Food, Technology, and Society

Spring 2020 • HIST 412


  • 3 Credit Hours
  • T,Th 9:30 - 10:45
  • Fred Gibbs ( @ 1077 Mesa Vista Hall
  • Student Hours: T,Th 12:30-2:00 and appointment

Course Description

This course explores the relationship between food, food production, technology, and society. Taking chronological and thematic approaches simultaneously, we’ll look at the impact of science and technology on food production, processing, and distribution (such as canning, refrigeration, GMOs, techno-foods). We’ll also put these developments in larger social, cultural, and demographic contexts, including industrialization, urbanization, the growing divide between food producers and consumers, the rise of global food corporations, and governmental regulation. Even more broadly, we identify connections between agriculture, ecology, consumerism, capitalism, media, politics, and the history of science and medicine.

To cover so many topics, our reading list takes a smorgasbord approach from academic and popular literature. Some of the readings go together well, others seem a bit more isolated. Some of them reinforce each other, others contradict each other. There isn’t any clear narrative or story that this course tries to tell; we sample widely from the buffet and to think about food production from as many angles as possible. The hope is to provide a stronger sense of where and how food is produced and the many and mostly hidden consequences of the many complicated global systems that facilitate the incredible choice of food at our fingertips. The course does not tell you how to eat, but hopefully how you can think more critically about the implications of our food production and consumption choices.

Schedule of Readings

Note at the top of the page, the link to the schedule page of the syllabus:

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Articulate the history of the US food system and its relationship with technological developments
  • Think broadly and critically about how food is produced and how technological improvements have altered food systems and our relationship to food
  • Articulate clear arguments about the intersection of agriculture, consumerism, environmental and population health
  • Understand modern technological developments with respect to food in historical context
  • Critically evaluate argument and evidence in any food-related writing

Work Requirements and Grading

A synopsis of syllabus changes

As per UNM policy, we are going to be all online effective immediately, but since we don’t have anything scheduled for the next two weeks, all these changes will start the week of April 6 (Monday). I will no longer have in-person student hours, but am happy to correspond via email for short exchanges or via Skype/Zoom/whatever for longer conversations.

As a upper-level discussion class that uses our time together to highlight important points from the readings, share different perspectives, critically interrogate the readings, and link material together from across the entire course, there’s no reasonable way to simply move our course online that wouldn’t be overly contrived and probably a waste of time. Both you and I have 0% interest in me recording lectures for you to watch and report on (if I really want you to know something, I will put it on the syllabus somehow). It also seems to me ridiculous to set up some kind of online discussion forum so that we can type cryptic comments at each other at arbitrary times. As much as I value real-time intellectual exchange and the skills that it develops, we need to be realistic about what’s possible and important over the next few weeks. I will genuinely miss our conversations!

To better accommodate the variable and uncertain schedules that many of us now have, I have reorganized the syllabus to remove distinctions between Tuesdays and Thursdays (though the Apr 7-9 week will be a little different as explained on the syllabus page). You now have one weekly reading and writing assignment, rather than T/Th assignments. With our designated meeting times now moot, it seems to me that you’re in the best position to figure out how to optimize your schedule. The reading assignments for the week are basically the aggregate of what we would have read for the T and Th, with a few minor adjustments.

Without face-to-face discussion, participation points are no longer possible. So now you can earn those points via a few extra short written assignments, which will be executive summaries that answer some questions I’ve posted for each assignment prompt. I’ve tried to very clear in the guide about what I’m looking for, but please let me know what I need to improve. To be more concrete, I’ve created a sample summary. Although I call these ‘executive summaries’, you should (as the guide explains) think of them not as summaries per se but as a condensed way of conveying essential information and answering questions.

There were originally two ‘summaries’ as part of the course, but now there are four to help make up for participation points. The total number of points for the course (and opportunities for earning them) remain essentially the same—you just have to do it via writing instead of in-class discussion. To give you a bit more leeway in these uncertain times, the total points now adds up to 104. In other words, you can lose 4 points on assignments and still get 100% for the class. If you get more than 100% points, including extra credit, you will get an A+.

