Sunday, April 26, 2015

Conflict Kitchen and the Politics of Food

People engage in political activity everyday. The body is a rich site of activity that as Susan Bordo argues, is an "unbearable weight" to the intelligence, power, and ideal state of the mind. People are constantly in turmoil between what the mind thinks is right and what the body wants. The separation of the material and the spiritual is the basis for many religious rituals and has plagued theorists like Descartes, Durkheim, and others for many years.

Comic retrieved from FarLeftSide
One arena where this emerges is the political action of eating. One's choice of food is immensely important in crafting one's identity, and happens, for most people, multiple times a day. It is an act of material consumption that reaffirms an identity. For some, choosing to eat or not to eat at Chick-Fil-A became a stance on gay rights. As a vegetarian, my abstaining from meat is a choice for environmental protection and animal rights. A choice for a high-class, Michelin-starred restaurant over a food truck or trip to the grocery store may communicate affluence, leisure, and class. From farmer's markets, health campaigns, and food norms, the rhetoric of food is a site of power and control.

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In believing that the material can argue and that food is itself symbolic and meaningful, it is easy to find examples of food's importance in everyday life. I was confronted with a particularly meaningful example when I visited Pittsburgh, PA. There is a restaurant called "Conflict Kitchen." The cuisine rotates but always features "cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict." The food experience is also complemented by activities, speakers, and events that draw attention to particular conflicts. Currently, the Conflict Kitchen prepares Palestinian food to bring awareness to the conflict in Palestine, the Gaza Strip, and Israel. Considering that America has only experienced 21 years of peace since it was created in the wake of the American Revolution, Conflict Kitchen will most likely have many food options for a long time.

Current Palestinian theme. Photo credit to Conflict Kitchen
Their mission statement is as follows: "Conflict Kitchen uses the social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures, and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of governmental politics and the narrow lens of media headlines." Through the medium of food, Conflict Kitchen reminds us of the cultural and personal aspects of conflict and war. It is easy to be distracted by the sweeping political statements and larger picture of global diplomacy. But it is hard to argue with the significance of cultural imports, cross-country interactions, and the new global village when eating. A simple, daily activity becomes a statement in support of cultural unity and against international conflict.

Different themes over time. Photo credit to Conflict Kitchen
Conflict Kitchen has also served food from Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and North Korea. The variety of food available in this one kitchen highlights the relative lack of diversity in Pittsburgh's culinary offerings. Conflict Kitchen notes that it was the first and only of these ethnic restaurants "the city has ever seen." The lack of ethnic neighborhoods, outside of the European populations that are prominent in the city, makes the location of Conflict Kitchen particularly memorable. I am working on a paper that explores the ideas of experiential and rhetorical landscapes: the location of artifacts is commensurate with the site itself. Placing the Conflict Kitchen in Los Angeles may not have the same visceral effect as in the relatively homogeneous Pittsburgh.
Information on take-out box. Photo credit to Conflict Kitchen

Food wrapped in information sheet. Retrieved from this site
Unwrapped sheet. Retrieved from this site

In addition to bringing food and culture to the attention of the city, Conflict Kitchen also wraps its food in large, informational sheets about the country. From government, politics, art, poetry, entertainment, and other areas, the unfolded food wrappers educate the food consumers about the country of origin. Conflict Kitchen thus offers food for thought and symbolic consumption as well as physical, material nourishment. For Conflict Kitchen, eating is a mindful act that calls us to consider the political and social implications of our daily consumption habits. There is an increasing trend in communication theory to explore how consumption, branding, and purchasing power has become a form of identity-management. What one buys, owns, and consumes is indicative of one's identity. I hope that more companies do adopt more conscious effort toward the impacts that their services and products have. Although there are concerns about the potential implications of charity-focused groups, I think overall there are steps to be made in shifting capitalist thought towards producing a more aware, global citizenry.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Capitalism and Entertainment: Show me the Money

In Communication and Culture, a class I teach at USC, we've been discussing themes of the intersection of capitalism, globalization, and culture. Something that immediately came to mind was the prevalence of capitalist themes within entertainment, particularly on reality television. Reality shows run the gamut from dating, cooking, tattoos, adventure, weight loss, and competition. Some of my favorite shows, and those that I've seen become increasingly popular and varied, are investment shows. These shows perpetuate and valorize the values of the American Dream and bring the token successes to national attention. While I enjoy these shows and generally think they are positive and helpful to participants, I worry about the larger implications of the show outcomes.

