“Food is the great connector.” A conversation with Charles Levkoe and Irena Knezevic about teaching food studies online.

June 2020

Online course offerings in food studies have become popular in recent years, with a sharp increase in demand for online content in with the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But how are postsecondary scholars and educators thinking about their online teaching practice, especially as they prioritize place- and community-based knowledge and local sustainable food systems? A new article in the June 2020 issue of Food, Culture & Society considers what educators might learn from online food studies courses that use food as a “connector” to engage with students across geographical and virtual space. “Serving up food studies online: teaching about ‘food from somewhere’ from nowhere,” explores how the concept of “food from somewhere” can be an important touchstone for educators looking to build on their students’ personal experiences with food to creating meaningful learning in online classrooms.

We sat down with Charles Levkoe and Irena Knezevic, two of the five co-authors of the article, to talk about their experience teaching food studies online. They told us about the discussions that led to the article and the challenges and opportunities they’ve identified for using food as a connector in online spaces. An edited version of that conversation has been reproduced below.

Q: Irena and Charles, what got you and your co-authors thinking about teaching food studies online?

Irena Knezevic (IK): It started with our colleague Stephanie Scott who was tasked with developing an online course and wanted to find out what some of us who have experience with online teaching had done. Since it was in the lead up to the CAFS [2018] conference, she suggested that we actually do a panel because a few of us responded and had some discussions online. The panel was, I think, very productive, very successful, very engaged. And following the conference, we kind of went back and forth like, should we develop a paper? Should we not? And it was one of those things where we had a bunch of people interested, but nobody really had enough time. And then Charles just kind of took the lead on it and shepherded it through the last year and a half. [Charles] really rallied for us to think through not just sharing the lessons that we had or the challenges or the recommendations that we could offer, but also to think through online teaching in food studies more conceptually. And I say conceptually on purpose. I’m not saying theoretically because I think what we successfully did in this paper, largely due to Charles’s leadership on this, is we managed to really work through the conceptual challenges without making it overly theoretical. I mean, you read the article so you’d be the judge of how well we’ve done that. But I’m particularly proud of that aspect of the paper—that we really think through it conceptually and almost in abstract terms at some points, but it’s not overly theoretical and it has a lot of really pragmatic and practical information.

“The ‘food from somewhere’ regime is about this idea of re-spatialization—bringing the concept of space and place and context back into food systems.”

Charles Levkoe

Charles Levkoe (CL): And maybe I’ll just add a little bit. I wasn’t at that CAFS conference, that was the conference in Regina—I was going to come in by video to be part of it, but that didn’t work. I think part of the reason I agreed to take on a leadership role for the paper was I felt a bit guilty for missing that session. So I was like—”Oh, I can collect some of what was said and try to do something with it.” But it was really Irena and I together going back and forth that kind of shaped the bulk of the paper. Obviously when we were writing the paper, COVID-19 was not happening, so we were observing a kind of general trend and some of the things that were going on with online teaching. Irena and I have been actually having these conversations for a long time. When I came to Lakehead, I was thrown into this world of online teaching because our programs are all both remote and in class. Irena and I had a conversation, I think the first year I came to Thunder Bay, and I was like, “how the hell do I teach online?” And Irena was really great because she walked me through some thoughts and ideas which I’ve now integrated into my teaching—I’d love to continue that conversation, by the way. But anyways, long story short, I think a lot of us are doing this work anyways. When COVID-19 happened as this paper was going into post-production, I contacted the editor of the journal [to ask if we could share the paper] and her response was, “Yes, we’re going to fast track the post-production of this and we’re going to make it open access.” And we added a couple of sentences in the paper about COVID-19 in post-production, which usually isn’t possible.

Q: Why is “food from somewhere” such a key concept for you?

CL: This idea of “food from nowhere” is a concept that’s used when we talk about globalization of the food system and the disconnections we face between all the links in the food chain. It’s been useful in geography, specifically around this despatialization of food, where you can be in downtown Toronto, or Thunder Bay, or Waterloo, or literally almost anywhere in the world and find almost the exact same things on the shelves. While we didn’t get into the theoretical part in the paper, it’s really kind of a political economic critique of the food system—thinking about the way industrial corporate profit trumps all and it’s really about cheap food in all places all the time. And with that [despatialization of food] comes this kind of the relationship, the lack of relationships, or the distant relationships with all the elements of the food chain and then with the food itself, and land, water and ecosystems.

