if and how food is a medium, as well as how such a framing might prove useful for food studies research, teaching, and practice.
We began by considering the layers of media at play when it comes to food, for example: the food itself; the messages communicated on, in, and through food; and the ways that social media attaches another layer of meaning through metadata.
Leda asserted that cultural concepts of and standards for edibility often define the line between food and waste, as well as how this line can move depending upon space and context, all of which shapes food’s meaning. KC complicated this discussion further by considering how food media consumer demands have shaped the edible nature of food media. For example, the milk in food photography used to be glue, but now it’s “real” milk. Even if thickened with starch, its edibility remains relatively intact as a result of consumer resistance to overly and overtly “fake” representations of food. Relatedly, Leigh argued that as chefs work to create personas and opportunities on Instagram, food alone isn’t the medium, but beautiful food, the work required to make it, and all that it means beyond food alone.
We eventually decided that edibility and curation may define whether something is considered food, but no matter what, food remains a medium.
From the audience, Bob Valgenti asked us if we could imagine conditions for when food is not a medium. This required us to take a step back and more clearly define medium. I offered the broad and messy idea that media studies encapsulates everything that connects humanity, and not just to other humans. So if we think of food as a way and means of communicating, food always communicates. It always signifies; it always has semiotic meaning. It always has something to say. But if we define a medium as that which connects us, food can both include and exclude, bring us together and keep us apart. That said, connection needn’t be positive or intimate to be generative. Power is always at play. As Sarah Tracy added from the audience, hierarchy and oppression is still a form of connection.
In the end, we all agreed that the only way food wouldn’t be a medium would be if it had no meaning. So food is, always, a medium. We also discussed how the absence of food can still be read as communication and as a medium.
We next shared the main challenges we have faced researching and teaching at the intersection of food studies and media studies.
Tara shared that it can be difficult to teach food media courses when students may lack a foundational literacy in both media and food, as well as how to analyze them through categories of identity like gender, race, and class. Extending the theme of literacy, KC discussed how it can be difficult at times to find a shared understanding and set of assumptions with mentors and committee members about how and why one ought to study food media. As food studies scholars, we often have to fight to prove the worthiness of our topic, an even more complicated endeavor when studying food on and through social media.
Researching at this intersection also poses methodological challenges. KC and I discussed how the pace and breadth of food media can be exciting but exhausting to study, as the stream of posts and content never stops. Where do we draw the line for our research when our archive is always alive, moving, growing, and changing? Leda pushed us further to consider if and when we should worry about the all consuming encroachment of food media into our lives, research and otherwise.
KC, Leigh, and I also reflected upon how the method of digital ethnography blurs the anthropological boundary between insider and outsider. How much of our media life is our research and vice versa? Should we keep them separate? Why? And is that even possible? In the case of KC’s research, her own status as an influencer with more than 100,000 followers lent her an undeniable legitimacy that gave her unique access as a researcher. At the same time, it can be difficult to anonymize data when researching social media. Leigh pointed out that this can make it complicated at times to fulfill the anthropological directive to do no harm, especially when “studying up” or “sideways.”
KC shared how her research has taken her into new theoretical and methodological terrain. For example, researching hashtags used by food influencers led her to feminist technoscience and to consider the hashtag from a variety of viewpoints: linguistic, organizational, user generated, code, machine language, and as data that is coopted by users, industry, and the platforms themselves.
Both methodologically and theoretically, Leda asserted that food scholars could benefit from applying more media theory to the study of food and media. We must move beyond the study of representation to consider, for example: Hall’s theory of oppositional readings, embodiment and performance, more deeply intersectional approaches, materialism, and the relationships between the human and the nonhuman.
Leda also emphasized that media studies and communication scholars drawn to studying food tend to take qualitative rather than quantitative approaches. In her own work on food waste, much of the discussion is framed around representations of quantities of food wasted, which we need to push beyond to refocus the conversation on the entire food system.
Lastly, we shared our hopes for a future research and teaching agenda at the intersection of food studies and media studies.
Leigh grounded us in a sense of purpose, asserting that what we study ought to be something that makes life more valuable, makes it better. Our research can shed light on food media processes, both positive and negative, and pose recommendations for how to expand the positives. An activist potential must be part of this ongoing agenda. Similarly focusing on impact, KC hopes to see literacy as a key contribution of her research, as a way to help readers more deeply and critically understand food, media, women’s lives, hashtags, and so much more.
