Writing the History of Food Activism

Professor Povitz has recently published her book Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice. These are some of her thoughts about her subject and the process of writing history.

What made you choose to write about urban food activism?

I wrote the book that I wanted to read. I’m very excited about food being a means to a much broader vision of political change. There’s a lot of work out there on New York City social history and political history, and people have approached that in a million different ways. But strangely food has been left out of that.

Have you always been interested in this subject?

In college I was very interested in Soviet history, but then I realized I didn’t want to do field work in the former Soviet Union. I wrote about women’s experiences of pregnancy and sex in the Gulag. Then I wrote a master’s thesis on “the countercuisine,” the way that food was used as a political tool within the 1960s counterculture. I realized I wanted to do a PhD in history, so I started to do some reading—you have to do a ton of reading before you decide what you want to spend the next six to seven years writing about. I discovered a lot of scholarship on “food and identity,” or “food and inequality,” but always approached from the top-down: what government was funding or not funding, the corruption of agribusiness. But there was nothing about ordinary people fighting to make things better for themselves and for their communities.

I was also living in New York and getting politicized myself at that time. I was paying attention to the social movements around me in New York and their histories. And that got me interested in the materiality of actually organizing—what does it take to build an alternative institution, or actually achieve change at the level of local government? I wanted focus on these issues, and avoid top-down scholarship.

So, how does your book strike the balance of highlighting the stories of individuals while also accounting for the broader food activism movement?

I think that paying attention to individual biographies is a really helpful way of getting people to understand social change over a long period of time. At the same time, I also emphasize that these activists had an impact only insofar as they were able to get along with other people and build something with them. So it was still a collective enterprise, even if I’m zeroing in on their lives and their characters for the sake of narrative. After all, it’s much more fun to read a book that has characters in it.

Also, historians have to try and be as precise as possible. It’s often not historically accurate to make generalizations. Different people have different experiences—that’s why you need to parse out the contingencies and specificities of people’s experiences. Even if they share experiences, there’s always shades within that that are important to look at and talk about.

What are the joys and challenges of studying late 20th century and 21st century history?

Oral histories can be pretty juicy. I got to move beyond the focus on “what happened” to explore the meaning that events held for people, what people thought or felt about them. It’s not that you can’t find that information about the more distant past, but it’s much more accessible when you’re dealing with living subjects.

But there are challenges as well. First of all, you have lots of people around to tell you that you’re wrong. So someone might read an account of something you wrote and say, if it strikes them, “this is not how it happened, let me tell you how it really was.” You learn to deal with the methodological difficulty of competing narratives in a whole new way, and you learn both how to listen and be open, and to explain and defend your interpretation to someone who might always feel like they know better. Second, writing recent history requires you to be either a fast reader or an efficient reader, because there the potential source base for evidence can be endless. I am a very slow reader. So I’ve gotten pretty good at trying to read for what is new.

Studying Abroad as a History Major

Every year, more than half of the junior class at Middlebury College studies abroad in more than 40 countries at more than 90 different programs and universities, and for many this international experience is an integral part of their liberal arts education. For some it enhances their studies of a language, for others it is their first time living in a country other than the one they were born in. Every student takes away something unique from their time abroad, as every experience is vastly different.

The history department wants to take the time to look into where our majors have been traveling to, and what their experiences have been in order to give students an idea of the wide array of opportunities at their fingertips should they be interested in studying abroad. As I begin to investigate this further, I will first touch on my experience abroad at the London School of Economics for the academic year (2018-2019) and include some information about choices you’d have to make regarding studying abroad.

Deciding between a Middlebury School Abroad and an Externally Sponsored Program

In my experience studying abroad in an externally sponsored program, I found that I was better able to integrate fully into the school and the city I was living in, and step outside my box as a Middlebury College student. At LSE for example, exchange students enroll directly in the university, and take classes, exams, participate in social events, clubs, sports, etc, as a regular student there would for the entire year.

However, Middlebury schools abroad also have some advantages in that getting credit for your courses may be an easier process, and you’d be studying under a more familiar structure. You have to carefully weigh the pros and cons of both when making your decision.

