New course: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food

I’m teaching a couple of new courses at Harvard University this semester. It seems only fitting to celebrate the two-year anniversary of this blog by sharing a detailed description of one of them, a direct outgrowth of the work that I’ve been documenting here. The course is entitled African and African American Studies 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.

Here’s a goofy Zeega trailer that I made to advertise the course last semester:

So far the course has had an exhilarating beginning. Harvard’s Pre-Term Planning figures indicated that I should expect 16 students in the class, which turned out to be a slight underestimation. On the first day 120 students patiently squeezed into a room designed for 60, then on the second day 165 filled up a newer, larger room. We’re presently three weeks into things, and it looks like our final enrollment figures will settle somewhere in the 190s. We are now comfortably ensconced in our third and final lecture hall, which is a perfect fit our large brood. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – come on people, it’s a class about chocolate ;-) .

A phenomenal team of graduate student teaching fellows has also been assembled to teach students in weekly small group section meetings. They hail from fields as diverse as African and African American Studies, Romance Languages and Literatures, Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, and Studies of Religion, and have expertise in Haitian Vodou, the American prison system, the history of Islam, and medieval European food culture. Each member of the team has a unique perspective on the course materials that greatly enriches our ability to reach students from a wide variety of disciplines. Combined, we have decades of award-winning teaching experience to dole out.

The course does not involve any traditional written papers or exams (perhaps another reason for the large enrollment?); all of the assignments employ digital tools and apps (e.g. TimelineJS, Storify, Glossi, Google Drive) that will allow students to practice new research skills, design attractive multimedia online products, and add to the body of public scholarship on chocolate. The students in this course are fantastic — they’re engaged with the materials, always ready to contribute to discussions, bursting with productive energy, and hungry for both sweets and knowledge. I will update the blog throughout the semester with information on the results of their work.

Thanks to the generosity of many, I’ve also been able to assemble an exciting line up of guest speakers and to plan several guided in-class chocolate tastings. Students will additionally be encouraged to take advantage of local chocolate-relevant collections at Harvard’s Peabody Museum (Maya and Aztec cacao vessels) and Schlesinger Library (cookbooks and advertisements), the Museum of Fine Arts (early American chocolate serving pots), and numerous chocolate shops (e.g. L.A. Burdick Chocolates Cafe, Taza Chocolate Factory). More on all this and other open access course materials in coming weeks.

Without further ado, here’s a summary of the syllabus:

African and African American Studies 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food
Spring Term 2013
Mondays and Wednesdays, 2-3pm + weekly section

Course Description
This course will examine the sociohistorical legacy of chocolate, with a delicious emphasis on the eating and appreciation of the so-called “food of the gods.” Interdisciplinary course readings will introduce the history of cacao cultivation, the present day state of the global chocolate industry, the diverse cultural constructions surrounding chocolate, and the implications for chocolate’s future of scientific study, international politics, alternative trade models, and the food movement. Assignments will address pressing real world questions related to chocolate consumption, social justice, responsible development, honesty and the politics of representation in production and marketing, hierarchies of quality, and myths of purity.

Gain subject matter expertise:

  • on the history, culture, and taste of cacao and chocolate;
  • on slavery, trade systems, and business ethics; and
  • on big, pressing questions related to food politics, corporate social responsibility, the representation of race and gender in advertising, and labor rights and global trade.

Develop skills:

  • to engage profoundly with a large body of interdisciplinary primary and secondary sources of varying quality;
  • to conduct historical, ethnographic, and digital research;
  • to better understand analog and digital scholarship and media and how we store/find/share/create knowledge; and
  • to communicate critically and thoughtfully through discussion, writing, and multimedia.

Create knowledge:

  • by working on our own and in a collaborative, hands-on environment;
  • by documenting the history and anthropology of chocolate; and
  • by proposing creative solutions to pressing problems in the chocolate industry and making these solutions available to chocolate companies and the general public.

Course Texts
The following three foundational course texts are supplemented by book chapters, articles, websites, and films.

Course Schedule

Unit 1: Origins
Week 1: Introduction
Week 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”
Week 3: Chocolate expansion
Week 4: Sugar and cacao

Unit 2: Growing Cacao, Making Chocolate, Selling Sin
Week 5: Popular sweet tooths and scandal
Week 6: Slavery, abolition, and forced labor
Week 7: The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market

Unit 3: Representation, Labor, and the Ethics of Trade
Week 8: Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements
Week 9: Modern day slavery
Week 10: Alternative trade and virtuous globalization

Unit 4: Eating Chocolate
Week 11: Health, nutrition, and the politics of food
Week 12: Terroir and taste
Week 13: The food movement, haute patisserie, and artisan chocolate: the future?

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    Bittersweet Notes is an open source research project on chocolate, culture, and the politics of food. I invite you to join me as I explore the story of chocolate and the life stories of those involved with chocolate at its many stages of production and consumption.

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