Foodways and Family

In what was certainly the most delicious CLASS Seminar ever, Professor Sue Trout of Belmont’s English Department presented a talk on foodways–then fed everyone in the room!Sue.jpg

As none of the scholars were familiar with the term, Professor Trout explained that foodways are the cultural, social, and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food. Foodways most often refers to the intersection of food in culture, traditions, and history. Studying foodways combines a number of disciplines: anthropology, science, social science, psychology, folkore and literature, and it is a hot topic now in academic circles.

Professor Trout then asked the scholars to write down one food memory. As the scholars shared these memories, Professor Trout pointed out how often they are associated with family, traditions, celebrations, or other important moments in the development of a self. She asked the scholars to consider what role food plays as it connects to place, to a sense of home and belonging, and by extension to marginalization and alienation.

She then traced her own food story from a picture of her eating a plate of spaghetti at the age of three. This special treat of having prepared what she wanted on her birthday was a family tradition and a once per year departure from being compelled to eat whatever was served to the entire family.  So the memory was special and happy, but also fraught with all the tensions and anxieties brought to the table of someone who grew up rural and poor.

She then related several food encounters that shaped how she and subsequently her children have experienced food, from being served North Carolina-style barbecue as a child to making communal meals at college. She described being ashamed of the food she had eaten as a child until working her way back to it in adulthood. She wanted her children to associate food with love and civility and generosity and a welcoming table, to observe rituals and to be closer as a family in part because of it. And so their food associations were created in a very different way from her own.

eating scholars

After the talk, the scholars chowed down on barbecue, macaroni, and other food prepared by Professor Trout and discussed food, memories, family, and culture.


Revisionist Histories

Last Thursday, the CLASS Scholars were asked to think like historians about one of the most horrific events in human history: the detonation of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Dr. Pete Kuryla of Belmont’s Department of History began his talk, “Historical Reasoning, Morality, and the Atomic Bomb,” by discussing chains of events historians use to establish causation. Unlike back in the 1980s, we don’t talk much publicly about nuclear annihilation, but when the United States dropped those atom bombs, it set off nearly a half century of the so-called Cold War.


Dr. Kuryla explained that the traditional view of the decision to drop the bombs claimed that the action was necessitated because the Japanese, as an ‘irrational foe,’ would never surrender. So the dropping of the bombs, while tragic, saved perhaps a million American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the island.

However, revisionist historians have pointed out that many particulars of that narrative don’t add up: from military estimates that it would cost, at most, 35,000 American lives to subdue the country to the fact that the Soviet Union had lost more than 24 million lives waiting for the Americans and British to open a Western front in the war, another narrative took shape. In this version, the Americans dropped the bombs as a demonstration of power to keep the Soviets from pursuing territory in Asia.

Dr. Kuryla then showed some clips of Robert McNamara being interviewed in The Fog of War to open up discussion of yet another, even more troubling explanation. The film details the creation of an American war machine with nearly unlimited capacity to produce weapons. One argument about the use of the bomb goes that, given the amount of resources devoted to producing the bomb, including a huge nationwide bureaucracy built to support it, there was no possibility of the U.S. not using it once it was created. Previous histories emphasized the fact that President Truman had made the decision to save American lives or to send a message to the Soviets, or both, but the new narrative explains how the decision, at that point, was not one Truman even had to make. The new morality brought in by many of those in charge, like General Curtis Lemay, that in order to defeat an evil enemy, you must commit evil acts, lowered one barrier to committing atrocities in the name of victory, and the race to produce the bomb erased any other checks on being the first to unleash nuclear weapons.

It was a somber hour the scholars spent considering what moral thinking can and should be when a country is at war, and the many excellent questions at the end showed that, these young people are ready and willing to engage some of the toughest questions in the adult world.

From Mock Trial to Flamenco with Dr. McCoy

Last Thursday, Dr. Mitch McCoy, who both teaches Spanish and advises Pre-Law students at Belmont, led the CLASS Seminar. He brought four students with him from Belmont’s Mock Trial team. The students talked about Mock Trial and the scholars were treated to an example of a closing argument.

Then Dr. McCoy gave a presentation on Spanish language and culture. Here is a link to a post from a couple of years ago that gives a good idea of what happened at this session. Pictured below: this year’s scholars learning how to form their mouths to pronounce Spanish vowels!CLASS McCoy

Student Spotlight – Gillian

CLASS Scholars attend high schools all across middle Tennessee and bring to the Seminars a variety of interests and experiences. In the Student Spotlight feature, we’ll be letting you know a little more about who the CLASS Scholars are and what they do besides attend Seminars.

Gillian has trouble choosing a favorite subject in school, because she loves them all. Her favorite CLASS Seminar was either the one with former Nashville mayor Mayor Karl Dean or Ken Spring’s discussion of the Sociology of Music.


She loves to debate everything, from religion and politics to animal rights and whether bananas are good. A vegetarian and self-styled “old school hippie,” she is  the president of a liberal thinking club.



Are We What We See?

Last Thursday, Dr. Pete Giordano from Belmont’s Department of Psychological Sciences helped the scholars think about Psychological research in a deeper way. After defining Psychology as the scientific study of behavior and mental processes, he asked them to consider a number of visual illusions, like the famous Ames Room, pictured below.

