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Five ingredients for successful collaboration: embedded librarian helps instructor launch food history course

January 29, 2018
tomatoes

Image from USDA

Food history is a hot topic for researchers in many fields right now. When Penn State Altoona lecturer Julie Rockwell decided to launch a new history course focused on food, she enlisted the help of Lori Lysiak, a librarian at Penn State Altoona.* Together, the two women developed a fun and engaging course, “HIST 111: American Food System: History, Technology, and Culture.” Their successful collaboration models five strategies for librarians who team up with faculty.

Over 40 undergraduate students from a range of majors took the course. Assignments included weekly blog posts, two investigative essays, a research paper, a group project in which students made regional cookbooks, and a final reflection paper. Rockwell says, “Our primary goal was to get students to understand where their food comes from, and how it gets to the table. Whatever your discipline is, you can connect it to food. We had nursing students write about nutrition, engineering students write about farm equipment, computer science students write about how farmers are using software for planting and harvesting. There’s something for everyone.” Ultimately, Rockwell explains, “The history of food is the history of people, too.”

As they developed the course, Lysiak and Rockwell practiced these five strategies:

1. Build on an existing relationship.

As the Penn State Altoona Library liaison to the history department, Lysiak had worked with Rockwell before to deliver information literacy workshops for her HIST 020 and HIST 021 survey courses. So, when Rockwell began to construct her new HIST 111 course, she contacted Lysiak early in the process. Lysiak and Rockwell began planning for the fall 2017 course in late spring. Rockwell provided Lysiak with a list of books, journals, and DVDs that she was considering for the course. Lysiak searched each title to determine which materials were already available to students, and she placed purchase requests for those not owned by the library. Lysiak and Rockwell also worked with library staff to place items on course reserve for students.

2. Bring your personal strengths to the table.

Before teaching at Penn State Altoona, Rockwell had worked at a farm and as a chef at several restaurants ranging from farm-to-table to French-style cuisine in Oregon for 14 years. She also taught culinary courses at a community college. This background, plus her M.A. in theatre history, prepared her to teach HIST 111.

In addition to her M.L.I.S., Lysiak has a M.A. in history and previously taught U.S. history courses in traditional, online, and hybrid environments for a community college in Texas. For HIST 111, she reframed some of her previous research on historical representations of Native Americans to teach the students about product image recognition and the psychology of branding.

3. Create an online workspace together.

Rockwell used the course management system Canvas to develop her course, and she included a Library Resources tab that linked to a custom-built LibGuide built by Lysiak. In class and in her syllabus, Rockwell let students know that Lysiak was available for online chats as well as in-person reference consultations at the library.

4. Adapt and evolve.

Rockwell plans to offer an adapted version next fall, with Lysiak’s help. Lysiak plans to increase her role in future semesters. She says, “There’s a range of levels of embedded librarianship. In this case, we decided to start light and grow from there.”

Students, too, developed as the class unfolded. Rockwell describes, “A big moment in class that really sealed the deal was when we watched Food, Inc., a documentary on the treatment of animals at factory farms as well as how large corporations have taken over the food chain in the United States. It was a tipping point–you could hear a pin drop. I saw their minds clicking. Some were horrified.” For their final blog post, she challenged them to write 10-point manifestos listing future goals. Many wrote that they planned to start visiting farmer’s markets, to learn to cook, to vote on sustainability issues. One student even changed her minor to Global Food Systems after taking the course.

5. Have fun!

Rockwell balanced tough issues such as food insecurity and food and labor justice with an innovative, engaging teaching approach. The course included several food tastings, including a taste of one of Coca-Cola’s oldest competitors, Moxie. She invited an array of guest speakers to enliven the course, including several local chefs and farmers, the curator of the Pasto Agricultural Museum, the agricultural ombudsman from the Blair County Conversation District, and staff from Penn State Extension.

Lysiak says, “We were thrilled with this course. The topic was intriguing and fun, and Julie’s blended approach mixed humanities and social sciences, hands-on workshops, multimedia, and much more. Very well done.”

Rockwell adds, “I couldn’t have done it without Lori. I don’t know it all, and I can’t do it all. It was an invaluable addition to the class to have a library buddy who understands students.”

*HIST 111: American Food System had been offered at several other Penn State campuses, but it had never been taught at the Altoona campus.

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