I taught composition for about 8 years before I got to the University of Tampa, 9 if you include my time in writing centers at the beginning of my MA degree. I always worked very hard on the course, but I never could make anyone excited about the class. Sure, there were moments when students told me they learned vital skills in Eng 101 or 102, but few ever said they liked writing and research -- until this year.
This year, my research & writing course got a complete overhaul and a new theme: American Foodways: The Study of American Food Culture through Research and Writing. I divided the class into 3 sections: Food Memories, Southern Foodways, and Food Politics. One section encouraged students to write autobiographically about a memory they had that involved food (using the book Eat, Memory as a model); the next studied the culture of southern food through Cornbread Nation (a section that involved a food project -- edible research, yum); and the final section, which I'm currently teaching, is the "Food Inc," Omnivore's Dilemma, gritty agribusiness portion of the course.
A miracle occurred. Somewhere between my African student telling about his refusal to eat a sacrificial ox and my Hindi student defending her choice to eat halal, the students became interested -- not only in writing and research, but in each other. They became friends, in some cases, but colleagues, mostly, sharing resources, pairing up to go to Epcot to research The Land, engaging in vegan diet experiments together and comparing notes. It was . . . weird. People were speaking voluntarily, actually completing the assigned reading, and consistently bringing in current events, video clips, and other news references pertaining to the class.
I've been scratching my head trying to figure out what suddenly went right but I've had to admit finally that it wasn't me; it was food. Everybody eats. I wanted the students to love what I loved -- I tried memoir, the South, even a class with open topics. But what I needed was an undeniably common ground, and that, apparently, was food.