The point of this and other illusions is to show how the brain can be fooled through the manipulation of perspective, and much psychological study has been done to figure out why, even when we understand how the illusion works, we persist in seeing it the way we do.

giordanoHowever, because much of psychological research that seeks to understand human perception and behavior has been done in universities, it has had as self-selected subjects what Dr. Giordano called WEIRD people–which in this case is an acronym for western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. These folks only comprise about 12% of the total world population, and yet studies of them were being generalized to discussions of human behavior.

In the 1960s, psychologists began therefore to try to understand the impact of culture on psychological study. Culture, which Dr. Giordano defined as a way of life, beliefs, behavior, art, education, religious practice, and values transmitted across generations, would seem to have a large part in how people see the world, and therefore should be accounted for in any claims of psychological research.

For example, the famous Müller-Lyer illusion was thought to be universal, based on studies of WEIRD people, but researchers found that in some African and Asian cultures, people were not susceptible to the illusion.

To most people in Western cultures, the bottom line looks longer than the top one, even though they are actually the same length.

Cultural differences can also be observed in responses to other questions psychologists regularly engage, like what is knowledge? Knowledge is the ability to know what you know, but also to understand what you do not know.

What do people think make them smarter? In Western cultures, it usually is related to innate ability, while in Asian cultures, it’s often related to hard work and often, failure. Dr. Giordano discussed the ideas of a fixed vs. growth mindset as one particular takeaway from this discussion, especially the Chinese idea that failure is the mother of success.

He left the scholars with a lot to think about, including a personality traits quiz that allowed the scholars to see how they saw themselves.


The Power of Narratives

Dr. Heather Finch of Belmont’s English Department took the scholars on a difficult journey through American history to demonstrate how history informs our current worldview. In “History Lives in the Present: Enslaved Women’s Fragmented Narratives,” Dr. Finch encouraged the scholars to analyze several images of enslaved women, like the ones below:

Though writers like Phillis Wheatley (pictured on the right) and Olaudah Equiano were able to express themselves in the enduring medium of print, other narratives, like one that might have been told by the person on the left, have largely been lost to history.

Over the course of 400 years, 12.5 million people were traded in the Eastern and Western trade routes. This industry not only destroyed families and patterns of living in native countries, but largely erased their stories.

Dr. Finch discussed the influence Saidiya Hartman’s book, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route had on her own scholarly projects, especially Hartman’s contention that “slavery made your mother a myth, banished your father’s name, and exiled your siblings to the far corners of the Earth.”

Hence Dr. Finch’s scholarly project of recovering women’s narratives by looking for them in the historical record; ship’s logs, plantation ledgers, and the historical physical spaces where enslaved people lived all contain traces of narratives people would have told themselves had they had access to literacy and publicity.


While much of the discussion and thinking was devoted to the past, Dr. Finch used Oprah Winfrey’s recent speech at the Golden Globe Awards to reinforce the ideas of writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison that it is the responsibility of artists (and scholars) to recover what has been lost–as Oprah, in her speech, recounted the story of Recy Taylor.

While the subject matter was difficult, ultimately Dr. Finch’s message is an inspirational one, and the scholars left with new questions and an understanding that every person’s story matters.

Philosophy: Field of Wonder

Last Thursday, the Scholars were treated to a “crazy little romp” through 2,500 years of human thought as Dr. Mélanie Walton of Belmont’s Department of Philosophy presented “Philosophy as Wondering: The Meaning of Life and Art.”


Dr. Walton began by reviewing the definition of philosophy, which combines love (philos) with wisdom (sophia). This raised the question of what wisdom actually is, which according to Socrates is knowing what you do not know–that is, recognizing your limits by understanding that your knowledge about anything only goes so far. This not knowing, Dr. Walton explained, leads to desire for more knowledge in certain persons–explorers, for example, or philosophers. Wonder, therefore, is the disposition a philosopher needs to have, a willingness to be perplexed and to seek out new answers and questions.

Dr. Walton then traced the notion of wonder through the history of philosophy, from Aristotle, who explored more fully the ways wondering leads to knowledge and vice versa; through the early moderns, like Rene Descartes, who found use in wonder as far as it assisted reason; to mid-moderns like Emmanuel Kant, who linked wonder with judgment, specifically in the judgment of art.

Art and wonder are often connected through the notion of sublimity, the idea of the mind being overwhelmed in the presence of something that defies what we know. Art can challenge us, lifting us out of our mundane existence in order to get us to question the answers we have arrived at through day to day living. Wonder is a way to see the extraordinary in seemingly ordinary things.

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The Scholars then were asked to respond to a series of works of visual art, examining how their own senses of wonder were engaged in each case. Very lively discussions ensued, especially about Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World and Odilon Redon’s The Eye.

Throughout the evening, Dr. Walton explained how her love of philosophy grew out of her own wondering in the face of sublime art or ideas, things that “overwhelmed” her and “lifted her to vocation.” She urged the Scholars to consider, in the extreme busyness of their lives, whether and how often they allow themselves to be perplexed and to be reawakened to a sense of wonder.

Images in the slideshow:

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948, Tempera on Panel, MoMA
Odilon Redon, The Eye (Vision), 1881, Charcoal, incising, pastel, Baltimore Mus. Of Art
Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist, 1903-04 or 1910, Art Institute of Chicago
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boy and a Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982, Acrylic, crayon, spray paint on canvas, private collection
Vincent Van Gogh, The Corridor in the Asylum, 1889, Oil, chalk, on paper, Met