Tara pragmatically reflected that we need to think more about how to truly cross over and collaborate between food and media, particularly when we may be trained in a single, different discipline. After the completion of a PhD, how do we go about gaining a wholly new set of knowledges?
It’s here that I have great hope for the future possibilities between food and media studies. These two deeply interdisciplinary, nimble, and flexible fields pose productive invitations to one another. This post represents the product of a small group over the course of an hour and forty minutes. I sincerely hope to continue and expand this conversation in the volume preliminarily titled, You Are What You Post: Food and Instagram, which I’m co-editing with my colleague Zenia Kish and will include essays by KC and Tara from this panel. There is much to be explored at this fertile point between food studies and media studies. I’m excited for where it takes us all, together.
The Association for the Study of Food and Society is routinely my favorite annual conference, but this year’s host location at the University of Alaska Anchorage took my breath away from the first moments of our flight’s descent…
…and our first steps on campus as well.
Credit: KC Hysmith
Credit: KC Hysmith
Credit: KC Hysmith
And yet, the conference theme—Finding Home in the “Wilderness”—reminded us to problematize the idea of “the wild.” I cannot say it better than the conference’s call for papers, which read:
We acknowledge the concept of wilderness as a contentious one, influenced by Western notions of separation, dominance, and later, preservation. The conference taking place in the Circumpolar North, and specifically in the diverse, multiethnic urban setting of Anchorage reminds visitors that wilderness is not something to be sought after on a hiking excursion. Rather, it is a factor that may influence our food practices, such as the harvest of wild foods, economic and climatic constraints on production, and issues around access, storage, utilization, and distribution. Additionally, philosophical conceptualizations of nature exist in a specific power hierarchy, where rational and neoliberal systemic approaches push against traditional and ecological ways of knowing that problematize the distinction between “wilderness” and “civilization.”
Conference sessions, talks, and meals (see below!) pushed us at every turn to reconsider what we thought we knew about Alaska and about food studies.
Credit: KC Hysmith
A great exhibit at the Anchorage Museum (on view during the conference’s opening reception) also provided stories and context for eating in Alaska in the past, present, and future.
I extend huge huge thanks to the conference co-chairs—Zeynep Kilic, Professor of Sociology, UAA (pictured below); Rachael Miller, Assistant Professor of Business, Alaska Pacific University; and Elizabeth Hodges Snyder, Associate Professor of Public Health UAA—and the rest of the local steering committee. This conference is a gigantic labor of love and service that I appreciate beyond measure.
For more information about the 2019 conference, check out the conference program, the #foodstudies19 coverage on Twitter, KC Hysmith’s Twitter photo essay, and the following Twitter threads, which cover the high points of select sessions. With thanks to KC Hysmith, Esther Martin-Ullrich, Lisa Haushofer, Erica Zurawski, Jessica Carbone, the Graduate Association for Food Studies, and many others for their live-tweeting efforts to capture, archive, and share the brilliance of this conference.
Normally, this is where my annual conference post ends, but this year it cannot.
It was devastating to learn, in the midst of the conference, that Alaska’s governor cut 41% of the University of Alaska system’s state appropriations through a line-item budget veto. This follows previous years of budget cuts and the loss of hundreds of faculty and staff positions. If not overturned, these new cuts will have dramatic effects, such as closing campuses, eliminating programs, and laying off of tenured faculty if financial exigency is declared. This poses a perhaps unrecoverable blow to education (at every level) throughout Alaska, which will compound current challenges driving state population decline and unemployment. Such cuts to higher education affect all of us, not just Alaskans and not just those of us who work in universities. Cuts like this should trouble everyone who wants to live in a society that values knowledge, culture, and equitable access to quality education. I, along with many other members of ASFS who have personally declared so, stand in solidarity with those within the University of Alaska system and call upon the Alaska legislature to support a veto override. For more information, view the advocacy resources from the Office of the Chancellor at Anchorage and at Fairbanks.
In these times, I find new application for the conference organizers’ words from their call for papers last fall, “Finding nourishment in this wilderness is no easy task but we search nevertheless.” We must search together.