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My issues with these shows are twofold. First, I worry that they revere money over all other elements. The dollar is still key to any measure of success and is the bottom line for the happiness of the participants, investors, and the way the participants "win." Even good ideas, which are often acknowledged on the shows, are turned aside if they cannot be executed, shown to be scalable, or have reasonable time limits on returns. I also worry that the success and proliferation of these types of shows reinforce that these experiences are commonplace and plentiful. This type of mentality may blind us to the structural and societal barriers that do exist.

Retrieved from ABC
Perhaps the largest and most profitable of the capitalist entertainment shows is "Shark Tank." Based on the British version "Dragon's Den," "Shark Tank" shows a series of sharks, successful entrepreneurs, as they vet potential investment opportunities. Participants on the show pitch their idea, explain their process, and talk profits. Oftentimes, it is only established businesses that have track records of success and profit receive deals. People who come in only with ideas are often dismissed as too new, untested, or risky. On this show, people who have in some sense already "made it" are given investments to become more profitable with the help of investments. Sometimes, the sharks offer mentorship and experience beyond the monetary contribution, but the ultimate goal of the show is to receive their ask at a reasonable valuation. The "About Shark Tank" page has this to say, "The Sharks will once again give people from all walks of life the chance to chase the American dream, and potentially secure business deals that could make them millionaires." Shark Tank is not discriminatory, but then again, it has an intense vetting process which means not everyone can appear on the show. They are also only given a "chance to chase" success because that power is ultimately not in the hands of the everyday American, but by the always already profitable and successful elites.

Restaurant Startup investor Joe Bastianich

A spin-off of "Shark Tank" is "Food Fortunes," a new shop that specifically focuses on food-related innovations. This show adds the element of audience participation, where a live audience tests the food concepts and provides real-time feedback on the product. Also in the food category, "Restaurant Startup" gives people the opportunity to run a pop-up restaurant and get an investment to open a long-standing one. These shows follow the "Shark Tank" model where there are proven elites that have the power over the financial success of the participants. In "Restaurant Startup," the participants have some autonomy over their styling, logo, food, aesthetic, and supplies in creating the restaurant. But, they are still at the whims of the investors to change elements that are not amenable to them in order to open a real restaurant. In the interview above, Bastianich notes that a "business without profit is a hobby," again reinforcing the bottom line of profits over innovation, creativity, and even good quality food.

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Dana Cloud argued that token success stories, such as Oprah Winfrey, are harmful to the understanding of how power structures work and the barriers that exist to equality. When people see the success of Winfrey or others the myth of the American Dream, the self-made man, and Horatio Alger come alive. People are presented with proof "of the American Dream, implying the accessibility of this dream to black Americans despite the structural economic and political obstacles to achievement and survival posed in a racist society" (p. 116). This is not just race, however, but that the success of people who have overcome barriers in place are applicable to everyone. If anyone can succeed, everyone can. Winfrey's success is certainly something to be lauded, but it should not be generalized to the larger public. To do so is to blame individual agents for their positions and ignore larger social, cultural, and political issues that are beyond individual control.

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Many of my students tell me that it is hard to look at media the same way after taking Communication and Culture. There are many things to be cynical of in the contemporary media landscape. Where it is gender issues in advertising, racial stereotypes in movies, or the proliferation of questionable tropes, how are scholars supposed to genuinely enjoy media? I will say that I do enjoy the shows I have discussed and think there are great lessons to be learned and fun to be had in watching them. I cannot fault the investors on these shows for doing what the show encourages them to do, or even being business-oriented. It's their money, after all. But, I wholeheartedly hope that people become active instead of passive consumers of media. To watch The Bachelor and understand the questionable gender elements is much better than avoiding it completely or to accept its messages passively. Scholars, critics, and everyday people should be immersed in contemporary society and also interested in its workings.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lay me Down in Indiana: Discrimination against the LGBTQ Community

There is a song I keep playing and have been since it was released: Sam Smith's "Lay Me Down." His voice is very powerful and the feelings of loss and love resonated with me. It was only recently, though, that I watched the music video and the deeper meaning of Smith's question "Can I lay by your side?" made sense to me.