The “food from somewhere” regime is about this idea of re-spatialization—bringing the concept of space and place and context back into food systems, which is a lot of what food movements and local food systems are about. So I think that framing just struck me when we started to talk about teaching online because there’s this idea of where are you and who’s in your classes, because you know, [in an online classroom] we’re all over the place. So I was thinking about space and place and context and how that all comes together and we all sort of riffed on the idea, and it became a bit of a focus.

Q: Why are food studies uniquely positioned to be taught online? Can online food studies teach us something about effective online teaching more generally?

IK: Well, I can connect back to one of the things that we talk about in the article. Even though online learning is really not an extension of teaching—it’s more an extension of distance learning, not traditional teaching—a lot of the conceptualizations in the literature around online learning speak about the online space as just another space to learn in that operates differently [than traditional classroom spaces].

I think food is uniquely positioned in the same way that it’s uniquely positioned in any other kind of pedagogy. I sometimes sound like a broken record when I say this, but when people ask me why I study and teach food, my answer is always, “Well, it’s not about food.” It’s about all the other things that are important and that matter. But food is that really great connector, not only because we all have it in common, but because we all connect to it on a daily basis. When we think about teaching online, it is impossible to be learning about food in any context—whether it’s in the classroom, or embodied practical learning when you get involved at community organizations, or you just start gardening, or whether it’s online learning—food is uniquely positioned because we cannot detach ourselves. We cannot detach that learning about food from our actual daily experiences with food. Even though this learning might take place in a virtual space, if we’re trying to connect to our everyday lives, we have no choice but to connect it to these kinds of place-based experiences that we have on a daily basis. And I think that’s what’s so unique about food compared to other like other fields of study and pedagogy.

I sometimes sound like a broken record when I say this, but when people ask me why I study and teach food, my answer is always, “Well, it’s not about food.” It’s about all the other things that are important and that matter.

Irena Knezevic

CL: I want to kind of give a different answer that I think gets to the exact same point you just made Irena, but in a bit of a different way. I actually don’t think that food is studies is uniquely situated to online learning in any way that any other discipline isn’t. And what we do in the paper—which I think is really important—is that we’re not just giving all the good reasons why food studies is great online, we’re also raising a lot of the concerns [with teaching food studies online] that come up and that we should be aware of. Part of what we do in the conclusion is to highlight the fact that the online space is not just a virtual classroom—these things don’t just translate. You can’t just move what you’re doing in the classroom online. And I think that’s an important point, because what we’ve seen in this COVID-19 moment where everyone’s been forced to jump online, is that it’s become abundantly clear that you can’t just do what you did in the classroom online. It just doesn’t work. People don’t pay attention. They lose focus. The platforms aren’t set up for that, et cetera.

So, I think, you know, taking all that we’ve already said into consideration, [teaching food studies online] is an opportunity—food is an opportunity to kind of connect you with the place you’re in. I may be in Thunder Bay and I can talk about or think about or engage with issues that are happening here and use that to translate into conversations that are theoretical and practical in an online space. But it’s not like there is a universal curriculum or way of doing things that could just work anywhere all the time. There’s a need to really think through what we’re teaching, who is there, and how we design activities. So much of food studies is about engaging with our local places—that’s food from somewhere. So, the question we’re asking in the paper is how do you do that when you have people from all over the place engaging in it. It can be a benefit, but can also be a limitation.

“So much of food studies is about engaging with our local places—that’s food from somewhere. So, the question we’re asking in the paper is how do you do that when you have people from all over the place engaging in it.

Charles Levkoe

Q: What are the specific challenges of teaching online and how are you overcoming them?

