Sunday, November 15, 2009

Food, Inc. Student Reactions

Last week, I showed portions of Food, Inc. to the students in all three of my classes; because I teach composition and rhetorical analysis, I felt that the movie would be something that they could discuss both in terms of structure and content. What I wasn't expecting was the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the message: in all three of my classes, I had students who were asking about where they can watch the movie in its entirety (and they sounded earnest enough that I suspect they will actually seek it out). In all three of my classes, there was critical discussion of the kinds of ways our food choices affect everything else--our bodies, the environment, economy, etc.
One thing, in particular, seemed to be a catching point for them--it was something that was brought up in every class, and something that I had to address honestly: they were concerned that I was trying to convert them to veganism by showing them this film.

My students--whether it's just one in a given class, or a handful--know that I am a vegan. I wasn't ever particularly concealing the fact, and because I got to know some of them while waiting for the preceding class to vacate the classroom in which I teach, I would inevitably end up discussing food and food issues with them. I remember that one of my students, in what I like to think is a common knee-jerk response to veganism, said that my stance was an extreme one, one that he could never understand or support. There are others who are less shocked by veganism now, and are more curious and want to have conversations with me about it. After I showed the section of Food, Inc., and after a discussion was already progressing, someone asked if I had an interest in getting them to stop eating meat--if I was trying to influence them in a way that would support my position... To which I replied, "Actually, I am not trying to tell you how to eat; I am trying to inform you about what you are already eating, and about the hidden ways in which everyday food choices are implicated in the world." I told them that in a class that focuses on analytical skills and examines current issues, it would be an oversight to not talk about food/meat.

In one of my classes, a student spoke out against factory farming--his was, by far, the most urgent and concerned voice; he was also quite well-informed about factory farming. His family owns a vinyard and a farm, and they raise their own animals and consume them. He said that exactly the ways of food production criticized in Food, Inc. were the same ones his father stood so firmly against--and it was surprising to him to see me, a vegan, agree with the kind of values upheld by his family. I, as a vegan, was surprised to have him on my side as I was addressing some other concerns brought up by his peers. This does not mean that I was compromising my position, nor did I suddenly start questioning the foundation of my ethical veganism, but I think the event taught me a few different ways in which to approach the topic and introduce it to those unfamiliar with it. Because my student and I were on the same side of the argument against factory farming, others saw veganism not just as something extreme or ridiculous or limiting, but as another way to promote criticism of the present-day methods of food production. In all my classes, the students were eager to discuss possible solutions to the problems of animal agriculture, and I think that was my goal--to allow them to see that there are people surviving quite well outside of the manipulative and mystified network of factory farming. What I thought would be a difficult topic to discuss turned out to be not only a rewarding lesson for me, but a productive point of analysis for them. In the future, I will be less hesitant to teach not just this movie, but also other texts, such as Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals.

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