Feature Image, Center: Liz Snyder, with artwork and logo by Evon Zerbetz
Feature Image, Right and Left: Emily Contois, 2019
I’m an outsider to the South. I grew up under the big skies of Montana with mountains always visible in the distance. I moved to Norman, Oklahoma for college and to me, it felt Southern. Compared to my mountains, the land was flat as far as the eye could see, the air thick with humidity. Locals spoke with a twang, politely punctuating sentences with yes ma’am and yes sir. They ate okra, catfish, and chicken fried steak. But I was quickly corrected. This wasn’t the South. Maybe it was the Midwest. Perhaps it was part of Texoma. But it wasn’t purely Southern.
The Southern Foodways Alliance introduced me to many souths—the old south and the new, souths local and global, nostalgically imagined and future focused—first through a graduate research conference in 2015 and again during their 2019 summer field trip. Comprised of two days full of talks, meals, fellowship, poetry, and art, this year’s trip met in Bentonville, Arkansas.
With just under 50,000 people, Bentonville and the cities surrounding it, stretching southward to Fayetteville, anchor Northwest Arkansas. This corner of the state has boomed and blossomed due to the historical presence and sustained economic investment of large corporations: Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt trucking, and most prominently, Walmart. While knowingly committing many wrongs against their workers and the environment, Walmart undeniably influenced this place.
Bentonville has grown into a city of great restaurants, a twice weekly farmers market, a world-renowned coffee importer and roaster, and miles of bike trails. As Angie Maxwell shared, Walmart has infused the University of Arkansas with much needed funds, not for ego-fueled named buildings, but for dissertation fellowships, child care services, and a new School of Art. Since 2011, Bentonville has also been home to Crystal Bridges, one of the nation’s best, most innovative, and most inclusive museums of American art (founded by Alice Walton) where admission is always free, sponsored by Walmart.
How should we interpret a place and its food, however alluring and thriving, that has been sustained and perfected by private funds, by resources that have been largely concentrated in a small area without supporting the rest of the state?
This question proved troubling and difficult to answer, but such narratives of progress and problems are not the only ones that shape life and food in Northwest Arkansas. In prose as delightful to hear as to read, Jay Jennings of the Oxford American introduced us to the state’s history and culture. Unlike Louisiana, which Angie Maxwell described as “culturally rich, but closed,” Northwest Arkansas is a place of fluidity, hybridity, and change. Cherisse Jones-Branch reminded us this has long been a place of catfish and barbecue, and likely always will be, but of so much more too.
Jeannie Whayne taught us of nineteenth-century Italian immigrants, who worked Sunnyside Plantation and began the Tontitown Grape Festival and the enduring dish of spaghetti with red gravy alongside fried chicken. Since the 1970s, this area has become home to significant Hmong, Marshallese, and Latino communities. Today’s shifting demographics have brought tortillerias, halal butchers, specialty grocers, restaurants, and markets full of gorgeous produce, which all stimulate new Arkansan foodways.
Culture here was shaped not only by those who arrived, but also by those who stayed. Jones-Branch told us the early-twentieth-century stories of the rural black women in Northwest Arkansas, too often overlooked, who didn’t migrate North, but who remained and organized “everybody” through their activism. Though in-home demonstrations provided an excuse to gather together, these women were interested in “more than just tomatoes,” motivated by poll taxes, reproductive rights, and the health and safety of their communities.
And yet, Jennifer Jensen Wallach reminded us that food and politics are not separate endeavors. Food is politics. “You can enjoy food in a very thoughtless way,” she said, but once you engage thoughtfully, you must balance that joy with everything else. In her history of Arkansas foodways, lyrically titled “From Unicorns to Plant Based Meats,” Wallach forced us to wrestle with how Tyson literally delivered the Republican prosperity promise of “a chicken in every pot,” as it supplied affordable and abundant whole birds, breasts, and nuggets to tables across the country. Tyson altered not just local diets, but national food culture, at the same time that it irrevocably affected the environment, workers, and global businesses practices.
Drawing connections between past, present, and future, Wallach drew our attention to Tyson’s more recent efforts to develop plant-based meats. Asserting that our current foodways are unsustainable, Wallach stressed that we need a new paradigm, a transformation in what we eat and how we produce it. It remains to be seen if and how plant-based meats might provide a remedy. Changes to our diets are, and will be, inherently painful said Wallach, given the myriad ways that food shapes and reflects our identities, ways of life, and senses of place. The more we read, the more we know. The more we know, the more it hurts, the more we must do something.