We’re going lo-tech for assignment submissions. Frankly, I don’t trust that UNM Learn will remain functional with everyone moving courses online (it seems on the brink even under normal usage), so we’re just going to use good ol’ email.

All written work is due on THURSDAY MORNING by 11:00am, roughly when our class would end for the week. Your assignment for that week must be submitted as a Word document via email. .docx or .doc formats are fine, but NOT PDFs or anything else. You can send me an attachment via email or you can share the document with me via Sharepoint. If you really want a different deadline for the week, fine. Just let me know. But I’m trying to keep us vaguely inline with our previous analog existence in case it matters to others with specific course schedules.

I will be more flexible than usual for late work given that everyone’s normal schedules, commitments, and priorities have been upended in recent weeks. But you now have a steady stream of assignments to complete for the course, so being late with even one can start a log jam that quickly gets hard to clear out.

For providing assignment feedback, I will use a combination of a score sheet that I will send to you via email and, as much as time allows, I will comment directly within your Word file and send that back to you as well. The score sheet in particular will reflect my assessment of how you’ve handled the ‘What you’re being graded on’ section of the executive summary guide. To make sure I’m getting all assignments back before you submit another one, I don’t think everyone will get comments every week. But everyone will get a score sheet and some explanation for each assignment. I intend for both forms of feedback to make clear not only why you got the grade you did, but also if you missed any points that I think are important to note going forward (like for the final). If you have questions or want more feedback, send it back to me!

These email exchanges are also a convenient opportunity for you to ask questions about course material, grading, the history of epidemic disease, etc.

For the first week of class after our extended break (April 7/9 week) you have TWO assignments due (one Tuesday and one abnormally on Friday). As you probably already planned to do, you should COMPLETE your Milk review over break so that you are ready to jump into the reading schedule again and complete the next assignment by the end of the week (Friday, Apr 10). These and all other assignments (and due dates) have been updated on the schedule page as well. Please consider submitting your Milk review early so I can get it back to you early.

Given the new course format and the fact that it is now much more self-directed, the final essay assignment has been refocused on showing what you’ve learned in the course. To accommodate our new course format and assignment structure, writing a review of Tomatoland as a final is no longer an option. I have updated the extra credit section to include the option of writing a Tomatoland review.

Even with abnormal learning conditions, I’m committed to making it easy for you to get the grade you want provided that you’re doing the appropriate quality and/or quantity of work.

Thank you!

Lastly, my sincere thanks to everyone for your understanding and perseverance with all these modifications to our original plan. I’ve tried to minimize substantive changes and disruption, but obviously our course needs to be different now. I’ve also tried to maintain the perspective that with all that is going on in our worlds, this class is not super high on the priority list. Such is life in a global pandemic. Nonetheless, I hope the course will continue, if it ever has been, to be useful and interesting despite the shift in pedagogy. Please do not hesitate to be in touch!

FIRST HALF (42 points)

  • Thorough preparedness and engaged participation in most every class meeting. This is a class that’s focused on cultivating different perspectives about how we can think about food, technology, and society—not just memorizing and regurgitating supposedly important “facts”. (8 points; roughly .5 points per class)

  • Two readings quizzes (2 points each; 4 points total)

  • Two ~1200-word book reviews. You will be writing reviews of required books that we read and talk about together, so it’s a kind of “test” to see if you’ve been paying attention. (10 points each; 20 points total)

  • One ~600-word Old newspaper ad analysis (10 points)

SECOND HALF (70 points)

  • Four 2-page executive summaries of class readings (10 points each; 40 points total)

  • One ~1200-word website analysis on GMO safety (10 points)

  • One ~2400-word final essay OR ~1600-word executive summary (20 points):

    • See the final essay guide for more details. And send me an email if something isn’t clear!

