My Gamble Worked: ENG 110C, Exploring Culture Through Food

When I was assigned a summer class, I was psyched. For adjunct instructors, summer is a time when we scramble around, trying to find temporary jobs for grown-ups. Gone are the days when we could scrape by during the summers, waiting tables or working at a retail store. We need more. We’ve likely got student loan debt we’re working with. And during this summer hustle of trying to make some money and assure our parents that yes, this is what adjuncts do, we don’t need to switch careers now, we also try to write, get our own research done, so that one day we can publish and we won’t always be adjuncts.

It’s hard! So imagine my happiness when my boss asked me if I could teach a freshman composition class, four days a week, for five weeks, during the lunch period, 11:30-1:50. I was elated, but then I remembered the last time I was confined to a classroom during the lunch period. It was a Brit Lit Survey class in college, and being a sophomore, I would either skip class, suffer until 1:15, or bring a sandwich to class, chomping on the food as we discussed Beowulf. My hunger was an all-too-familiar feeling. Something had to be done.

And that something is a something I’ve wanted to do for awhile:  teach a food-focused composition course. I did research, found a sample syllabus from an adjunct instructor at Wesleyan, and chatted with her a bit over email, trading ideas, asking questions, thanking her profusely for being so willing to share assignment sheets with me.

I planned my syllabus:  five papers, utilizing the usual rhetorical modes we teach in almost all composition classes. A grammar component. A public speaking component (students were required to do three separate in-class presentations). A final exam. I scanned food essays, borrowed from Oxford American, Cornbread Nation, and Gourmet, among other sources. I made a detailed syllabus, switched up my homework structure, and provided a full schedule for the course, something I’ve never tried before. I was ready.

Except for my nagging fear. What if the students rejected this completely? What if I had one strong-willed person with attitude who challenged me in class, who invoked that meek graduate TA I used to be, the one who got flustered and frustrated and compromised? How would I get the students on board, let alone excited? I mean, love food, but that doesn’t mean they would. I swallowed my fear and I took my gamble:  on the first day of class, I presented the course materials as if there were really no other way ENG 110 could possibly be taught. And I waited.

Lo and behold, it worked. The class ended this past Thursday, and as I read through my students’ reflection essays, I realized, by George, they got it! In paper after paper, students admitted that they weren’t so sure about this whole food thing at first. But after trying food made by other students, after hearing their peers’ stories about the food their parents and grandparents made, after reading essays in class and studying where their food comes from, after watching movies and commercials and looking up recipes, visiting local farms and interviewing their mothers, grandmothers, and fathers about their relationships with food, they realized the same thing:  food is such a big part of our lives that we often take it for granted; we forget that food is tied to our relationships, our understanding of ourselves, our homes, our families, and our identities.

French crepes with strawberry and banana, made by one of my students.

The course isn’t full-proof. The grammar component fell flat, as I predicted it might. Two of the papers were similar enough that students found it challenging because they felt they were writing the same paper twice. But all in all, the class was a success. The gamble worked. Students bought in to the idea that food is a language we all speak, and as such, it is a valid, worthy subject to explore and write about. Essentially, they did what the wanted – they wrote about themselves and things that matter to them – but they did so under the constraint of food.

We tried baklava, spring rolls, hotdogs-n-mashed-potatoes-n-cheese, cupcakes, carrot cake, and French crepes. We listened to stories about favorite foods, hated foods, food memories, food theories, discussions of place and history. We stumbled through dialogue and wrangled in description. And now that it’s over, I’m filled with that teacherly happiness that comes with knowing the gamble worked, that students learned something, and that I left them with something they hadn’t really considered before. My work here is done.

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