Lloyd Bitzer argued that people speak when called to by their rhetorical situation. Smith's music video shows three distinct situations where the same question functions in drastically different ways. The rhetorical situation can be made up of scenic element such as the time, setting, and location, but it also extends to the historical moment, audience, and any urgent events that require (or command) speaking. The first rhetorical situation is a funeral, the second is a wedding ceremony, and the third is a church pew. They all take place in the same physical setting - a church - with the same questions posed by Smith, but are startlingly different rhetorical situations. Note the cross earrings that Smith wears throughout the video symbolizing the importance of faith in the asking and answering of these questions.

In the first scene, Smith sings in front of a closed casket. A funeral often calls forth the epideictic style of speaking, or a eulogy where the dead are praised. The epideictic focuses on the present and makes real and meaningful the death in the past for the present coping of the loss. Smith asks what must be unanswered questions about the ability for him to reconnect physically and emotionally with the person who has passed. The answer is a resounding "no." Smith cannot make sure the person is alright or lay by their side again. Their new home is not among the living. It is unclear who he is mourning which removes the sexual connotations that the question "Can I lay by your side?" could potentially evoke. This scene illuminates the sorrow of loss and the frequent trope of wishing to hold and keep close those we have lost, despite the impossibility of it.

The second scene slowly transitions from a somber funeral to a celebratory wedding. This situation is also one of epideictic, but a loss is not made meaningful in the present, but it is instead a celebration and praise of a relationship, it's past, present, and future. Smith's words transition from a eulogy to wedding vows, where he is asking permission of his partner to cement their relationship legally, to lay by his side and be his protector and keeper. Historically, the wedding night would be the first night of the relationship where couples spent the night. Although not often the case today, the question still poses symbolic connotations of a new stage in the relationship that solidifies monogamy, commitment, and physical compatibility. It should be noted that Smith's partner in the music video and reality is a man. This scene, thus, also carries political connotations surrounding the love and commitment between partners of any sex or gender that is legally allowed. The wedding guests are jumping with joy and dressed all in white in a stark comparison to the somber, black-clad mourning outfits.

This scene transitions, like the first scene, by the camera following a priest. Smith sits alone in a pew, again asking, "Can I lay by your side?" He looks up, pleading and asking his God or deity for permission. Can he perform such actions as a religious person? As a Christian? Is it morally appropriate, right, sinful? This scene poses the question: who has the power to regulate love and relationships? If one considers this scene the first scene chronologically, it is the story of a troubled man concerned about the morality of his sexuality. This scene shows his struggle with matching his desires, spiritually and physically. The assumption is that he overcomes these issues, finds faith and his sexuality compatible, and marries his partner in a religiously recognized church wedding. Then, he suffers the loss of his partner after an indeterminate amount of time and reflects on his series of questions that must once again be addressed to his love.

This music video and song are particularly poignant given the recent Indiana ruling that allows business owners to refuse service on the basis of religious grounds to members of the LGBTQ community. Similar to the Hobby Lobby decision, many are concerned that this ruling sets a dangerous precedent of discrimination as the norm and the dehumanization of certain people due to religious exemption. This reminds me of the recent approval of a ballot initiative in California that would make it legal to kill gay people.

Video made in response to the Indiana ruling

Music has become a prominent way for artists and people to gain more information and express themselves surrounding issues of homosexuality and sexuality. From Macklemore's Same Love, Arcade Fire's We Exist, Hozier's Take me to Church, and many others, music is a realm of public deliberation where the relationship between religion and sexuality is being discussed. With what consequences, we cannot say now, but I am hopeful that the proliferation of representation will not exploit this community but instead provide the opportunity to share their stories.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Tools for Teaching: Socrative

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I learned about a teaching application called Socrative at this year's Western States Communication Association Convention in Spokane, Washington. It was a serendipitous discovery because I have been struggling in the course Communication and Culture that I had taught in the Fall of 2014 and this current semester, Spring 2015, with student participation. The course has a biweekly lecture (~120 students) and then a discussion section that I host on Monday morning (2 sections of 20 students each). Students are thus exposed to the material in the 3 hours of weekly class time, but I only have 50 minutes on Monday to synthesize, lead discussion, hold student presentations, answer questions, and take care of any housekeeping.