IK: I think we’re now learning that a lot of those challenges are purely technological and involve reliance on technology, technological literacy, reliability of Internet connections, broadband, and things like time zones, just very, very practical things. But I also do think—and I’m finding this now that we’re spending so much time in Zoom and Teams meetings and whatever else—that it does take a lot of out of you in different ways. I think that the amount of energy that not just teaching but also learning online can take out of people is something that we might have underestimated in the past. But now that we’re doing so much of it, seeing this as a substitute for [in-person teaching] becomes even more problematic. In the paper we make it very clear that [online learning] is not a substitute for—it’s a different way of learning. And now that we’re actually using this online pedagogy as a replacement for the more traditional form of learning, I think we’re realizing more and more that it really isn’t a good substitute. It’s something that can augment our learning and teaching experiences. It’s something that can provide a different kind of learning experience. But I think we’re figuring out that it can’t replace more traditional formats of learning. That’s not to say that traditional formats are better.

“The amount of energy that not just teaching but also learning online can take out of people is something that we might have underestimated in the past.”

Irena Knezevic

CL: What’s happened with the COVID-19 response is not online learning. This is an emergency situation where people are using online tools to continue the end of their class. Because, to Irena’s point, online teaching really takes a different approach to learning. It’s not just moving the classroom into a virtual space. It takes a lot of rethinking and reorganizing using the technologies that are available, as you say, to augment [traditional classroom spaces].

A lot of our lessons, observations, experiences, or reflections [on teaching food studies online] might apply to a lot of online teaching. So, in that sense, I think [the challenges outlined in our paper] speak to the general concerns and issues and opportunities of online teaching. But this is where “somewhere from nowhere” comes in. Why do we study food? Why do we teach food? In some ways, as Irena said earlier, it’s not really about the food at all. It’s about food as a connector. And I think that’s where there is both an opportunity, but also a limitation of the online space. If we’re trying to connect people to each other, to theoretical concepts, to empirical realities, to research, to engagement, then food is a way to do that in a really grounded, meaningful way. But it’s going to take work. And I learned that when I first came to Lakehead and tried to do my first online course, having never done an online course before. I don’t want to say it failed, but it was nowhere near as positive and exciting and as my classes are now, which I’ve kind of adopted a lot after four years of doing it.

Q: Given the push to online education in the wake of COVID-19, what can we learn from your experiences with teaching food from somewhere from nowhere?

CL: Again, I think the simple answer is that food is a connector. It’s an opportunity to bring to the fore many experiences, knowledges, and theories that might be harder to do when you’re online because you’re not sitting in the same room together. I teach grad work [and a lot of my students] are dieticians, public health workers and nonprofit workers. What I’ve realized over time is best way to do that is to really ground discussions in people’s experience. Grounding learning in their experiences is a way to both engage them, but also bring their place-based experience into the conversation. And I’ll just give you a quick example. I’ve had experience with students who are dietitians and come from a place where there’s a very narrow, siloed approach to thinking about food and what food does for the body. And we start to talk about sustainable diets and it rattles their foundation a little bit. It’s partially about the food, but it’s also about finding interesting ways to connect theory into their practices. So, for me, teaching food from somewhere from nowhere involves thinking about food systems—which is really a food from nowhere regime—and using this kind of experiential engagement that gets students to think about things in a way that speaks to their own experience and can be useful.

IK: Because food is part of everyone’s life, online food courses often require students to do something “in place”—whether it is to keep a food journal, or reflect on their purchasing habits or to connect with their local food organizations. This type of experiential learning helps situate conceptual learning in “real life” so to speak. This is not necessarily unique to food studies, but the idea here is that you can do this with many subjects. For instance, if in the Canadian context you are teaching a course on Indigenous history, you can ask students to do an assignment where they explore that history in their own region. You can ask them to find out who was on that land prior to the European contact, where they moved around, what their relations were with neighboring nations, how the colonial administration took place (e.g., was there a treaty, forced relocation, etc.) and what, if any, the nearest Indigenous communities are. If you are teaching architecture, you can ask students to explore architecture in their area, learn more about any local planning policies and other influences that may have shaped their built environment, and so on. This is not a novel idea, but it is one that seems widespread in food studies and allows students to apply what they are learning and at the same time exchange such observations with their peers.