Food for Thought: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Food for Thought:
The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Emily Balch Seminars, Sections 22 & 23
Bryn Mawr College

Peter Brodfuehrer and Anne Dalke
Fall 2009, T Th 11:30-1
Dalton Hall, Rooms 1 & 2
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"The desire to have it all and the illusion that we can is one of the principal sources of torture of modern affluent free and autonomous thinkers." Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2003)

“Some philosophers have argued that the very open-endedness of human appetite is responsible for both our savagery and civility, since a creature that could conceive of eating anything (including, notably, other humans) stands in particular need of ethical rules, manners, and rituals.” Michael Pollen. The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)

This College Seminar was designed by a biologist and a literary critic to explore how we--as “free thinkers” with “open-ended human appetites”--might learn to make thoughtful decisions in a world that we may experience alternatively as both too-constrained and too-bountiful. The course will move from personal to collective decision-making. We will draw on disciplines ranging from statistics to food studies--including anthropology, neurobiology, philosophy, psychology and literary interpretation--in our search for guidance in how to select among our options in what to eat, what data to attend to, and what interpretations to accept, before ending with a series of questions about curricular decision-making.

Readings will also include two contemporary novels: Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer and a selection from Sena Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife. Students will be asked to listen carefully to what both these authors and their classmates have to say, before posting weekly comments in an on-line forum. Along with the practice of careful listening, forty pages of more formal writing will also be required in the course of the semester. A sequence of linked weekly writing assignments will culminate in a portfolio accounting for the semester’s experiences, as well as two collaborative projects: a new curricular design for the College, and a performance for the class.

Please purchase 6 texts @ the Bryn Mawr College Bookshop:
Dalke & Brodfuehrer, Food for Thought Coursepack
Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma
Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice
Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge
Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer
Naslund, Ahab's Wife

Also suggested for all E-sem students:
Hacket, A Pocket Style Manual

Weeks 1-3: Choosing Our Food

1. Tues, Sept. 1 Introduction to the course: from food to philosophy

By 10 a.m. Thursday: introduce yourself & your favorite food on the course forum

Thurs, Sept. 3
Michael Pollan. “Our Natural Eating Disorder,” The Plant: Corn’s Conquest” and “The Processing Plant: Making Complex Foods.” The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin: 2006. 1-31, 85-99.

Independent Lens: King Corn (Shorter Clip and Longer Clip)

Fri, Sept. 4: 3-pp. paper describing a typical family meal @ your house

2. Tues, Sept. 8
Michael Pollan. “Big Organic.” The Omnivore’s Dilemma. 134-184.

Writing Conferences Begin….

Thurs, Sept. 10
By 9 a.m. (every Thursday morning) post a comment on course forum

Michael Pollan.“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and "The Ethics of Eating Animals." 287-333.

Fri, Sept. 11: 3-pp paper analyzing your family meal through the lens provided by Pollan:
What are its pleasures, and what are its (economic, emotional, political, social) costs?

3. Tues, Sept. 15
(two articles available on-line:)
John Mackay, "Health Care Reform." Wall Street Journal. Rpt. The CEO's Blog: Whole Foods Market. August 14, 2009.
Michael Pollan, "Big Food vs. Big Insurance." The New York Times. September 9, 2009.

(3 short readings in our course packet;
click on one of these links and explore the "dot earth" site further):
Andrew Revkin. Dot Earth. New York Times.
“Energy, an Ingredient in Local Food and Global Food.” December 11, 2007.
“Can People Have Meat and a Planet, Too?” April 11, 2008.

Thurs, Sept. 17
Andrew Martin. "If It's Fresh and Local, Is It Always Greener?" New York Times. December 9, 2007.

Elisabeth Rosenthal. “Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World.”
New York Times. April 26, 2008

Alex Wiliams. "That Buzz in Your Ear May be Green Noise." New York Times. June 15, 2008.

Fri, Sept. 18: 3-pp. paper moving on to your new life, examining the backstory to the way you are now eating away from home. You might research one of the "sustainability" topics on the BMC Dining Services ' website as a way of answering this question. How is Bryn Mawr feeding you? How *should* it be? The Bryn Mawr College Dining Services website reports that they are committed to providing the most environmentally friendly dining program possible and one that supports the BMC Community." You might investigate how a current offering reflects that goal. Are there hidden costs to reaching it?

Sat, Sept. 19: FIELD TRIP TO PETE'S PRODUCE FARM in Westtown, PA--pick up at 12:30 pm on Merion Ave.

Weeks 4-6: Selecting Our Data
4. Tues, Sept. 22

Gary Taubes. “Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” New York Times Magazine. September 16, 2007.

Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” Letters to New York Times Magazine. September 30, 2007.

Abigail Zugar. "Achieving Wellness, Whatever That Is." New York Times. June 24, 2008.