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This has led to a lack of conversation when we do get free time to talk. The expectation is set that there may be too much going on for students to have questions or ideas ready. I don't think that the students purposefully avoid participating, but with a limited amount of time, it is easy to let other students handle it. Additionally, the readings for Communication and Culture are theory-heavy and quite challenging, leading to some anxiety about being incorrect or misinterpreting. Some of the topic areas, such as race, sexuality, gender, class, and power can also halt conversation. A student just last week, when we were talking about sexuality, said that she didn't want to participate because she was worried she would offend someone. When I pushed her and asked what ideas she had that might offend, she offered, "Well, everything." Her comment made me think about how challenging it is to embrace talking about pressing social issues and how the norm is to be silent. Breaking political correctness is the modern sin that cannot be committed.

Retrieved from this site.

I do have many students that tend to participate regularly, even on difficult subjects, and I rely heavily on them to help organize and lead discussion. It's hard, however, to consider those students representative and get a good idea about the actual opinions, knowledge, and understanding of all students. I've had many students, especially international students, reveal that they are nervous at the possibility of being called upon and want to avoid participating unless they are really passionate or feel comfortable.

Socrative is an opportunity for students to submit answers and questions through the app without the pressure of initiating conversation or anxiety about being correct. It also solves issues of a lack of time and the ability for only a few students to participate. It's convenience, settings, and functionality have greatly improved conversation in my discussion section this semester.

First of all, our classrooms are becoming a home for all electronic devices. I'm frankly shocked when I see actual notepad and pencils on desks. Instead of fighting the technology (as some teachers who ban computers in classrooms do), Socrative embraces the ubiquity of these tools. Socrative Student is available on all platforms, Apple and Android from tablets and phones, and even within Chrome's web browser as an add-on. All students (notably at the fairly affluent USC) were able to access the app without excuses.

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On the teacher platform, I was able to create a "classroom" with a specific, customized name. Within the app, I can create quizzes for students to take to test their knowledge. In the morning, after announcements, I launch the weekly readings re-cap quiz (from the Tuesday and Thursday content from the week before) which is a series of multiple choice or short answer questions to gauge how much information the students have retained and whether they understood the material. Once I manually close the quiz, I choose how I want to receive the responses, so I can refer back to them later. This also works for teachers who want to do Pop Quizzes and record grades.

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I can also see the students' answers as they come in, so during the quiz time, I can write notes and tailor my lecture to make sure I have the pieces that students are struggling most with covered. Oftentimes, I am surprised that they understand what I consider complicated ideas and struggle with simple definitions or differences between theorists. This helps ensure that the discussion sections do meet the needs of the students without needed a student to volunteer that they did not understand something. Also, when I address these concepts, I can call on students that submitted correct answers and confirm their accuracy before they speak. This reinforces their grasp of the material and takes away some of the uncertainties of participating.

Socrative is very easy to set-up during class if I need a specific response to a question. For example, I often get nothing but blank stares when I ask if we can move on or if students need more explanation. I have a one-question "Check-in" Quiz that I can launch and get immediate feedback if students want to move on or if they would like more information about that topic.

Retrieved from this site.
There are some other app functionality such as "space race" where you can put students in teams and have them race to finish the quiz. I have not tried this functionality yet, but I imagine in a course that I have more time or more control over the content, this would be a fun and engaging activity.

I encourage teachers and teaching assistants to try the app and see if it works in their classroom space. With students already nose down into their computer screens, I found Socrative a positive way to keep them on track and focused on the material. I found that in the few weeks I've used it, it has increased conversation, given me confidence in calling on students and asking for participation, and made for a less stressful atmosphere.