A semester or a year?

The General Course at LSE only allowed students to study there for a year, thus a semester abroad was not an option. However, I was glad to have made that choice, as when the first semester was nearing its end, I found myself grateful to have another one ahead of me. It gave me a lot more time to fully immerse myself in a new city and more breaks to see the rest of the continent. (Even the LSE study abroad dean jokes that exchange students think LSE stands for “let’s see Europe.”)

Three months away from Middlebury may sound like a long time, but time really does fly by. Depending on your interests, major requirements, and other factors, you may prefer a semester abroad over a year, or vice versa. Carefully consider these options when making your decision!

Fulfilling requirements for your major

One of the benefits of studying abroad as a history major is that a lot of the requirements can be fulfilled by a wide range of classes, thus you don’t have to worry as much about getting all the requirements done on time. Many courses from universities abroad are already on lists of pre-approved classes, but if you think the syllabus or description of a class suggests it can fulfill a credit you need, speak with you advisor and the Chair to discuss this. Try to take advantage of courses on subjects that our department perhaps does not offer, as this is a unique opportunity to study something new!

As the fall semester starts to draw to a close in a few weeks, deadlines for these programs are quickly approaching! There are some informational sessions coming up soon, you can find the calendar here. You can find information about Middlebury schools abroad here, and potential externally sponsored programs here. Happy travels!

Designing “Votes…For Women?”

Professor Amy Morsman, who teaches American women’s history, designed the “Votes…for Women?” exhibit currently on display at the Middlebury Museum of Art. The exhibit highlights the achievements and complexities of the women’s suffrage movement in 19th– and early 20th-century America, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment next year. Professor Morsman shared her thoughts about the process of creating a museum exhibit and how it connects to her teaching.

What did you hope to achieve with this exhibit?

I aimed to help people understand that the arguments behind extending the vote to women were not obvious to many Americans, women as well as men. It was also important to me to expose the trouble within the movement, how people with good intentions can still be blind to other issues and can get in the way of justice and reform.

From the beginning, there was also a strong curricular aspect to the project. Richard Saunders, the director of the museum, suggested that I make the exhibit the focus of a first-year seminar, and so I did last fall. My brand-new students dove into the story of suffrage and identified the elements of this history that were interesting to them, and therefore potentially interesting to a viewing public.

So, what is the value of using a museum exhibit as a teaching tool?

I think it helps students feel like a part of something authentic. History research is important and can be meaningful for students in any assignment, but when they get the chance to actually have an impact on how the public understands something, then that will likely stick with them and deepen their learning experience.

What are the similarities and differences you’ve seen between designing a museum exhibit and teaching?

In my teaching, I find that questions are an effective way to inspire learning.  Students will get curious about a question posed to them, and they’ll gravitate even more towards the materials that might help them understand that question.  So instead of just telling people about the history of woman suffrage, I took the practice of asking questions and applied it to the exhibit.  The title serves as a good example: Instead of using the statement, “Votes for Women!” I wanted people to stop and ponder it as a question, “Votes . . . for Women?”  That question might challenge where museum visitors are coming from, and get them to realize at the outset that extending suffrage to the female half of the population was not a foregone conclusion or an easy process.

On the other hand, there is a layering that can happen with students who invest in the learning of a subject over time, whereas with the public, I really only have one shot to get something across to them. I can’t assume that the general audience knows anything about the subject, and so I have to try to provide grounding for them, while also raising important questions and highlighting key events in a concentrated space.  It’s trying to go from 0-60 pretty quickly.

Finally, what is your favorite piece in the exhibit?

One of my favorite pieces is actually heard, not seen.  It is a speech excerpt that a member of Oratory Now recorded for me last May.  It’s one of four speeches to which people can listen in the exhibit. It captures not only generational divides, but also disagreements over inclusion and equity in the suffrage movement. Harriot Stanton Blatch argued in this speech that her mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was wrong in thinking that only educated people should be able to vote.  She made a good case for why working-class women needed the vote, and she elevated common sense over book learning in a citizen’s engagement with democracy.  Harriot dressed down her famous mother kindly but firmly and in public! You don’t see that every day.