Thurs, Sept. 24
Lisa Belkin. "Coincidence in an Age of Conspiracy," or "The Odds of That.New York Times Magazine. August 11, 2002

Fri, Sept. 25: 3-pp. paper describing one of the health choices (besides eating--we're done with that!) you have made since you have been living on your own, @ college: what are your sleeping/exercising/working habits? How have you made these choices? What information did you rely on to make this decision? What was its source (intuition, family and friends, "expert" advice....)? Why do you believe what you do--and act as you are? How does your behavior appear to you, now that you've read (Zugar's account) of Halder's debunking of "most medical truths"?

5. Tues, Sept. 29
Barry Schwartz. Part I: “When We Choose” and (part of ) Part II: "How We Choose." The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Ecco, 2003. 1-75.

Thurs, Oct. 1
Barry Schwartz. Part IV: "What We Can Do." The Paradox of Choice. 221-236.

Fri, Oct. 2--
3-pp. paper reporting on current studies done on your health choice:
how are most college students handling the choice you are confronting?
how best to present the information you find?
find three web sources; look @ HOW they present the info
(causes? correlations? text? table?)
how do you fit in the statistics? why are you located where you are?
do you expect to find that these numbers hold @ Bryn Mawr?

6. Tues, Oct. 6
Jonah Lehrer. Introduction, "The Quarterback in the Pocket,"  "Choking on Thought," and "The Poker Hand." How We Decide. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 2009. x-xvii, 9-13, 133-166, 243-250.

7 p.m. Wed, Oct. 7: RECOMMENDED PANEL DISCUSSION, relating to choice, evaluating data, and maybe a nudge!
"Sex, Politics, and Cancer: The Future of the HPV Vaccine" (Dalton 119)
2009-2010 Hepburn Fellow Carol Rogers will participate in a moderated panel discussion about Gardasil, Merck's vaccine for human papillomaviruses, organized by the campus Women's Health Group. Topics addressed will include
         * Who should be vaccinated against HPV?
         * Why does a vaccine for a sexually transmitted infection generate
           so much controversy?
         * Should the HPV vaccine be mandatory for school attendance?
         *Why is it so expensive?
*What can we do to make the vaccine more affordable in poor countries?

Thurs, Oct. 8
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Introduction. "Biases and Blunders," "Privitizing Marriage," and "Objections." Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 1-39, 215-226, 236-251.

And catching up….
including re-writing our metaphors for writing


October 15-17 Fall Break (read Prodigal Summer)

Mon, Oct. 19: reporting on local data-collection
(your floor? your sports team? your work team? your CSem class?):
how is this group of women handling the choice you are confronting?
come up w/ 5 questions, to ask 15 people & (instead of writing a paper)
present your information in graph or table form on line--& to us in class

Weeks 7-10: Making Our Interpretations
7. Tues, Oct. 20

Presenting Our On-Line Graphs and Tables to the Class

Thurs, Oct. 22
Pop-Art Quiz
Natalie Angier. “Blind to Change, Even as it Stares us in the Face.” The Science Times. New York Times. April 1, 2008.
Benedict Carey. "While a Magician Works, the Mind Does the Tricks." The New York Times. August 22, 2008.
Rob Walker, "The Song Decoders."The New York Times Magazine. October 14, 2009.

By 5 p.m. on Mon, Oct. 26 [note extension!]: post in our course forum a one-paragraph interpretation of the results of your survey. Support your interpretation with a graph of your respondents' answers to ONE (only one!) of your questions on
"Thinking About How You Think":
Find 5 subjects (doesn't matter who: hallmates, old high school friends, your parents....)
Ask each one of them to
1) Name a favorite musical artist.
2) List 5 attributes that you like about the artist's work.
3) Go to and select this artist
(in the unlikely case that this artist is not in the archive,
you'll have to repeat questions 1-2 w/ another one).
4) Listen to the first 5 songs that Pandora "thinks" you'll like.
5) How accurate were the predictions? Did you like the songs they chose?
Rank their selections from a scale of 1 (complete disagreement)
to 5 (complete agreement with your preferences).
6) Look @ the reasons Pandora gives for selecting these songs:
on the same 1-5 scale (from complete disagreement to complete agreement),
how well do the musical elements Pandora identifies correspond with those you listed in #2 above?
7) On the same 1-5 scale: how much does it bother you that this company might be able to write an algorithm that predicts your musical taste?
8) On the same 1-5 scale: based on your experience, how willing would you be to invest in this company?

8. Tues, Oct. 27
Lewis Hyde. “Slipping the Trap of Appetite” and “That’s My Way, Coyote, Not Your Way.” Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 17-54.

Paula Gunn Allen. "Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale." The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. 222-244.