112 possible points, but 108 is 100%

What?! To give everyone a bit more leeway given the circumstances, everyone gets one free point per each executive summary (4 points total). So your grade is calculated by adding up all your points and dividing by 108.

Submission Policies

  • You can resubmit all assignments within one week of getting them back for re-grading. If you got above 50% on the original submission, your new grade will replace your old one. If you got below 50%, you will get the average. If you get a 10 on a resubmission, you will get 1 bonus point. This is a safety net, not something you should plan on using.

  • Late work is not accepted unless due to a medical emergency. You can submit work per the resubmission policy to avoid getting a 0 for the assignment.

  • REVISED: All coursework may be submitted AT ANY TIME. All the due dates on the syllabus are advisory to keep everything evenly spaced out. The most important thing is that work gets turned in, whenever that is, before the end of the term. There is no penalty for submitting work after the advisory due date, so please always feel free to email me stuff whenever makes the most sense for you.

  • Work is due in class in hard copy. Emailed assignments will be ignored. If you have an emergency or unavoidable conflict that prevents you from attending class, you can turn it in the next class that you can attend for full credit.

  • REVISED: All work is due electronically (via email or Sharepoint) as a Word Document.

Grade Distribution

Percent of points Grade
94+ A
90-94 A-
87-89 B+
83-86 B
80-82 B-
77-79 C+
73-76 C
70-72 C-
67-69 D+
60-66 D
59- F

Please Ask for Help

Please please please come talk me at any time. I’m alway happy to tell you how I think you’re doing in the class and how it can be improved (if at all).

If life gets overwhelming during the course, it can be tempting to drift away from an elective course like this. Rather than disappear, please come talk with me about how we can accommodate your circumstances and thus avoid digging a huge hole from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape.

Extra Credit

There are roughly a zillion books, articles, websites, documentaries, films, etc about food + technology. Most are not very good. As in a total-waste-of-time kind of way. But films/documentaries about food are usually more interesting than most other stuff because of the production costs involved. This does not guarantee quality, of course (surely you’ve seen something about food that just wasn’t worth it), but the genre provides a useful filter against mindless blog posts created simply because someone needs more “content” and places for ads.

So, if you would like (and who wouldn’t) to write a film/documentary review of anything related to the relationship between food and technology, you should do that for extra credit. Reviews should be ~900 words (which is insanely short for a balanced and thoughtful review). They can be worth, depending on the quality, up to 4 extra credit points.

Your review has two main tasks that each should comprise roughly half of your review: (1) to provide an overview of the film; (2) to critically evaluate its strengths and weaknesses in light of the course. Your review MUST use class readings and discussions! Imagine yourself taking on the role of expert reviewer, helping your reader (not just me) decide if the film is worth their time.

You don’t have to ask me if something is appropriate. You need to EXPLAIN to me in your review how it’s appropriate and how we should evaluate it in light of the course. Not to be too cavalier about points, but a serious effort will probably get you at least 2 points.

In addition to a film review, one automatic and easy way to get more points is to write a review of Tomatoland, following the model of our previous book reviews. This review can be worth up to 6 points, and a competent review should earn at least 4 points (note that turning something in does not make it competent).

Extra credit is EXTRA, not substitute.

You can only get extra credit points if you have turned in all other assigned work.

UNM Resources

CAPS Tutoring Services is a free-of-charge educational assistance program available to UNM students enrolled in classes. Online services include the Online Writing Lab, Chatting with or asking a question of a Tutor.

Students with Disabilities

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodations of their disabilities. If you have a disability requiring accommodation, please contact me immediately to make arrangements as well as Accessibility Services Office in 2021 Mesa Vista Hall at 277-3506 or Information about your disability is confidential.

Academic Misconduct

You should be familiar with UNM’s Policy on Academic Dishonesty and the Student Code of Conduct which outline academic misconduct defined as plagiarism, cheating, fabrication, or facilitating any such act.