Fall Term Reflections

Well, writing instructors often make their students write self reflections at the end of the term (Such as,  How many hours did you spend on this class each week? Which of the course outcomes do you think you’ve best met and why?; and, the one they all, rightfully,  groan at, If you were to revise this essay once more, what would you change and why?), so I should be forced to do the same.  Keeping in mind the Sunday night blues, I’ll focus on the strengths/positives of the term:

  • The analysis of a cultural trend assignment was a great success: I actually enjoyed reading those student essays this term.  I can see ways of revising the assignment for clarity and to prevent some wrong turns, but overall, I think it works. 
  • Spending more time having students practice using sources in conversation with each other before doing their researched essays definitely paid off for most students.  I need to develop these brief exercises more, but I was very pleased with the outcome.
  • The Food Fiction  class final projects are a pleasure to read. Students reported on their work during the final where we also ate food that everyone brought to class, food that reflected the work they chose to write about (for the most part: (fried) green tomatoes are not in season in December).  Most students chose the “Cliff Notes/Spark Notes” option where they create a booklet that gives an overview of the novel (analysis of the elements, including pictures of the setting, historical overview, etc); they select two published critical reviews to include in the booklet, after which they compare and respond to them.  One student created what looks like an old cookbook, burnt a bit from a fire, in her Cliff/Sparksnotes on Like Water For Chocolate
  • Although I spent endless hours in preparation, the Oprah’s Book Club speech went well, I thought.  I’m not used to speaking in front of 90 plus people, but really my palms were not too sweaty (though I’m sure my hands were shaking). At the gym this morning I saw one of the community leaders who attended at the presentation and he not only remembered me (it’s not like I look the same at the gym as I do all dressed up to present) but his comments reflected a real engagement with my talk.  A success, I think.

Preaching the Gospel of Reading

Evan Agostini / Getty Images file
Evan Agostini / Getty Images file

I just finished doing a run through of my presentation on Oprah’s Book Club that I’ve titled “Preaching the Gospel of Reading” (not exactly an original title considering all the essays on OBC that use variations on that title), practicing for the Wednesday morning presentation.  I finally found a clear, and I hope, engaging focus, connecting my interest in Oprah’s Book Club with the question of Why Literature STILL Matters.  And while my significant other, who patiently listened to me practice, praised my delivery and gave me only a few excellent suggestions at tightening up some sections, I’m sure he is a little biased.  I’m nervous as hell: why is it that the thought of speaking to my colleagues (and remember it’s early in the morning, so my very under-caffeinated colleagues) makes me sweat tears?

Anyway, I need another day to focus on my presentation (and, at the same time, somehow grade final research papers) but I’m looking forward to distilling some of those ideas here for feedback. 
In the meantime, I’ve gotten several requests from students in my literature class (Books That Cook!) this term for reading lists so that they can continue reading fiction over winter break. First, let me say how much that pleases me, but second, I just love such requests. I’ve been mulling over what sort of list to create for this particular class: one that continues with the theme of food fiction and women writers, but also takes them further.   Don’t worry: I’ll be posting that list here, too, someday soon.

FAF (Friday at Four) and Food Fiction’s Feast

Today is the last day of classes for fall term before finals week  (not that most of us actually have classes on Fridays, but you get my drift), and today at 4pm is our informal department FAF (Friday at Four).  FAFs used to be quite common for our department when I first arrived here nearly 14 (OMG) years ago,  but they were rarely well-attended by our mostly middle aging, parenting or caring-for-parents faculty. 

However, recently they’ve been better attended: as the unannointed FAF planner, I’ve reached out to faculty from other departments (fresh blood) and some of our new part timers find the FAFs the one place where they can see folks they rarely see at 8am or 7pm, or even at noon, since our department is unhappily scattered in four buildings around campus (and sadly will continue to be since the fine folks of our state have voted down another bond measure). 

I enjoy FAFs for the same reason, of course: collegiality is so important to me since my academic life is such a big part of my life.  Only during FAFs do I discover the details of my colleagues lives that I would never have learned from a hallway conversation.  I greatly value the opportunity to get to know something new about the people I will probably be working with for at least another 14+ years.

On another note, my Food Fiction class final “feast” is next Thursday (see earlier post on Books that Cook), and I’m looking forward to what should prove to be a yummy one. So far, here is the menu:

  • pita, hummus and babaganoush (a la Abu-Jaber’s Crescent)
  • pot roast (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant)
  • spanish rice and beans (Like Water for Chocolate)
  • soup (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant)
  • fried green tomatoes (naturally)
  • salsa (red and green) (Like Water for Chocolate)
  • assorted veggies for dipping
  • various breads, tortes and cookies
  • key lime pie (remember, from Nora Ephron’s  Heartburn?)

Food Studies: What a Major That Would Be!

I just received this e-mail from my Penguin representative: the venerable book publisher has a new catalog out focusing on textbooks related to Food Studies! 

Thank you for your continued interest in Penguin Group (USA) titles, and for sharing your ideas and comments with us. I’m pleased to present our 2008-2009 Food Studies catalog which includes currently published works ranging from those of Michael Pollan and Mark Kurlansky to books about eating disorders, special diets, the restaurant business, and even food in fiction. Please click here to access the catalog.

For information about fall-winter 2008 titles, please click here.

Naomi Weinstein
Penguin Group (USA)

Books That Cook! My First Food Fiction Course

One of my favorite blogs, Bitch, Ph.D., posts recipes once in a while, and the most recent recipe posting included one for what looks to be a delicious pumpkin cookie: I can’t wait to try making them, though my baking/cooking skills are, not to be too humble, uneven.  Ms. Sybil noted in her posting that she should just start a food blog, and the cheers of support keep pouring in (for the most part).  That idea (a food blog, for those who cook, for those who eat, for those who like to read about food) got me reflecting (finally, in that time I allow for myself each morning when I go running–so that I can eat lots of pumpkin cookies) on the food fiction course I’m teaching this term for the first time.

Last spring I read an article in College English (70.4) titled “Books That Cook: Teaching Food and Food Literature in the English Classroom” by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite (the entire March 2008 issue is on food, fyi).   Since I was teaching a generically titled Introduction to Women Writers course this fall, I decided to try out some of their ideas by focusing on “food fiction” by women writers.  I ended up (after much anguish—I struggle with this choice whenever I teach a literature course) with the following reading list:

·         Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast”

·         Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate

·         Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

·         Diana Abu Jaber’s Crescent

Other books I considered but couldn’t “fit in” to our quarter system include:

·         Joanne Harris’ Chocolat (much better than the film version)

·         Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Café

·         Chitra Divakaruni’s Mistress of Spices

·         Diane Hammond’s Going to Bend

Several students chose one of the latter books as the focus of their final project, so I’m curious to read and hear about their responses to these selections. 

As it turns out, the novels worked well together, sharing many of the same themes (including elements of magical realism; fairy tale allusions; and, naturally, the use of food as a central metaphor).   And because we focused on contemporary women’s fiction–fiction that is not “canonical”–there were some engaging discussions of some of the issues (high vs. “middlebrow” literature and approaches to reading literature, for example) that I’m thinking/writing about for my Oprah’s Book Club talk next week.

I decided to focus on fiction, but I know there are many, many food memoirs out there, too.  And, of course, I limited the selection to women writers, but someday I can see a separate food memoir course where I could include one of my favorites, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.   

Please share any other ideas you have:  the course (now almost finished) was a joy to prepare and teach, and I’ll be asking students for feedback, too.  I’ll post more on the course after the term is over.