Organic Ideas Grow on Campus

By Joe Bailey
University Communications

In Leila Nadir’s class, Food, Media and Literature, the concept of sustainability is definitely taking root. Her lesson plans include explorations of the way our food reaches us, and how that system can be improved. She sprinkles in the lingo of the health-food movement, and fosters healthy, back-to-basics attitudes in her pupils. The class also includes overviews of the potential detriments of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Students find her approach welcoming, with plenty of hands-on activities. They strive to become savvy consumers of food, as well as stewards of the earth.

One of the do-it-yourself projects in the course is to sprout seeds, including alfalfa, broccoli, and various peas and beans, to produce an eco-friendly, healthful snack. The seeds are soaked in glass jars and drained three times a day to promote germination. Several students in the course said the reason they enrolled was that they were interested in where the food they ate came from. By sprouting seeds, they all have a chance to engage in the whole process, from start to finish.

l-r: Sarah Kirschenheiter '13, Stacy Miller '15 and Julia Evans '13 (all class TA's). // The New Media Fermentation Workshop, a collaboration between University of Rochester professors Leila Nadir (sustainability) and Cary Peppermint (art and art history) meets in Burton Hall March 31, 2014. The workshop consist of students making their own personal vegetable ferments plus new media art students who will be documenting and remixing the experience. The workshops are part of EcoArtTech's new work-in-progress, Edible Ecologies, which involves collaborating with local communities to resuscitate historic food practices and foodways.  // photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of RochesterWhen asked how she got interested in food, media and literature, teaching assistant Stacy Miller replied, “I love food, and I want to be a smart consumer of it.” The class places a strong emphasis on sustainability and eco-friendly practices. Junior Brittany Flittner plans to use what she learns in this class to educate her family and herself to eat better foods that have a lower impact on the environment.

One subject the course addresses qualitatively is genetically modified organisms. Generally, the consensus among class members is that, in spite of some short-term benefits, GMOs are a bad idea in the long run. They identified potential issues like the emergence of resistant pests, caused by exclusive use of the same kind of GMO, or inferior taste, in the case of the late-ripening tomato. In one student’s opinion, GMOs might one day be safe enough to integrate into the food supply, but until then further study is needed. Students also commented on the inefficiency of food distribution, both nationally and internationally. One astute student pointed out that no matter how much food is produced by farms, people are still hungry in the world, noting that in industrialized nations, much food often goes to waste, while the poor and people in the developing world are left trying to make ends meet.

On March 31, the class gathered in a lounge in Burton residence hall to participate in a fermentation workshop. In the Greenspace lounge, these intrepid students sliced, diced, and chopped up vegetables of all kinds, creating mixtures of cabbage, with peppers and beets for flavor. “It’s important to cut the vegetables up very thin. You want to have as much surface area as possible,” Nadir explained. The veggies were mixed in bowls, then placed into jars with salt to ferment for a couple of weeks. Junior Stacy Miller described the process as “all-natural, a back-to-basics approach to preserving food.” No vinegar, sugar, or chemicals were added to hasten the fermentation process, as one might do when making pickles or sauerkraut. The only preservatives were various kinds of salt, added to disrupt the vegetables’ cell walls using osmotic pressure.

The New Media Fermentation Workshop, a collaboration between University of Rochester professors Leila Nadir (sustainability) and Cary Peppermint (art and art history) meets in Burton Hall March 31, 2014. The workshop consist of students making their own personal vegetable ferments plus new media art students who will be documenting and remixing the experience. The workshops are part of EcoArtTech's new work-in-progress, Edible Ecologies, which involves collaborating with local communities to resuscitate historic food practices and foodways.  // photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

Through the workshop, students got a firsthand view into how food has been preserved historically, and learned that adding just a little sea salt to cabbage could promote the growth of probiotic bacteria. One student described how the same bacteria are present in yogurt, but not in their natural amounts. Probiotics are initially removed from the yogurt, then re-added later in the process. This workshop showed students how healthy “good bacteria” are a part of a balanced diet.

From sprouts to fermented veggies, the health food movement is definitely flourishing in Food, Media, and Literature!

Students Delve Deeper into the Divine Comedy

Univ. Communications – On a Tuesday afternoon, a small group of students huddled around several rare print editions of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the University. The books dated as far back as the sixteenth century and featured delicate engravings and woodcuts produced through a variety of technologies.

For the first time in the history of the University, a course has been developed purely for the purpose of exploring the visual culture surrounding Dante’s magnum opus. Offered by the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, the Dante Multimedia Lab, led by Associate Professor of Italian Donatella Stocchi-Perucchio, is designed for students to engage with the text of the Comedy, study the history of the book as an object, and also to evaluate the cultural impact of the work through art.

“The reoccurring point of inspiration for me is the realization of how deep of an impact a single medieval story had on Western art, theology, and literature,” said Beau Reynolds ’12, a political science major. “Dante is so influential in Western thought that the majority of time his influence is so subtle that it goes unnoticed. We are really focusing on discovering how deep that impact goes. It is as much a study of humanity and society as it is of art and literature.”

Illustrations of the Divine Comedy date back almost to the time of its writing in the early fourteenth century. Early manuscripts featured illuminations of the text and by the 1480s the first illustration cycle done by Sandro Botticelli was printed. The tradition of illustrating the comedy continued through the centuries with such prominent artists as Alessandro Vellutello, Gustave Doré, and most recently California-based Sandow Birk. Birk actually rewrote the text of the Comedy to reflect modern jargon and to accompany his reinterpretation of Doré’s illustrations, set in a dystopian Los Angeles. Later in the semester, the class will have a video conference with Birk about his work.

The first section of the course was devoted to a classificatory exercise; the students explored the illustrators and learned about the social, geographical, and historical context in which their work was produced.  This task helps students create a “geographic and historical landscape around the Comedy,” said Stocchi-Perucchio.

All of the students in the class have taken at least one course on Dante previously and are familiar with the text of the Comedy. Only one student is an art history major. At its core, explained Stocchi-Perucchio, “this is a course that interrogates the reader of literature who watches art. And he will watch art from a different perspective than the art historian.”

As the students compare how different artists in different historical contexts represent the same scenes, they are attempting to detect the dialogue between image and text. Dante’s verse is by nature emphatically visual and this is precisely the reason it has inspired so many generations of artists. Images of and inspired by the Comedy can be narrative or symbolic; some artists aim to depict a close reading of Dante, others use the poet’s text to talk about themselves and their time.

“The format of the class is unlike any other I’ve ever participated in. It is both research and discussion intensive … Every class consists of individual presentation and discussion,” says Reynolds.  “It’s very satisfying to see individual input turn into new class objectives and material.”

Indeed the student-driven nature of the course has satisfied Stocchi-Perucchio as well. “I’ve seen the questions rising, I’ve seen the engagement, I’ve seen them excited about doing the course themselves, because I’ve not really taken stage that much so far, and I’ve seen them liking that.”

The course is part of the larger push for research in the humanities within the University.  Through their work the students are expanding the body of knowledge about a sphere of human creative production and also cataloging information for the promotion of further inquiry by others. “Research in the humanities is much less subjective than is supposed,” insisted Reynolds.  “Critical questions regarding intent and motive regarding artwork are becoming more of a natural way of thinking, as opposed to simply enjoying the aesthetics of the work.”

Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia (www.out-of-russia.com) and the other to photography (www.myorientalism.com).

 

Photos courtesy of Maya Dukmasova.