The SFA provides a space for these stories and conversations, but in ways more folksy and quirky than a traditional academic conference. As but one example, our days began with a benediction from poet and Arkansas native Patricia Spears Jones. When asked if she was a preacher, she chuckled, “Oh hell no,” but she nevertheless prepared us for our days of thinking and eating in a deliberate and soulful way. We need such inspiration as we face a future of food that is strained and uncertain.
Such discussions struck me as special given the context of a summer field trip. I listened to these talks surrounded by dozens and dozens of people, folks not just interested in a weekend of gastrotourism and indulgent eating, but in learning to critically unpack these complex issues. As their craft-made podium art decrees, the SFA is about “working together” toward something good and lasting. I found a sustaining dose of that with them in Bentonville.
Always inspired by the “unessay” projects I see profs proudly circulating on Twitter, I tried the assignment this semester in my Media and Popular Culture course. I couldn’t be more delighted with my students’ efforts and creations.
First a bit more about this class. It is both a foundations course in the Media Studies major and a part of the university’s general curriculum in the area of “Historical & Social Interpretation.” This semester it drew 31 students from every year of study and all across the university. The first half of the course emphasizes key theories and histories, culminating in a midterm. The second half provides opportunities for students to apply this theoretical knowledge to contemporary topics and issues.
Me, smiling a bit too hard, with the students of Media and Popular Culture, spring semester 2019
Last semester, students crafted short research papers, which they then translated into Infographics. This semester, students and I read Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. Each class period, in groups of three or four, students led chapter discussions. Together we compiled one giant Google slide deck of media texts—magazine covers, photographs, relevant quotes, video clips, etc.—to illustrate the book and guide our conversation.
Over the course of about six weeks, students gained a vocabulary for deconstructing celebrity and femininity, as well as the broader concept of unruliness, which shapes the bounds of not just “respectable womanhood,” but the myriad ways that we move through the world. Students appreciated the highly accessible ways Petersen’s text employed theoretical concepts like taste cultures, convergence and participatory culture, the mechanics of media production, and the potential agency afforded by media consumption.
AHP visiting our Media and Popular Culture class.
Poster from AHP’s public talk at TU.
End of semester learning brainstorm
Working to define “unruliness.”
About two-thirds of the way through our reading, we had the special treat to welcome Anne Helen Petersen into our classroom for a discussion of her work and career. Students also had the opportunity to attend her public talk—organized by myself with Media Studies colleagues Zenia Kish and Justin Rawlins—on the politics of popular culture in the digital age, including her new work on millennial burnout.
Teaching the Unessay
For our class, the unessay was integrated with our reading on unruly women and comprised 35% of the total course grade, broken down as follows:
Unessay Proposal and Literature Review (10%)
Students submitted a proposal and literature review (2-3 pages) in which they were asked to:
Summarize the unruly characteristic (“Too X”) and female pop culture figure (actual or fictional) you plan to research. State why she interests you and what she can teach us about unruliness, women, and femininity in our present or in the past (if you’re interested to study a historical figure).
Compose a literature review of at least 8 sources (3 of which must be peer reviewed) that will form the foundation of your writing or your unessay. For each source, identify it, briefly summarize its key point(s) in a sentence, and describe in 1-2 sentences how you’ll use/build upon this evidence in your project.
Propose, explain, and defend your project format and share why it interests you. You may choose to write a brilliantly concise and beautifully written 1,500 word essay or its creative equivalent, such as a poem, a work of art, a song, a playlist, a music video (or parody), a game, a recipe, a fashion line…the options are endless, limited only by your own creativity and commitment.
Also list any questions or concerns you have as you undertake this project.
Office Hour Proposal Feedback Appointment
Students were not required to attend a proposal feedback appointment, but 80% did. In these short 10-minute meetings, a number of students changed their proposed projects, as our discussions revealed new ideas and possibilities. These meetings also helped students to gain comfort with this creative format, inspiring several students to switch from the essay option to an unessay. In the end, only three students selected the essay option and one of those included designing the essay into a magazine-style layout.
Unessay + Interpretative Paper (20%)
Students creating unessays also submitted a paper (1-2 pages) that explained and interpreted the unessay. Given the many different formats unessays could take, the grading rubric, which I shared with students beforehand, covered both the unessays and their interpretive papers and included three guiding questions:
Conceptual Adherence | Does the unessay clearly and compellingly analyze an unruly woman and her unruly characteristic, taking inspiration from the style and rigor of Anne Helen Petersen’s The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman?