Thurs, Oct. 29
Barbara Kingsolver. Prodigal Summer: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Sat, Oct. 31 [NOTE EXTENSION!] : 3-pp. paper interpreting
Prodigal Summer from the point of view of Paula Gunn Allen, Lewis Hyde, Michael Pollan, Barry Schwartz, or some other critic we've read this semester. If this critic were writing a review of the novel, what would s/he say about it: how it works, what's going on, what's important? (i.e.: what would Allen say about the structure of foreground/background? what does Hyde's coyote have to do w/ the coyotes in the novel? what would Schwartz's take be on the presentation of choice? or Pollan's on the treatment of the food chain?).

9. Tues, Nov. 3
Barbara Kingsolver. Prodigal Summer.

Thurs, Nov. 5
Barbara Kingsolver. Prodigal Summer.

Fri, Nov. 6: 6-pp. paper expanding on your original reading of
Prodigal Summer:
can you "turn" the argument (use Kingsolver to critique the critic?)
can you "enter" the conversation yourself? where do you stand on the debate
you set up, last week, between novelist and critic?

Weeks 10-14: Curricular Decision-Making
10. Tues, Nov. 10

Prisoner’s Dilemma

Thurs, Nov. 12
Garrett Hardin. "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162 (1968). 1243-1248.

Benedict Carey. "Decades Later, Still Asking: Would I Pull That Switch?" The New York Times. July 1, 2008.

By 9 a.m. on Mon, Nov. 16 [NOTE EXTENSION]: Post in our on-line  course forum a one-paragraph analysis of the findings of your initial research into the dimensions of choosing a college curriculum. Support that analysis w/ an annotated bibliography of 3 web sources.

11. Tues, Nov. 17
INSTEAD OF reading about why some members of the Donner Party survived,
look @ these starting points for designing your curriculum:

The National Academy for Academic Leadership. Designing a College Curriculum (2007).
Answers Corporation. Higher Education Curriculum: Innovations in the Undergraduate Curriculum (2009).
Lamar Alexander. Why College Shouldn't Take Four Years. Newsweek Education. October 17, 2009.
Peggy McIntosh, Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: A Feminist Perspective. Working Paper #124. Wellesley Center for Research on Women. 1983 (click on "Full Text").
Mark C. Taylor, "End the University as As Know It." New York Times. April 26, 2009.

Thurs, Nov. 19
Articles above; Bryn Mawr mission statement; current requirements and proposed new "breadth" requirements.

By 9 a.m. Sun, Nov. 22: Write, collaboratively, a three-page analysis of Bryn Mawr's curriculum,
in light of the research conducted by your classmates last week, our discussion with Karen
Tidmarsh regarding current local efforts, and our readings on national attempts to revise
the college curriculum.

12. Tues, Nov. 24

Jonathan Haidt. “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.Psychological Review 108 (2001): 814-834.

Thurs, November 26 Thanksgiving Break

13. Tues, Dec. 1
Maira Kalman, Back to the Land--and the Pursuit of Happiness Blog. November 26, 2009.
Reading, writing and workshopping our revised curricula

Draft the opening paragraph of your upcoming paper: your re-envisioned mission-or-vision, and a description of the major change you expect to recommend. Conduct a survey among approximately 40 students (10 in each class?) and 10 professors (the others each of you is working w/ this semester?). Decide what sort of feedback you want: on a scale? in a paragraph, a qualitative response? Post the results of your survey on-line before class on Thursday.

Thurs, Dec. 3
Presenting the results of your survey; workshopping your revised curricula.

14. Tues, Dec. 8
Group Conferences on your collaborative papers

Thurs, Dec. 10 Final Performances

By 12:30 p.m. Friday, December 18:

Final portfolio,
collaboratively written 6-pp curriculum design,
checklist & self-evaluation, all postings
and papers already written for the course,
and one revision.

To print off all your forum comments, logic in; type
select "printer-friendly version" (@ top) and print.

Final Portfolio
Course Webpapers

Learning Objectives for the BMC Emily Balch Seminars
*To teach critical thinking about broad intellectual questions within and/or across disciplines through close reading, re-reading, and interpretation of substantial written, visual and material texts.

*To give students instruction and practice in writing as a flexible tool of inquiry and interpretation; and to introduce students to college-level writing, moving them beyond the formulaic writing they learn in high school.  To teach them
**to respond thoughtfully in writing to course texts;
**to construct clear, convincing written arguments based on non-obvious claims;
**to develop these arguments through reasoning and evidence;
**to communicate in clear, readable prose. 

*To make students conscious of writing as a process: to help them develop effective writing habits; to teach them to assess strengths and weaknesses of their writing in draft stage; to guide them to rethink and revise as a result of faculty and peer feedback; and to teach them copy-edit carefully.

*To teach students to use written and visual sources fairly and effectively; to teach the logic and practice of citation and documentation; and to insure that students understand how to avoid misusing sources.

*To model effective discussion strategies and to create a dynamic learning community, teaching students to participate effectively in small-group conversation.