Monthly Archives: March 2013

Teaching Against the Grain: In Defense of Reading About Food Politics in First-Year Composition

This morning the panel on a sustainable, or consumption-centered, curriculum in first-year composition made the Conference on College Composition and Communication for me, helped to clarify my thinking, and renewed my willingness to risk being wildly unpopular to support my highest values.

As a committed compositionist, I teach good writing, which extends far beyond good grammar into good thinking. Good critical thinking is inseparably connected with careful decision-making for both the self, the local, and the global.

To energize young scholars who have become passive, even complacent, about learning, reading, and writing, I created a rhetorical analysis assignment for a text about decision-making, tradition, and food, a text that was required summer reading for Duke’s class of 2015, and a text described by the university’s selection committee as “an evenhanded look at the food industry.” Subversive, certainly, but “evenhanded.”

In San Francisco, my students loved the text, citing it as their second-favorite reading of the semester after a provocative graphic memoir. At Concordia University Irvine, though, the text has made my students angry and antagonistic. “I hate reading this book,” a young woman declared in class on Wednesday. “I hate this author,” another young woman announced in the same class. “Why are we reading this?” another added. This book asks the reader to think about daily decisions and consciously and often uncomfortably engage with comfortable popular culture.

Studying food, an integral, essential aspect of our lives and culture(s), can help students become aware of unexamined aspects of their lives and aid them in developing a sense of agency when they realize that their choices have an impact. Our decisions–whether about food and consumption, or word choice and syntax–matter.

Our intellectual work matters.

Our lives matter.

Our voices matter.

Our writing matters.

That is why culture–and food is the common ground of all cultures–demands a place in composition courses focused on critical thinking and literacy. This is also why I both teach and live against the grain.

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