Depth of Theoretical/Argumentative Application | Does the unessay and its interpretive paper effectively build upon the knowledge learned in this class from our readings (unruly and otherwise), our discussions, and this project’s related research?
Invested Effort | Does the project, whatever format it might take, represent the energy and performance expected for a final course project that culminates our learning and is worth 20% of the course grade?
I hope to employ unessays again, and while this rubric worked well to set expectations with students and guided my assessment, I’m not sure if a more structured rubric would be better. (I welcome others’ thoughts on this!) That said, the end of term grading process was a bit quicker (and a lot more fun) than the typical stack of research papers.
As an opportunity to practice oral presentation skills, but also for us to view and celebrate every student’s creation, our finals period featured 4-minute presentations of students’ unessays, some of which are pictured below, with student permission.
Angel painted Marilyn Monroe as “too glamorous,” caught between the black and white of her time and the color of how her pop culture image now circulates. On the screen, see Veronique’s football playbook, dedicated to how Toni Harris tackles gender bias on and off the field. Celyn researched Dolly Parton as “too independent.” He composed and performed a country-inspired song, but with lyrics that removed the genre’s all-too-often-misogynistic tone. Christina played her ukulele and performed a song she wrote about how critics frame Emma Watson as “too aggressive” for her feminist views.
Dustie painted Daenerys Targaryen, reflecting on how she perseveres within a patriarchal culture, despite how others see her as a small woman against the largeness of the throne. Iris painted the duality of Reese Witherspoon’s feminism and her new domesticity, alongside reflections of her own unruliness. On the screen, you can see Taylen’s poster dedicated to Kesha and the unruliness of “too sleazy,” and her efforts to theorize a female gaze. Kimberly created and populated an Instagram account dedicated to Lady Gaga and critiques that she’s “too vocal” with protest signs bearing inspirational quotes from the Warrior Queen herself.
Luisa created a decoupaged wrecking ball to explore how audiences responded to Miley Cyrus as she transformed in the public eye from Disney child star to “too wild.” Annie performed her own stand up set, inspired by the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, women comedians, and the notion that women aren’t or can’t be funny.
And these are just the ones I took photos of! One student wrote a poem. Students shot a short documentary, music videos, and a “person on the street” comedy video. They created magazine and album covers, a collage, a fashion line, and a food blog.
29 of 31 students (94%) completed an end of term feedback survey, including thoughts on the unessay. 86% of those students found the unessay assignment “very effective” or “effective.” Four students found it only “somewhat effective,” but zero students rated it as “ineffective” or “very ineffective.”
The assignment didn’t engage every student, as one student responded, “I personally didn’t find the kind of assignment very interesting, but it’s educational potential is high for those interested.” I also had a couple of students who struggled with the unessay’s less structured approach, as they reflected, “The project was pretty effective I just find the open endedness to be a little confusing” and “It gave me a lot of freedom but almost too much and made it hard to focus on it.” This feedback makes me think I ought to require the office hour consultation, so I can make sure all students have clarity and support. I could also emphasize more pointedly at key intervals during the project development stages that students feeling confused about the project are very welcome to come meet with me.
Overall, however, students enjoyed the unessay format for how it encouraged creativity. In this vein, students responded that the unessay: “forced me to get out of my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to use creativity,” “It helps us learn and allows creative freedom,” and “It was a creative way to learn, which isn’t utilized very often in school.”
Students also reflected that the unessay format promoted their learning, as one student wrote, ” I think the fact that I was able to use my creativity allowed me to learn the material better than if I had written a paper.” Another responded, “I loved this assignment. For me, it was a practical way I could apply the theory I researched, which helps me understand it more in the long run.”
As I had hoped, the unessay format in some cases fostered greater student engagement and excitement for research. One student wrote, “Because it was a format that I chose, it was something I was most interested and invested in,” while another reflected, “I was able to make my learning and research plan more personal.”
One student found the assignment practical and applicable to life after graduation, writing, “It was such a refreshing break to be able to do this research but not just write a paper on it. Also, outside of academia, we will be doing more creative projects, so it was a good help to implement this type of project.”
As these responses and the unessays themselves show, most students embraced the unessay assignment, creating dozens of wholly unique projects that applied their knowledge and communicated their learning. I plan to use this assignment in future classes and hope it will inspire similar results.
If you have experience with unessays or questions, please share in the comments!