READING, Pa. — Students at Penn State Berks are learning about a variety of cultures, in part by sampling international cuisine — all while earning credits. The special topics course, “Communication and Food Culture,” taught by Cheryl Nicholas this fall semester, is helping students to explore the relationship between food and culture through the lens of communication.
“Food is an often taken-for-granted ‘ordinary’ component of culture, yet its influence in our lives surpasses its role as merely a sustenance-provider,” writes Nicholas in her course description. “Our relationship with food is profound; from its relationship with identity and culture, to politics, nature, science, and history, food is a core ingredient in our lives in many ways.”
As part of the Communication Arts and Sciences baccalaureate degree program, the course is actually a research methods course, explains Nicholas, associate professor of communication arts and sciences and global studies. The 20 students enrolled in the course are required to work in teams to complete research projects, which include exploring gas station food culture, perceptions of gluten-free diets, how food and sex are used in public discourse, representations of race and gender in popular Food Network programming and defining the role of the Philadelphia cheesesteak in that city’s culture, just to name a few.
The course took students to students to Penang, a Malaysian restaurant in Philadelphia, and Awash Restaurant, an Ethiopian eatery in Lancaster. “Both excursions introduced students to the history and cultural worldviews that underscore food preparation, ingredients, and/or food rituals, customs, and behaviors,” explained Nicholas.
A native of Malaysia, Nicholas explained that she chose the Malaysian restaurant because she thought their approach of incorporating both heating and cooling foods into a meal would be interesting to students. The Ethiopian restaurant was selected because of its communal eating approach in which patrons share dishes, using their hands rather than utensils.
Students also have the opportunity to visit food truck festivals on their own and write about how their experience relates to the topics discussed in class for extra credit.
Among the concepts explored in the course is that of “food tribes,” a social group linked by a set of common values and beliefs that shape their food and lifestyle choices. Nicholas explains that food tribes are impacted by race, class and gender.
The course also explores how the media informs the public’s eating habits and how social media and food are related, including the phenomena of people taking food photographs for social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
Nicholas enjoys teaching special topics research methods courses. Past courses have focused on comic book culture and the LGBTQ community.
“I want to tap into the kinds of things students are excited about from an academic lens,” states Nicholas.
She definitely gives her students food for thought.